Big city or rural, sprawling or small, all farmers’ markets tend to be full of independent thinkers. Each brightly colored tent on the street houses a fiercely individual business owner. Whether  small farmer, bread-baker, coffee-roaster, apron-sewer or pickle-fermenter, a farmers’ market vendor often walks to the beat of their own drum.

Somewhere on the premises of a farmers’ market you’ll find a basically unemployable, Type A personality. Pioneering, go-it-alone attitudes are more common than not. You can also bet a fair share of farmers’ market managers chose this work because they operate a little outside the box, and way outside the cubicle.

Let’s put it this way: I have a feeling I’m not the only one in this business with a “Say NO to Real Jobs” cup-holder on my desk.

Working together makes farmers’ markets work

Farmers’ markets are a curious contradiction. What makes our events so successful is that we assemble a community of self-sufficient enterprises that are better together. A lot of food producers work alone much of the week. They spend long hours in the fields or the kitchen without a lot of human interaction. But on arrival at the market, these independent business-owners join a tribe that bands together. They collectively pop tents, watch each other’s stand, and use their neighbor’s sea salts on their own tomato samples to increase sales for both.

It’s the communal nature of farmers’ markets that attracts shoppers, as well as vendors. Customers are drawn to the market not to shop for a single category of foodstuff, but to find all the ingredients for that recipe featured in the market newsletter. Or they arrive excited to try a new product they learned about when the chicken farmer tagged the spice vendor in her Instagram post. 

   

Cooperative efforts work outside the markets too

Small farmers, managers and food vendors stick together for the benefits of collaborative marketing and for the fun of it. They also need to collaborate because the business world can be a big, bad, scary maze of regulations. Navigating the ever-changing environments and contradicting messages is easier when done as a team. 

On the city level, farmers’ markets can be subject to planning and zoning requirements. They’re also responsible for risk management and traffic codes. In addition, they typically have to keep up with both county and state agriculture and health department demands. The USDA, which has its own set of rules. Changing political climates can quickly affect everything from grant funding to processing SNAP sales that support farmers and grocery vendors.

Make sure our voices are heard

When it comes to influencing law and policy makers on big issues around the Farm Bill or water use, groups like grocers’ trade associations, chambers of commerce and golf course developers are making their voices heard. Even regulations that affect how many portable sinks your market has to rent each week are shaped by groups promoting their own self interests.

It’s no surprise that lobbyists for big industries get lawmakers’ attention. They promise big donations and voting blocks, which city council members and senators need to stay in office. So how is it possible for one small farmer to make their voice heard? By joining with other farmers and food makers, just as we do at the markets, there’s an opportunity to make some noise.

Groups like the National Farmers Union work hard to keep small farm issues in the minds and on the desks of legislators. When the Farm Bill comes back to the floor of the House and the Senate, it’s these office-holders who’ll make decisions that affect your livelihood.

Just a few weeks ago, it looked like thousands of markets would be left out in the cold without the system to accept EBT cards that boosts sales at farmers’ markets. Then, the national Farmers Market Coalition jumped in to raise funds and facilitate negotiations that will keep Novo Dia Group operating for at least long enough for markets to find new resources.

   

photo by John Ivanko

The many benefits of coming together

Meeting up with other farmers and vendors doesn’t have to be about politics. At events like the Georgia Farmers Market Association Food for Thought Conference and our own InTents Conference, it’s about education. For the women of Wisconsin’s Soil Sisters, it’s a combination of moral support, ongoing friendships and shared challenges, triumphs and legal fees. Depending on the time of year, The Farmers Guild might be about mentorship or it might just be about hay bale tossing contests and silly photo booths at the annual Agrarian Games.  

When it comes to running a farm or small business, time is always precious. It may feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to add participation in an organization or a group, but I encourage you to take a chance. Putting a little money into a small membership fee and spending even occasional time with people who understand your challenges, who represent your interests, who get you, might be the best investment you make in your business and your mental health all year. 

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