Farmers markets, competition, and transparency

NCPR file photo of the farmers market in North Creek.

With the explosion of interest in where our food comes from, farmers markets have exploded in popularity. Their economic influence has grown, too. The number of farmers markets in New York has doubled since 2000, to 560, according to the Farmers Market Federation of New York. Farmers sold $362 million in products direct to consumers in New York in 2009. For many farmers today, being able to sell at farmers markets is a matter of survival.

Essentially, farmers markets are part of a new system of food distribution in this country, outside the one built by America's giant food corporations over the last 50 years or more. For people who want to eat food grown closer to where they live and under conditions they consider healthier and tastier, this new system is exciting and inspiring.

But with growth comes growing pains and growing responsibility.

Farmers markets across the country are grappling with difficult questions about who's in and who's out.  Over the years, I've heard anecdotally about small groups of growers deciding to keep competing growers out, de facto monopolies granted for certain crops, and at least one case of a neighboring business trying to block competition.  In the biggest cases nationwide, there have been lawsuits claiming preferential treatment for some vendors and retaliation for criticisms against management.

Here in the North Country, the Adirondack Farmers Market Cooperative is engaged in a fiery debate over whether to allow CSA farms to distribute shares at its markets. Traditional vendors sell items piecemeal; vendors with CSAs invite paying members to pick up their weekly basket of goods at the market (those vendors also sell piecemeal to non-CSA members).

Since I wrote about the issue last month, AFMC held an annual meeting during which the issue was the main topic of debate. According to two people I spoke with who were at that meeting, some 50 to 70 people attended. At times, there was yelling – one person told me AFMC board president Dick Crawford had to slam his hand on the table to bring the meeting to order.

At the meeting, the members were asked if they wanted the ban on CSA pick-ups revisited.  By a show of hands, people said yes, apparently nearly unanimously. Two new board members were voted in, at least one of whom runs a CSA.

I can't give you more details, or confirm any of this, because the AFMC board refuses to answer questions.  Crawford left me this voicemail after repeated requests for a general characterization of what happened at the meeting:

We had a misunderstanding in our organization from misinformation the board was given. People have apologized for this. The Board will be working on the information that the other people have given us.  It’s an internal matter and we’ll be discussing and working internally with it.

Crawford hasn't return my calls since. Board member Jo Ellen Staumier did email me today to say that about 18 people spoke on the issue, and that the vote was a non-binding "poll".  The board's next meeting is April 7th, when it appears they will be taking up the CSA issue again.

The issue AFMC is dealing with appears to come down to competition. I'll let the commenters in my previous story shed some light. "Shovel" wrote that CSAs are infringing on the business of non-CSA vendors:

CSAs are a great thing, but they can unintentionally disrupt the flow of a farmers' market. "Shareholders" are guaranteed a nice big bag of produce every week, so they are less inclined to spread out their purchases. They may buy other items like baked goods or crafts, but keep in mind that the mainstay of farmers' markets are the ones selling farm products.

To be clear on one point, the farms distributing CSA shares at these markets have paid the vendor fee to be there. They also sell retail.

"CGS" said the CSA model is an innovation like any business innovation to get more customers, like making your stand more attractive (or, say, having a talking kohrabi mascot to draw attention)

I do not feel that it is the role of market management to limit the consumer/producer exchanges that happen at the market, but rather to encourage any and all of those exchanges and connections. Competition is a sign of health! It raises the bar, and draws attention. A producer who does well at market will continue to do well because of customer loyalty.

Both sides of the issue have valid points.  It seems clear that this is a debate worth having openly.  It's very likely that other farmers markets are dealing with the same issue.

In my conversations about the AFMC annual meeting, I was also told that a lot of good came out of the meeting.  CSA farmers were allowed time to explain their business model.  The public comments, which started tense and angry, eased and moved forward, I was told.

So am I "stirring the pot" by asking questions about this debate and trying to shine some light on the internal workings of local farmers markets? I don't think so. Transparency should be a pillar of any organization, but particularly of grassroots groups that use public facilities and properties (or ones owned by groups that have received significant public funds), and serve hundreds, if not thousands, of public consumers.

As a journalist, I also report regularly on economic issues in this region, on conflicts between businesses, on who's fighting to get a piece of the pie, who's succeeding, who's playing fair, and why.

Farmers markets are legitimate and significant venues for business. People's livelihoods rely on them.  They may even help transform what is widely considered a dysfunctional food system in the United States into something healthier and more equally distributed. They should be taken seriously. Because people love their farmers markets.  Not like. Love.

That means boards that run farmers markets should encourage inquiries into votes they make. And they should be forthright and transparent about them.

 

 

 

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22 Comments

  1. After 21 years of witnessing the CSA Movement slowly lose its SOUL,
    then slipping ever so quickly into the realm of other commodified marketing techniques, I often wondered where it would finally end.
    That question may have been answered by its comparison to a talking kohlrabi.

    • Oh, Bob, y'ole stick in the mud, I love my idea of a walking talking kohlrabi! You could have races with other mascots, like they have at Milwaukee Brewers games… ;)

      • It's not your fault David, as a reporter/analyst, you just call them as you see them, kinda like Phil Rizzuto, you ol' huckleberry!.

  2. All kidding aside, your post touches on many interesting and important issues, I very much appreciate any and all dialogue around local food issues.
    On the subject and controversy surrounding wether or not CSA pick up should be allowed at a Farmers Market, it should come as no surprise that there would eventually be some sort of tension given the small market share in many North Country Markets. Well before CSA boxes showed up at market, vendor territory and unease with new growers was prevalent. As customer awareness was raised some of that tension dissipated but never fully went away. Then came CSA distribution at the market and some of the same ol' hackles went back up. It should be noted that at least in our local market, many growers were very welcoming to new growers. The idea being the bigger the market, the better the market. In my opinion, and with historical sentimentalities aside, I am very supportive of CSA shares being distributed at local markets.
    We need to move beyond the idea of competition between Producers and use our collective time to work on issues of Food Sovereignty and Consumer Education.
    Lobbying for sensible deregulation of value added foods will help add diversification to our offerings at our markets and attract an expanded customer base.

    • Bob,
      I agree "the bigger the market, the better the market." And I do think this issue will sort itself out. But there is a certain danger in the short run that markets will suffer as people adjust to a new model and will lose vendors as some farms are not able to compete with that model.

      • Ironically, or maybe not, CSA is its original intent was meant to be a distinct alternative to the commodification of food. A paradigm shift by where the value was placed in the people willing to do the work and not on the individual commodity. It was a way for small farmers to take control of setting their own value for their efforts. Without a new way to value the efforts of small scale production, producers are still left with using the mainstream (conventional and subsidized) price comparison for say a carrot at Walmart.
        Lets face it, we as farmers do not sell our handiwork for what it actually cost to grow it, the price is set by the large corporate farms elsewhere.
        So what do you get when you bring a water downed Socialist ideal into a Capitalist Marketplace?

  3. Welcome all to our farmers' markets.

    (1) The larger the presence at a farmers' market, the more attention from folks who have never been there.

    (2) Including CSA distribution at a market will benefit everyone in the long run. Non-CSA vendors will have a larger customer base to attract. Folks picking up their box of goodies from their CSA farm are going to stroll the market looking for other fresh treats.

    (3) How is it that those in the same camp (local food production and distribution) are wrestling with each other? The larger obstacle by far is the conventional market. How many dollars are leaking out to Walmart produce departments? That may be the issue that every local grower/producer should be addressing, not the neighbor who is working a slightly different version of what you're doing. That's just short sighted and provincial.

    • 1. Maybe, but does that mean that every market needs to grow and grow the number of vendors? Obviously, there will be a level where the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

      2. Yes, they will look for other fresh treats. They may not look for other fresh produce, as they have already been supplied with a week's worth of veggies from one farm.

      3. You say, work together against the Walmarts of the world – yay, let's go. But I'm not sure how telling farmers that they should welcome more competition in the small slice of the pie that they have is going to show big ag anything.

  4. Bob, I think you are right that this is about how we value food and farms. And maybe the mechanisms for assessing value – CSA and farmers' markets – don't mesh as well as we would like.

  5. Question: are farmers' markets a viable model to grow the local food movement? Think of all of the trucks driving 40, 50 miles to a market, and all of the hours spent by farmers standing behind a table when they could be farming, all of the necessities of marketing that are not part of growing food.

    On the other hand, how can we keep the intimate connection between farmers and customers if we move to a more centralized model?

    • Shovel,
      Farmers markets are and will always be critical to the local food movement, especially for those living within urban areas.
      Farm stands serve a important role but only thrive in the right spot.
      Traditional CSAs (where shareholders pick up on the farm) do offer the grower opportunity to manage their on-farm time more productively and efficiently. It also helps the shareholder-consumer make a stronger connection to "their" farm.
      However, many growers like the break and time in town to give their bodies and minds a break.
      Truth is any time spent marketing/distributing is an important part of the process no matter where it takes place.
      This face to face time with the consumer is where the education and connections take hold.

  6. The better question is who gets to limit growth of a market? Who is it that chooses one farm or the other. The answer is the consumer! Until 100% of these markets reflect the needs of consumers growth should not stop and the markets that say there is no more room ought to be deeply inspected!

    These farmers market boards are made of the very same people that are competing with the new applicants. In fact the boards of these markets in essence define conflict of interest! Take a good look and see if you disagree.

    Look at the plattsburgh farmer's market for instance, perhaps the outline for this article. A good ol' boys club that is limiting competition. Closed door meetings, no minutes, no bylaws! An absolute lack of oversight has allowed the very vendors that are threatened by loosing market share vote on the admittance of new vendors!

    All these market boards need consumers at the core and vendors on the sideline, as the consumer is the one that loses when decisions are made. Why would a consumer vote against CSA's? It is a service offered that they have the CHOICE to take part in.

    Look behind the curtains of the Plattsburgh market as well as many other markets and I think you will find the puppeteers offering preferential and undoubtedly bias treatment. The curtains in plattsburgh are so hard to uncover I challenge anyone to work their magic!?!

    How is it that there can be more crafter spots than farmers at a farmer's market? one could make the argument that so many crafters are taking away money that otherwise would be spent on food!?!

  7. Thank you for the continuing dialogue. Left out of the discussion this time are the vendors who are not farmers, but pass themselves off as such either through pretense or outright deceit. This is part of what is involved in this controversy. I don't care if a vendor wholesales.I do care when they lie. Our competitors are not fellow farmers no matter what their business model. The demand for local produce will continue to grow at least as fast as production. The deceit of some farmers' market vendors may be consumer fraud. Perhaps its time for it to be dealt with as such.

  8. I just read the article 3 times and still have no idea what "CSA" stands for. Did I miss it (like a reading comprehension test?) or is it assumed readers understand it?

    • Hi Andrew–
      CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. A CSA grower has buyers that subscribe to his farm or garden output, and produce is distributed to subscribers when harvested.

      • Thanks for the clarification. A note for "shovel" – we just finished hosting a winter farmers' market in our garage. It was a good opportunity for farmers to sell root vegetables, etc. at a time when they are not farming or otherwise producing income. And for "John" – crafters may take money to be spent on food but, more likely, they will bring in shoppers who otherwise wouldn't visit the market. Consumers like one-stop shopping, think of groceries at Walmart. Also, our winter market could not fill every space with food since many farmers did not have winter produce. The vintner, meat, spice, bakery, chocolate and nut stands filled out the market nicely.

        • Great Idea hosting a winter market in your garage!
          Grass roots at its finest!

          Was this in a rural area or village?

          • I run a hotel in suburban Boston, with the summer market in a lot across the street. The organizers wanted to keep it going (and I like baked goods!) so we tried our garage, which is underground but heated. Lighting needs some work, kind of like Soviet-era black market, but it did generate traffic.

    • Hi Andrew – Sorry about that. This was a follow-up post, so there's more clarity in the original post.

      http://blogs.northcountrypublicradio.org/thedirt/2013/02/24/csa-dropoffs-banned-at-adk-farmers-markets/

      I probably should have had more in this one, too. Sorry!

      • Thanks, I was a bit lost since I started the article from a link on Newzjunky. Good story, looks like there are a lot of aspects to be discussed. The market system seems more developed there since it appears to have entered the next phase where success breeds infighting and quest for control/dominance. This area is still in infancy and idealism.

  9. We have participated in Farmer's markets in Washington and Warren Counties in New York and Bennington County in Vermont. All markets have their particular idiosyncrasies. Some do restrict competition and sometimes longer term vendors get a "weighted" vote, this can be something that is not stated. We are doing fewer markets as there has been an aspect of diminishing returns, especially true with increase in gasoline costs. We have had greater success at venues like local festivals, including those that focus on garlic, our primary fresh product.

  10. Based upon this small sample of folks comments concerning the lack of forthrightness and honesty of the venders at the farmer markets; I would suggest that this microcosm of free enterprise and capitalism solidly illustrates that the lack of regulation does not lead to responsible actions and/or fair play on the part of entrepreneurs.

    This lack of responsibility and/or fair play is contrary to the contentions widely ballyhooed by conservatives/republicans that reducing regulations and restriction are most conducive for “small” business to prosper.