July 30, 2011

Farmers’ Market Update

Filed under: Food and Farms, Relocalization — Tags: , — Russ @ 1:07 am


I’ve been meaning to post accounts of the season at the farmers’ market where I work. The first few weeks I neglected to do so, but I’ll get started now.
Just to quickly get up to date – the season’s going pretty well so far, considering the nasty weather (very hot for several weeks). This past Wednesday was finally a nice day.
We had one new vendor quit after three weeks because, according to them, this was the first time they didn’t immediately generate a huge customer base, but instead faced a gradual climb. That was unfortunate, but we sucked it up. It doesn’t seem to have affected business.
On the whole the vendors are happy. Our two new produce vendors are big hits. Everybody loves their produce and layouts. They both farm just one acre, and are for all intents and purposes organic, though neither is certified. (On another thread we discussed the inadequacy of official certifications.)
We may have a slight problem with our bigger, established produce vendor. One of our committee members said she thinks their layout looks bad and that one of their employees is obnoxious and is turning customers off. She wants to have a committee visit to them to discuss the problems. Last year there was also an issue with the inconsistency of their quality. So we’ll see what’s next with that.
On that thread mentioned above I alluded to how our market has been sometimes lackadaisical in enforcing our bylaws. Since then I’ve been thinking more about it. A farmers’ market which proclaims localization principles and then enforces them creates its own informal but important imprimatur, a kind of certification. It’s all about reputation based on a proven record of action.
This is going to be tremendously important for the relocalization movement going forward. Farmers’ markets, time banks, sustainability groups, must all help create the new structures of morality, loyalty, and cooperative obligation to replace all the old ones which, if they ever existed, have been drained of all life by corporatism and are now mere wraiths whose touch is poison.
So I’m already thinking about how our committee can be more resolute for the 2012 season, better organized and determined to build a rock-solid reputation for localization integrity. (I too have voted to relax the rules, although never on anything directly impinging on principle, just on process stuff. But I recognize that it’s the lax attitude in itself which is part of the problem. So I also need to do better.) In many ways we need a more coherent and consciously followed strategy, not just for this but for the economic success of the market, as well as what could be called its political success. (By that I mean community relations – we’re beloved by a faction of the town, disliked by another. The goal is to expand the one and diminish or at least neutralize some of the other.)
Then there’s the critical issue of how to convey a sense of community to the vendors themselves. Of course the vendors’ first priority has to be making a living at farming or food processing. But there’s still plenty of room for a more holistic consciousness, that the farmers’ market is far more than a place of business, that it’s a center of rebuilding our communities and our humanity. This is explicit in our statement of principle, and it’s how we on the committee feel about it.
I don’t know how much the vendors share this feeling. Clearly the one who bailed was concerned only with the money. Most of the others probably have a mixture of motives, with varying degrees of community-mindedness.
It would be great if we could all realize that the more we work together on a community basis, the better off we’ll all be, including materially, in the long run. A mercenary attitude won’t work for anyone who’s not rich. It’s just digging your own grave.
Well, I have no specific ideas on how to do any of this yet, or for that matter what specific changes I want to see at the farmers’ market, other than a more close adherence to the bylaws, which all stem from the community-building and relocalization principles which inspired us to start the market in the first place.


  1. Interesting. I didn’t realize it was so formalized. Please share the by-laws and how they were negotiated. Thanks, tawal

    Comment by tawal — July 30, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

    • I wasn’t around when the by-laws were first drawn up. This market is now in its third season, and I started in the second. So I don’t know what sources they used, what significant controversies there were on the committee, what proposed provisions weren’t included, etc. (I could probably find out if I asked. I do know that they would’ve allowed dogs if the town health code didn’t forbid it, making it a moot point. Whether or not to allow dogs is often a point of contention, where a market has that option.)

      The most important rule is that each food vendor has to personally grow and/or process 80% of what they sell, while the other 20% which can be “resold” produce/ingredients has to come from within 75 miles of the town. (How do you measure “80%”? By weight, by volume, by count, by price? That’s left unspecified, a common vagueness in market rules.) So all edible stuff being sold has to be completely from within that radius. (There’s a different vagueness in the 75 mile limit for arts and crafts vendors.)

      We all agree on that rule, although some are more “purist” about it than others. So when from time to time there have been some dubious items being sold, we haven’t always been very assertive in getting to the bottom of it and putting a stop to any abuses. Since among ourselves we sometimes make skeptical comments about this or that product, and since once in awhile a customer says something doubtful, it’s clear that people do notice this stuff, and over time it’ll erode a place’s reputation (or cause it to develop a not-so-great reputation in the first place). I think we need to all resolve to be far more punctilious about enforcing this rule. It goes to the core of the farmers’ market philosophy in general, and our proclaimed principles in particular.

      As for the “process” item I mentioned where I too was lax, it was a vote to allow a new vendor to join up weeks after the posted deadline. My rationale for voting Yes was that we’re still struggling to put a large, diverse roster out there, so I thought the application deadline was negotiable in the case of a vendor who sounded like she would add value. (Also, this prospective vendor was from within town. Although we aspire to have as many in-town vendors as possible, we didn’t actually have any yet.)

      So that may sound like it contradicts what I said in the previous paragraph, and the distinction between rules that are about principle vs. rules that are about process isn’t all that convincing. (In my mind it’s sort of like the distinction I made in the last post between stuff that’s in the realm of principle and stuff in the realm of tactics. But there we weren’t talking about codified policy. If a rule’s not really important, then it probably shouldn’t be a hard and fast written rule in the first place.)

      I’m not sure yet what the answer is. But there’s some information and a few more thoughts.

      Comment by Russ — July 30, 2011 @ 5:14 pm

    • Here’s another thing that just occurred to me, regarding the application deadline. When we were contemplating, more or less at our leisure, adding that new vendor, it was controversial and led to a vote. (We usually make decisions by consensus and only rarely have to vote.)

      Yet weeks later when, just over a week before the market was to open, our existing baker dropped out, precipitating a crisis, we all knew we needed a replacement immediately (luckily, we found a good one). Not a word or probably a thought about that deadline. But the bylaws don’t say anything about the deadline being waived in order to replace someone, but not otherwise. To me, there’s no conceptual difference between replacing someone and adding someone new. In either case the question is, Would it be better to add this vendor?

      So there’s an example of the evident bendability of a process rule.

      (I’m not sure what my point is on musing about this. I don’t regard it as a big deal, compared to a vendor possibly flouting the localization imperative. But maybe discussing a secondary example can help stimulate thought about the big picture.)

      Comment by Russ — July 30, 2011 @ 5:38 pm

  2. This probably isn’t the best post for this comment but it hit me while falling asleep this weekend. Are we, the relocalists, the new Anti-Federalists? Do we have something to gain by seizing the intellectual heritage and authority of Anti-Federalists? Something I have been thinking about.

    Also, re: your farmers market. I’m interested in the logistics. Is it in a city? How big? Near public transport? Day of the week? Is there a stated intention to supplant the supermarket?

    Comment by Ross — July 31, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    • I’ve written about the so-called anti-federalists in several of the posts listed here:


      (The fact is that the so-called “Federalists”, supporters of a strong central government, were the real anti-federalists, while the “Anti-Federalists” were far closer to true federalism. That the Federalists were able to claim that name and call their opponents Anti-Federalists, and make those names stick, was the first great Orwellian terminological inversion in American history.)

      We can certainly claim many of their ideas, especially their criticisms of the 1787 constitution. I recommend the “Federal Farmer” letters and the polemics published by “Brutus”, among others. There’s lots of anthologies out there, and all the most important stuff is probably online. Their positive ideas were more of a mixed bag, and while some of them were sincere federalists, some of them were just as power-hungry as the Federalists, and merely thought the state level was the best place for them to exercise dominion.

      So man for man they’re not a cadre of heroes, but they made lots of cogent criticisms which still apply today.

      Today’s relocalizers, insofar as they also want full political relocalization, AKA true federalism, are like you said the true “anti-federalists”, meaning the true federalists.

      Our farmers’ market is located in a suburban town, and probably not very accessible by public transportation. It’s on a weekday afternoon. (We would’ve preferred a weekend, but then we’d be competing directly with other, better established markets for the same vendors.) Our stated goals include providing a place for local residents to buy from local growers and merchants, and community-building in general. Optimally we’d like people to see the market as not just a place to buy food but as a public space for gathering, talking, recreation. Sometimes it lives up to that.

      We can’t by ourselves supplant the supermarket so we don’t make grandiloquent statements like that. But as much as possible we do want to provide an alternative, which more and more people find worthwhile.

      Comment by Russ — July 31, 2011 @ 10:25 am

      • I’ve grabbed the Anti-Federalist term w/o proper historical context. In my mind, I now register it to mean opposition to the Federal Government, but I see the Orwellian nuance and that context changes over 200 years…

        What I’m getting at is this; is there something to be gained in the pursuit of the 100th monkey (10% acceptance in a population) by invoking the historical debate about the rights and roles of the Federal Government in the lives of individuals. The case for institutional and bureaucratic overreach is more than ideological.

        Re: Farmer’s Market “optimally we’d like people to see the market as not just a place to buy food but as a public space for gathering, talking, recreation. Sometimes it lives up to that.”

        Are you doing anything specific to promote that goal?

        Comment by Ross — July 31, 2011 @ 11:32 am

      • Yes, those terms have been so scrambled – “federal government” is the radical antithesis of federalism – that it’s often difficult to express oneself or understand exactly what someone else means. I once included a terminological note in a post (I forget which) on the subject. I said I’d try to reserve the term “federal” for this central government, while federalism, federation, confederation, and anything else referred to the opposite – true council democracy with only contingent, recallable authority delegated (federated) upward.

        is there something to be gained in the pursuit of the 100th monkey (10% acceptance in a population) by invoking the historical debate about the rights and roles of the Federal Government in the lives of individuals.

        I think so. That’s a key part of what I’ve been trying to get at in all those writings on the American Revolution. It’s part of the action I envision as being the invocation-of-history aspect of resuming the American Revolution.

        For example, if it hadn’t been for the fierce demands of the A-Fs (which I’ll still call them for convenience, now that I’ve said my piece on why it’s a misnomer) there would never have been a Bill of Rights. The Federalists scoffed at the idea. Only dirty hippies thought that was necessary.

        Today we know that the centralizers were deluded or lying, and the B of R was necessary. Yet from the attack those rights are now sustaining, and how badly eroded or blasted to nothingness they all are, we now know that while the B of R was necessary to contain the power aggrandizement of representative government, it wasn’t sufficient. We now know that the A-Fs were right in claiming that their demand for the B of R was just a rearguard action, that they were correct in their prediction that this powerful central government would be an engine of tyranny, and that therefore we must take up the original anti-centralization position they argued. (While something like trying to bolster the B of R wouldn’t be sufficient.)

        Re: Farmer’s Market “optimally we’d like people to see the market as not just a place to buy food but as a public space for gathering, talking, recreation. Sometimes it lives up to that.”

        Are you doing anything specific to promote that goal?

        We have live music and benches to sit on, plus lots of open space in the central square. We try to provide educational content (in the education and non-profit booths) which is informative and fun. And in our PR material we try to play up that aspect. “Meet your friends at the market” and stuff like that. That’s all so far, as far as specific stuff.

        Comment by Russ — July 31, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

  3. Thanks Russ for the clarification on your market. Please see the article at Counterpunch on the struggle to change poisoned farm land to be productive in a post-oil type envt.

    Comment by tawal — August 2, 2011 @ 12:15 am

    • You’re wlecome tawal, and thanks for the article. It looks like a good survey of the problems (I only had time to skim it so far).

      Comment by Russ — August 2, 2011 @ 5:22 am

  4. http://www.counterpunch.org/sonnenblume08012011.html

    Comment by tawal — August 2, 2011 @ 12:19 am

  5. “By that I mean community relations – we’re beloved by a faction of the town, disliked by another.”

    I don’t know if this is the right forum for this, but I’d be particularly interested to hear any notes on the reasons for these reactions by various groups. It’s surprising to me that anyone would react negatively to something as benign as a farmer’s market unless it were directly challenging their interests.

    With regard to procedural issues, and particularly deadlines, it’s always been my experience that functional organisations use deadlines and other procedural rules as a herding-cats measure to encourage people to give administrative staff enough time to deal with their paperwork, rather than as hard-and-fast rules. I think the only hard-and-fast deadlines I’ve ever dealt with were those of federal granting agencies and severely dysfunctional work-to-rule bureaucracies. I think these kinds of bylaws and rules ought to be more of an outward-face to encourage applicants to get their paperwork in with time to spare rather than inward-shackles preventing members from achieving organisational goals. As far as I’m concerned, the moment a procedural rule interferes with the safe, successful operation of an organisation, it should be ignored temporarily and probably revised.

    Comment by paper mac — August 2, 2011 @ 9:04 pm

  6. That’s how I viewed the process rule as well. I think the main concern was that other vendors who had paid up on time might complain if someone else got to come in late. (Do they think in terms of it being an unnecessary loan, for the time they didn’t have the use of that money, if instead they could have waited until later to pay? I don’t know. I haven’t heard that anyone even complains about such things.)

    The opposition isn’t to the farmers’ market itself, but to our group in general. To put it simply, there’s a Republican/propertarian/teabagger-type tinpot elite which is antagonistic to other things we’ve done like our environmental project which has been involved in things like seeking lawn-watering ordinances. That, of course, is horrific communism. They were especially traumatized by the this team’s attempt to gain a certification from a state-level sustainability program run by a public university. (I’m not involved with the environmental team myself, but I heard the whole sordid story.)

    The result is that this faction has knee-jerk hostility to our group as such, and won’t help even with programs they don’t find inherently offensive like the farmers’ market.

    Comment by Russ — August 3, 2011 @ 3:58 am

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