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.
Tags: adirondacks, agriculture, csa, farmers market, farming, food, local