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Thinking about Farmers' Markets . . .

Limiting Market Membership?

by Tom Roberts, February 2004.


We submit that there are two questions in the issue of limiting market membership. These two questions are:
"Does the market have the right to limit membership?"
and,
"Is it a good idea for the market to limit membership?"


Does the market have the right?
When it comes to the ability of market members to limit the membership of the market, for whatever reason and in whatever way, we should ask the leading question: "Who owns your market?"

In most farmers' market situations, the market is clearly owned an controlled by the members of the market*. It is they who created the market, and continually re-create it by their ongoing presence. It is the members of the market who have slowly developed a loyalty among shoppers helping them find a positive experience at the market. Over time the market members have formed an organization and developed a set of rules to deal with the operation of this umbrella of a market that best serves them all. It is the market members who have "paid their dues" both literally and figuratively, to make there be a market. Thus, it is the market members who own the market.

We see that there are those who suggest that a market has no right to limit membership in any way. Many times when we hear this opinion, it is from someone who is intellectualizing about the market, thinking about what the market should be in some ideal abstract. Imposing open membership on a market is viewed as insuring a valuable American freedom.

Sometimes this opinion comes from the ideological roots promoting totally free and open markets that have in fact resulted in near extinction for small farmers and small businesses everywhere. Other times they just don't want to be in a position of making rules, so they adopt a "no rules" policy.

This is why I pose the question: "Who owns your market?" Think about a situation where you want to set up in front of a supermarket to sell your farm produce. Do you have a right to do that? Almost everyone would agree that you do not. (At least not without being invited!) That's because you do not own the supermarket or the space in front of it, and if they don't want you selling there, you can't sell there.

To me this seems very much like a farmer feeling they have a right to be allowed in the market, with no consideration of who owns the market. The question is whether the market is a public space or a private space. This is NOT whether the market is set up on public or private property, although this factor can complicate enforcement of membership limitation because of the landlord's requirements. Farmers' markets are private spaces, owned and managed by the members. They are not tailgate markets along a public way.

Is it a good idea?
If we agree that a market may have control over who joins it, we are then left with the question of when, if ever, is it appropriate or beneficial to the market to limit membership.

When a market first begins, there usually is an open membership policy for the first year or two. There may be applications to fill out, dues to pay, and rules to follow, but there is usually no examining an applicant for whether they should be allowed to join, assuming they fit the broad categories of membership set out in the rules.

Now, there may be some who believe that any restrictions on membership should not exist, that there should be no limitations on who can set up at market. However the Maine statute defining farmers' markets says that members must produce at least 75% of what they grow, and everything must be native, so we need to agree that there are at least some restrictions on who can sell at a market.

Most markets make stricter rules than the state law mandates, such as residing within 35 miles of the market, living in certain counties, not producing crafts, producing 100% of what they sell, or having maximum total membership. It is up to each market if they want to restrict membership in such ways, and many markets change their limitations over time as they grow to perceive the advantages or disadvantages of them.

Such restrictions and limitations are usually written into bylaws or guidelines and apply to everyone. The question of limitations on market membership usually becomes a problem when a temporary limitation is imposed by the market. Such restrictions might include "no more vegetable growers for now" or "no more crafters for now", or even "no more members for now".

In other words, the market members have agreed that in a particular area there is a balance of members and shoppers that would be harmed by adding members. If it is agreed that the four vegetable growers in the market are doing a good job of supplying the shoppers who come to market, then there may be no advantage to adding more vegetable growers to the market. In fact, adding more vegetable growers may hurt the current vegetable growing members to the extent that one or more decides to leave the market. Should this happen, then the market has failed to maintain a secure market that once existed for those who leave. The market in that case would have been hurtful rather than helpful to the departing growers.

Another example of limitation might be that the membership fears a certain applicant would be a detriment to the market because of the way they are known to behave towards shoppers or other members. This is an example of social compatibility within the market becoming an issue. Although this may have economic consequences (especially if shoppers are driven away), at root is it basically a social question.

Farmers' markets are more than economic entities, although you will hear many who try to reduce farmers' markets to their economic part. The social component of markets is a major attraction for many of a market's most loyal shoppers. And meeting people at market is important in the lives of otherwise seasonally farm-bound market members. Not reducible to the exchange of currency for goods, the farmer-shopper interaction is critical to the success of the grower, the market, and local agriculture.


Comments and feedback to the author are appreciated.


* See Dependent vs. Independent markets for a further discussion of this point.


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