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Where will Maine's Farmers' Markets be in 2012?

Farmers' Market development over the next decade
by Tom Roberts, 10-Mar-03

More farmers, not less

At the current time I see an ever larger number of people becoming small farm operators. Maybe they are large gardeners who have finally gathered the courage to "go commercial" and try to support themselves with what they can produce on their own land. Or maybe they are early or late retirees who finally bought themselves that dream farm and now want to make it a real farm and not just a retirement home. University graduates with both ag and non-ag backgrounds are seeing that trading their souls for a high corporate income is not what they had in mind for their lives, so they decide to head "back to the land". All of these scenarios and more are now being played out and the trend will likely increase over at least the next decade.

A challenge for the markets

Imagine what kind of pressure that puts on our farmers' markets. More and more people will be asking to join the markets, many of which are already full—either physically full, or they have enough vendors to supply the existing customer base. In some cases our markets will benefit as market voids will be more easily filled and markets can choose the highest quality growers to admit. But hard feelings will be generated when many of the new farmers can't get into an existing market. They will generally complain of the "closed" nature of the markets whose farmers appear to want to keep their "monopoly". This happens to some extent today, but imagine if there were ten times as many applicants to your market. The complaints could be made to the media, town & city officials, and state legislators, all of which could make life more difficult for our farmers' markets.

More farmers are a good thing

From the point of view of agrarian culture, where the strengthening and spread of farming culture requires numbers that have been so long in decline, predictions of more farmers can only be seen as beneficial. Maybe then the local tractor dealer can stay with farm tractors and not have to switch over to backyard tractors and snowmobiles in order to stay in business. University and private agricultural researchers will find a wider audience for their labors. When a greater number of people are making their living from farming, the values inherent in an agricultural way of life are maintained, enhanced and allowed to bloom and develop.

Markets should plan now

If we think about the value of the farmers' market culture to our farms and farms like our own, we might begin to see that we need to pay attention to the health of that market culture as well as to the health of our own farms.

More than once I have seen market members express dismay at a proposal for a new nearby market. In most cases I believe this to be a mistake. When you consider why more people don't shop at farmers' markets, one of the factors that come up is convenience of location. Few people are regularly going to go out of their way to shop at a farmers' market. So having more farmers' markets located strategically should result in more people shopping at farmers' markets. I know that at least 90% of the people shopping at the Pittsfield Farmers' Market shop at no other market on a regular basis. In other words, they don't go to Fairfield, Skowhegan, Unity or Augusta to shop at the markets there. If there weren't a Pittsfield Farmers' Market, these folks would not be market shoppers at all, nor would the members of the Pittsfield market be selling at a market; they would be knocking at the doors of other markets.

More markets means more shoppers

Now, as obvious as that might seem, think about why more markets means more shoppers: if a market is nearby a person's home or travel route, they become potential shoppers. Now think about how many people live close, but not close enough, or travel near, but not near enough, to your farmers' market.

If there were a market in Clinton or Hartland (towns next to Pittsfield), I believe there would be no perceptible change in sales at the Pittsfield Market. Yet there would be more people shopping at a farmers' market, more farmers selling at market, and more choices for farmers who want to attend more than one farmers' market.

Likewise there could easily be more than one market in most of Maine's cities. The Belfast Farmers' Market recently split, less than amicably, into two markets. One is at the original location at the edge of town on Route 1 and the other is downtown, about a mile away. Sometimes experiments fall in our lap, and the summer of 2003 will give us all an idea of how two markets can prosper in a small city.

Portland has two markets, each of a very different type. Brewer has two markets, across the parking lot from one another, due to historical animosities, yet in an almost perfect location.

Big markets or little markets?

While remembering what is working, and expecting an increasing number of farmers looking to join a market in the near future, we should be thinking about the direction of future development of farmers' markets. There will periodically arise the "big thinkers" who try smooth talking municipal officials into starting a great big market to bring hoards of shoppers into a downtown area. This has always been a disastrous type of development for communities.

Instead of the fifty markets we have now, we could be helping a hundred and fifty markets to bloom within ten years. The markets could be decentralized throughout the state, one in most small towns and several in each city. Each market could be operated by the attending farmers. Many farmers will go to two, three or four markets each one or two days a week. Such a scenario is the best fit for small growers who want to sell locally.

Intelligent diversification

Sometimes farmers' markets diversify. The first level of diversification is usually into different days of the week. A market that was Saturday only soon starts another day midweek at the same location. This level of diversification seems to work well organizationally for the multi-day markets. Not all members go to all days, but it is recognized by all that having the market open more days is better for all.

The second level of diversification is to add a different location. This has historically put organizatonal strains on the market, and the only two examples that come to mind are the Seacoast Growers in southeast New Hampshire and the Sunrise Farmers' Market in eastern Washington County. Far more numerous are the examples of independent farmers' markets that share farmers. Camden, Rockland, Damariscotta, Pittsfield, Fairfield, Unity, Orono, Brewer and Houlton all have growers who regularly attend more than one market, often three or four. Thus we see a different, less centralized paradigm where farmers are attending markets in several locations but there is no overarching organization connecting the individual markets. This method seems far more workable where it is the farmers alone, not the markets, which have diversified their locations.

Our approach to making it happen

I believe we should behave like good resource people and be watching for two types of situations to arise. One is the farmer-entrepreneur who wants to start a new market in a large town, small city, or in a neighborhood in a larger city—even one with an existing market. The other is the municipal official or small business owner who would like to enhance the local community and local economy by doing what they can to get a market going.

Both of these situations finds many questions being asked by the organizers about the steps to take. The nitty-gritty details delving into all the options of forming and operating a prosperous farmers' market are mostly known by various market members all over the state. Let's share what we know—market members know markets best. We must not feel threatened but rather encouraged by the increasing numbers of small farmers and farmers' markets that are doubtless in our near future.

In both of these cases we can increase the number of market opportunities for farmers by encouraging an association of farmers to be the organizers and operators of a new farmers' market, perhaps with initial organizational or financial help from an outside organization or municipality, but standing free on their own two feet as soon as possible.

Tom Roberts and Lois Labbe operate Snakeroot Organic Farm in Pittsfield, and attend the Orono, Pittsfield, Unity and Fairfield Farmers' Markets. Tom has been attending farmers' markets since 1983.

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