Farmers Markets and the “Other”


Today has been a pleasant day–I am fairly exhausted, but I’ve managed to get a couple of things done–putting away into their respective boxes all of this year’s seeds and filing some of my new paperwork. I’m working without a list–just puttering about the house doing what needs to be done in no particular order. I managed to trundle down to the public library, return a movie my son and I borrowed, and place a few extra copies of the South Dakota Local Foods Directory in their rack of pamphlets (click on the Dakota Rural Action link at right if you want one for yourself). I also took the dog for an extended dog park play session.

Yesterday, myself, another market board member, and the market manager of the Vermillion Area Farmers Market all ventured up to SDSU in Brookings for the annual Farmers Market Workshop. I have been mulling over those sessions in my mind today (not the least of which the session where I called into question who funds much of Ag Schools’ research these days–but we won’t dwell on that minor explosion).

One concern that came up in an early session was how to discourage small vendors–people whose backyard gardens produced an overabundance–from coming to sell at markets. There were representatives present from the gamut of large, small, and just-beginning markets, and this perspective seemed to me a little hypocritical. Basically, the concerns from those involved with managing and selling at larger markets focused on how small growers/gardeners weren’t “serious” vendors–they weren’t doing it to make a living, and that because they weren’t “serious,” they didn’t come every week, and they tended to under-price their products out of ignorance of the going rate or the desire to move their product quickly.

I wanted to say, but didn’t get the chance, that small and just-beginning markets need these kinds of vendors. In my experience, and at our market, small growers tend to make up the bulk of our vendors, and they also tend to be open to suggestions by more seasoned vendors about pricing. Our vendor contract does not allow growers to give produce away for free, nor does it encourage under-selling the competition–we try to keep things friendly, and maybe that’s easier for us because we are small. Another thought about small growers–a friendly and welcoming atmosphere by the management and other vendors can encourage them to keep coming, keep producing that extra, and can mean they’ll become one of those much-desired “serious” vendors.

It also seems to me that some of those who want to legislate against these little guys, these “non-serious” growers and vendors, are also those who recognize how unnecessarily strict federal legislation, used to keep the Big Ag growers in check, negatively affects their ability to do business and expand beyond a certain point. My point here is that if you feel oppressed by the big guy, you don’t strive to become him–if you are oppressed by someone bigger or stronger than you, you join together and fight against oppression, you don’t turn around and try to oppress those who are smaller or weaker.

I should also say that at last year’s Farmers Market Conference, there was another “other” group–that is, a group that several in the audience wanted to keep out of their markets; another group that many wanted to figure out how to legislate against in their vendor contracts. A number of marketeers last year complained about the presence of Mennonite or Hutterite Colony members coming to their market with large enough quantities of produce that they could afford to charge less for it. A number of marketeers felt this was unfair, and that these “other” people were going to take over their markets and steal all their customers. I do not know if this “problem” was resolved or not in the past year–it was not brought up. Possibly due to the presence of a very pleasant middle-aged Hutterite couple.

A last thought on the “Other” as it concerns farmers markets: I heard a rumor last season, and that rumor was repeated to me yesterday, and it has stuck a little in my craw. The first time I heard this, it came directly from a person who claimed they had engaged in an informal conversation with Vermillion mayor, Dan Christopherson. As I understand it, this person was talking to the mayor about our Vermillion Area Farmers Market, and saying how the City ought to give us more support–possibly providing us with a choice spot downtown. During this conversation, the way I have heard it twice now, the mayor referred to us as “that bunch of hippies.”

Now, I am not generally one to repeat gossip, but I am relating this here because I happen to chair the Board of Directors of “that bunch of hippies.” It strikes me that the farmers market in Vermillion has struggled against these sorts of perceptions for a number of years. It closely parallels my own struggles against others’ mis-perceptions–some related to my teaching for the University, and so being seen as a natural “enemy” of townies and country folks; some related to being an organic vegetable farmer, and so a natural “enemy” of conventional farmers; and some related to being a farmer in general, and so “naturally” dumb.

I guess that if what I heard is true, I’m incredibly disappointed in our mayor for adding more manure to our already-heaping pile of mis-perceptions that make it harder for us to grow, prosper, and do business. Our vendors, it should be said (though perhaps it hardly matters), come from all kinds of backgrounds–some you might identify as “hippies” if you were into the labeling of people, some you could not mistake for “hippies” if you doused them with patchouli and trussed them up with love beads. What all these people have in common is that they are producing useful products and improving the local economy. Oh, and paying sales taxes to both the city and the state.

Part of the problem might be that, to my recollection, the Mayor of Vermillion has never actually been to the Vermillion Area Farmers Market! I hear a nasty rumor (shame on those rumor-mongers!) that he and his wife buy most of their groceries in Yankton. We’ve had the City Council, presided over by the mayor, give lip service many times to the benefit of having a thriving farmers market in the community, but we’ve never really seen that good will translated into good and helpful action to help the market thrive. Maybe if this “bunch of hippies” rumor is true, it could point to a reason why.

I will have to ask Mayor Dan next time I see him. If you like, you can ask him, too. And while you’re at it, tell him he needs to wear a better disguise if he’s going to buy groceries in Yankton.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Huh–interesting discussion about the small “non-serious” vendors. Fortunately, I probably don’t have to worry much about that at the little farmers market in Madison. It’s a pretty unorganized (and probably blessedly so!) market. As far as I know, the public library here just makes a portion of their lovely grounds available for a weekly market–no board of directors, no vendor fees, no formal organization that I’m aware of. It’s probably a perfect place for a novice like me to get experience with market gardening and build up a business. There are at least a few folks there who appear to be just selling their over-abundance of tomatoes, but when there is hardly any opportunity to buy locally grown food in my county or a couple surrounding counties, I’m not going to complain. I’m pretty sure there are only about 10 or so regular vendors there, a couple of which sell things other than veggies, so we’re not quite big enough for the little guy to be a big deal. In fact, I’m tempted to think that’s the case for most of South Dakota. We’re not exactly teeming with long-established farmers markets, so maybe nudging out the backyard gardeners isn’t the right emphasis at this point. Or maybe I just don’t know enough about the larger markets.

    On the other hand, I can totally see the point about under-cutting prices. I’ve been a little worried about pricing veggies myself if I’m able to bring some produce to market this summer. I recorded a few prices from last summer’s market, but I’m pretty much in the dark about most prices (and they can really vary from one vendor to another). Any advice?

  2. Posted by flyingtomato on February 5, 2008 at 6:36 am

    Typically, you can gauge what to charge by checking on grocery store prices (and maybe charging a little more–after all, your stuff is going to be fresher!), and also just asking another friendly vendor what they charge and/or to take a look at your produce and give you an idea. Another place to check is the Grassroots Pricing Index (http://newfarm.org/opxgr/index.php).

    If you’re selling something no one else has, you’ve just got to go with your gut. How do you price daikon radishes with greens attached? Total guesswork. Another issue is that once you start charging one price for an item, it is hard to raise it in subsequent weeks. So, it is better to start high and go lower if you must.

    I think this small “non-serious” vendor concern was mainly coming from folks in Rapid City, Sioux Falls, and the Omaha and Lincoln, NE markets. Here in Vermillion, we’re not exactly teeming with vendors either. It does seem a little like a blessing at times, that we all know each other and get along so well. But we love more vendors–of any size!

    The fact that you are “a little worried about pricing” suggests that you are not likely to engage in under-cutting, even by accident. I know we’ve had a few folks show up at our market with, say, a bucket of rhubarb to give away. We don’t allow that because we don’t want to give the impression that the fruits of our labors are not worth anything. This can be a tricky business if there’s no governing organization.

  3. Posted by Matt on February 5, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    This should be sent as a letter to the editor of relevant local papers and magazines. I’d like to think that these words will eventually be seen by the mayor himself. I daresay he wouldn’t make a public response, but I’d like to think that your words could make him consider how he’s acted and reconsider his verbiage and his choice of grocery. I mean, that’s how we effect change, right? One by one by one…

  4. Posted by flyingtomato on February 6, 2008 at 1:02 am

    Matt–

    If I wasn’t flooding the papers with letters already…the black helicopters are coming, I just know it!

    It’s possible that these words will get to Mayor Dan’s ears sooner or later–small town livin’ has its advantages!

  5. Excellent advice. Thanks!!

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