Micheal Smith, The Ethics and Economics of Farmers Markets
It is early, frosty mornings such as these where I would love to sleep past 6am, enjoy a cup of tea, watch the news and think about what is on the ‘has to get done list’.
These days I think about fence work, discing in compost and turning over weeds and then hitching up the kuelevator to hill up and top off planting rows for February planting. But alas, the market waits. This time, though, I quit.
Farmers’ markets since the pandemic started have been exploding. As small independent grocers have gone under, regional shops deal with stock issues (still) and the continental spanning retailers deal with union walkouts, labor shortages as well as supply chain issues and artificially inflated prices, farmers markets have become resilient, niche neighborhood establishments that we have all grown to love.
I have a three strike rule when it comes to almost everything.
Last year we were asked to join a new farmers market in the suburbs of a major city through a mutual acquaintance. We thought, doesn’t compete with anything else we got going on, is a bit far from gate to parking lot, but let’s give it a try. The first weekend was amazing. We had hundreds of people, press did their thing, everyone from the organizers to each booth operator promoted the hell out of it. It was an all-out success. The organizers asked
“what, if anything, could we do better?”
As first time organizers, feedback is critical, this was a good sign. The wife and I discussed on the way back home essentially the driveway where hundreds of people were elbow to elbow as the very large parking lot around the corner sat empty, a few vendors didn’t show up, the layout was strange, music too loud, but overall, great crowd, great vendors. The wife penned some suggestions into the email, hit send, and off we went to go unload the unsold, feed the kids and get on with chores.
The next venture to this market we were surprised. The crowd was about half, food trucks had rolled in, and new vendors had arrived, one of which was complaining that he had been kicked out of other markets because of “their attitude”. We found out later the market had held a craft event the weekend before and didn’t tell the farmers market folks that was happening. None of the suggestions had been implemented. It was the same weekend as a major convention holiday market. We let it go.
By the third and final month, we figured it out. The market decided to combine the craft market with the farmers market, double the amount of vendors, roll in more food trucks and keep this all in the same driveway with limited parking. Little advertising that this was the last market of the year, who was coming (angry chicken guy), etc. Needless to say, folks didn’t show up. And the ones that did sport Liberal Tears ™ coffee mugs filled with coffee from home rather than espresso from the coffee guy, the Let’s Go Brandon lady complaining that the prices were too damn high, among others. A few takeaways:
Organizers typically will pick parks or school parking lots because city property is public, has large amounts of property, parking, and usually doesn’t cost anything to use as long as it does not involve the building. The organizers will charge a booth fee anywhere from $25-$50 per market, or in some places $150 for the entire year. The organizers will promote, put on, and sometimes schedule entertainment. One thing they should always cover is port-a-potties and trash receptacles. Some parks have all of these amenities and might charge the organizers $150-$250 for a use permit or fee. The function of the organizer is not to throw up a Facebook page, schedule 50 vendors at $25 per tent with no facilities and walk away with $1,250 cash.
A good variety of vendors is what makes a market pop. You need the vegetable lady, the chicken guy, Tim and his milk, the bread and pastry queen, the florist, the coffee bar, a few food vendors, etc. Variety is the spice of life. Vendors have it the hardest. Not only do they have to grow, bake, feed, milk, process and prepare, they also have to package, get insurance, licensing, permitting…the list goes on and on. First time input costs between tables, table cloths, tent, display, transportation, packaging, well it’s high. Our first at the above market we had the following costs:
- $100-125 – jars, packaging, labels, one time use items for samples, secondary product inputs, such as sugar for the canned pears.
- $100 – booth fee, insurance, transportation
This doesn’t take into account the amortizable, such as tables, tent, table cloths, storage, display, signage, safe handling permit, etc.
- Yup, a $200 minimum just to show up.
This is supposed to be a fun, light day. We get to peddle our wares, talk shop, yell at the chef in the next booth selling bbq and his signature hot sauce, and use our Thaler/Sunstein knowledge for ‘Nudging’ people to our booth. Attitude is everything. You are the grower of the cabbage, the seller of the cabbage, and also a resource of how to prep the cabbage. It’s many hats, and you have to enjoy it. If you feel it’s a chore, please, find another path for gainful employment.
The folks who show up make the day. Guy bringing the jokes about the Alien Invasion referencing the kolrabi, the hesitant first timer, the group of moms, the shoulder seat dad’s with toddlers. Even the old chaps who like to tell it like it is and how it was. I enjoy the stories. The mother’s gardens or grandma’s chickens. It makes me hopeful that as a community we can still connect. The market is not a place for politics or religion. Opinions are fine. Keep an open mind. Purple cauliflower tastes just like the white. Serrano peppers are better than jalapenos.
When the confluence of an organizer profit motive chokes out public traffic, leaving those who virtue signal publicly as the only patrons, it becomes hard to clear the $200 hurdle. Break even was the third and final strike.