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A Market in Your Town?

Should there be a farmers' market in your town?
Of what value is a farmers' market in a town?

What is a Farmers' Market?

A farmers' market is not a random collection of tailgate vendors. It is an self-policing non-profit organization that consists of farmers, gardeners, bakers and/or crafters. The market members decide on their days and hours of operation and length of season, then attempt to create a viable presence of vendors at those times.

It is helpful to understand that the market is an organized collection of independent growers each with their own standards of friendliness, quality, display, selection and price. They have joined together in a Farmers' Market Association to assure the shopping public of regular hours, high quality, and wide selection, and to thereby attract more customers than any one of them could do alone.

Market members have agreed to follow the rules of the market and pay dues to the association as a prerequisite to sell at the market.

What does a market need from the town?

Not much. Some markets set up on private property within the town, and some request permission to set up on town property. An amount of space for four to twelve cars or pickup trucks to set up tables and equivalent space for shopper parking is all that is required. Whether on private or public space, the market would appreciate the possiblity of a long-term commitment for the availability of their location.

Any town codes restricting transient roadside sales should not disallow the existance of a market, nor should they be applied to individual market members. In essence the town will only have to deal with one entity, even if the market is made up of a dozen members.

Similarly, any town signage restrictions should allow for temporary sandwich board signs set up when the market is in session.

Often a market will appreciate a place in the town to hold off-season organizational meetings, and offering such places for the market's use would be helpful.

Some towns have newsletters mailed to residents one or more times a year. Mentioning the new farmers' market and it's season, opening dates, schedule of days and hours would be helpful. Some towns offer to insert the market's brochure in their mailing.

If nothing else, when the role of the town is seen as friendly and helpful, the likelihood of the success of the market will be increased.

What does the town need from a market?

A town needs to assure it's traffic patterns are not disrupted by the presence of a farmers' market. This is where the town being involved at an early stage will make the market organizers aware of town needs. In general, in-town businesses will welcome the augmented traffic of shoppers visiting the market.

Farmers' markets generally have a set of rules for the market members to follow. The town could review these rules at an early stage to look for possible conflicts with existing town codes or other difficulties that might arise. This works toward preventing misunderstandings later on.

How does the town benefit?

Towns benefit from a farmers' market in several ways. Several towns have used a farmers' market as a way to keep shoppers buying downtown. Many studies have shown that once shoppers have driven to the market, they are more likely to buy from nearby small businesses.

Many residents greatly enjoy the possibility of purchasing fresh farm produce, meats and baked goods at a central location in their own town. The old-time open-air aspect generates a fair-like atmosphere, and many residents new and old will enjoy this alternative way of shopping. Gardeners talk to professional local small farmers about their favorite topics. Cooks and chefs see what is in season and exchange recipes. People who grew up on a farm feel a little closer to their roots.

Some towns, when attempting to attract business to the town, will mention the town's farmers' market as an enhancement to the town's quality of life. A farmers' market is one way of building community identity in a town, and is a wonderful service to the people who live or work in a town. And as a bonus, it is accomplished with no town funds.

The attending farmers not only sell in your town, they often will make their purchases there, too, as it becomes the "trip to town" in their busy summer schedules. In any case, the shoppers' food dollars go directly into the local economy instead of being siphoned off to far away growers and distributors.

Food security has become an issue of concern of late. Farmers' markets are an ideal way to avoid the long and increasingly perilous journey food from distant lands takes to our tables. The very nature of the production of food by dozens of small and micro farms surrounding our towns produces supply lines almost impossible to disrupt by any who would terrorize our food system. Having one or more farmers' markets in town assures there will be many independent local production units bringing food into town once or more each week. At present, this amounts to but a tiny portion of the food requirements of any community, but as the popularity of farmers' markets grows more local farmers and more markets will arise and supply an ever greater percentage of the food the townspeople use.

What will it cost the town?

Properly done, a farmers' market should cost a town virtually nothing.

Some towns have played a role in acquiring and administering grants for promotion of a market during the initial startup period. Often these grants dovetail with a town's downtown revitalization efforts.

Markets generally do their own promotion via brochures, local newspaper advertising, and other means that direct shoppers to your town.

How to get started

Maybe you have already been approached by a group wanting to start a market. In that case, a supportive attitude toward the market, as described above, will be much appreciated.

If you are looking to get a market started in your town, then approaching local farmers or farmers who have set up at nearby farmers' markets would be a good place to start. Let them know that your are hoping that a market will start in your town and have a few potential locations to offer. Finding a location is frequently one of the most difficult aspects of getting a market off the ground.

Getting the community involved in organizing a market provides volunteer labor rather than using busy town officials. This is also a way of gauging the interest of the townspeople in a farmers' market.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service or the Maine Department of Agriculture for a list of farmers and market gardeners in the vacinity. Set a meeting date.

For more information

More information on what towns have markets or how to start a market can be seen at the website of the Maine Federation of Farmers' Markets

Farmers' Markets are ancient and simple. Many parts of the world have a tradition of farmers' markets going back for centuries. In today's rush for one-stop convenience shopping and year-round availability of foods from the global marketplace, our communities all too often have lost touch with the productivity of our small local farms. And the small scale grower has lost the connection with markets of appropriate scale. A Farmers' Market offers a solution where 100% of the shoppers dollar goes directly to the local farmer.

But farmers' markets are much more than just a place to sell food. They have become important community institutions, a type of "New England community reunion". They are a venue for socializing, where urban residents meet farmers and their neighbors. They have figured in the revitalization of downtown districts, bringing people into areas that were once vacant on Saturday mornings. In many cities, farmers' markets are situated in low-income neighborhoods where there are no supermarkets, so they provide an important source of food security to the people who live in those neighborhoods. Farmers' Markets serve an educational function, too, helping people learn to eat better.

Written by Tom Roberts, who has been attending farmers' market since 1983, and currently attends farmers' markets in Orono, Pittsfield, Unity and Fairfield.

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