Our Farmers Market food fight

February 23, 2010

BY MAGGIE URIAS

The drama that unfolded recently concerning the city of SLO Downtown Association and the SLO County Farmers Market Association (FMA) is not what it appears. As a former market manager within the county, I was perplexed by the slanted campaign the FMA and farmers were aggressively promoting via the local media.

If one really listened to the Downtown Association’s legitimate grievance with the FMA, the truth was quite clear – not that the farmers were being “kicked out of the market,” as each television spot cried out, but that they were being called to task for failure to abide by the rules and guidelines set forth by the Downtown Association. So the question is: Which association formulated a media “blitzkrieg” to incite and sway public opinion?  And for what reason?

Most people are probably unaware that a certified farmers market is actually run by strict state agricultural guidelines. These guidelines dictate that any farmer within the state is welcome to apply to vend at any certified market within the state without prejudice. But not all the farmers you see at your local farmers market here in SLO County actually come from your county. Yes, many do.

But many others are from the Fresno Valley and other areas up north, or even south of here. Some have participated for over 25 years and are now deeply embedded in our markets. For example, in the North County Farmers Market Association (NCFMA), any of these farmers, who hold membership in the NCFMA, can and do sit on the board implementing critical decisions that affect the way our county market operates. At this point in time, how does this affect our local farmers?

During my management, I was contacted by numerous local small farmers who were regularly denied an opportunity to participate in their local NCFMA markets. The reasons given by management were that the markets were full or their particular crop was already represented. This does not seem to be forward thinking toward growing a market or promoting local agriculture. At our market, we made room for every farmer who asked to be given the opportunity to sell.

Why the NCFMA chooses to conduct business by a system based on exclusion instead of positive growth inclusion is for the board to answer. The most positive aspect of inclusion is the resulting serge in revenues. This is for all vendors within the market. More is more – not less. Our statistics proved over and over that customers enjoy a diversified market with many choices. We proved it is possible to include local farmers as well as those embedded farmers from outside the county.

The resulting increases in revenues, whether generated by a chamber, non-profit or a downtown association, go directly back to the community. It does not seem that the NCFMA Board or management understands this basic premise. As our economy shifts and redefines itself, it is apparent that the dynamics that existed when these FMAs started up no longer apply. Small farming has dramatically increased throughout our county and the state, but is not being equally represented in our local farmers markets.

 

A Certified Farmers Market usually consists of two distinct areas. The farmers or produce area is the one that is strictly monitored by state agriculture guidelines. The other area is to be set aside for artisans and local small food businesses sometimes referred to as non-producers.

When the NCFMA began, it welcomed non-producers into its membership. Membership entitles a vote in choosing the board and also the opportunity to sit on the board as well. A few years back, membership was arbitrarily changed by a sitting board without consultation or representation by the non-producer vendors. The non-producers were suddenly ousted and demoted to “guest only” status. Hence, legitimate business people, who had faithfully vended at their local markets all year round in all kinds of weather, were suddenly without a voice in their own market. This dictate remains in effect at this time. A local businessman who once held membership in NCFMA asks each year to be reinstated. But he is told the “paperwork would be too complex” and he is denied his membership status.

 

Traditionally, the farmer brought produce and the fine handiwork his family created — such as candles, wool, lotions, soaps and staple foods– to the town market. The farmer brought his wares to town to reach the large number of customers only the town could offer. This is the true provenance of a well-rounded farmers market – a positive, working relationship between farmers and towns. A recent email sent out by the manager of the NCFMA states: “The SLO County Farmers’ Market won. This will send a brilliant message up and down the state of California to other chambers, main streets and downtown associations who think they can steal farmers markets.

I disagree. The truth is that the “People” were misled, lied to and manipulated by farmers market associations that seek to profit from their towns but want to act with complete impunity. There is a reason why farmers drive for hours to reach our county to profit in our community farmers markets. Our towns and cities provide the “turf” they need to thrive. Therefore, a relationship of respect must exist between the farmer and the town that invites him to profit on their “turf.” I would urge the NCFMA Board to review its policies and that of its manager. In these challenging economic times, harmonious alliances between small farmers and small businesses must be fostered for optimum growth and prosperity for all.

Maggie Urias is the former manager, Morro Bay Chamber of Commerce Community & Farmers Market

 


7 Comments

  1. Farmfool1 says:

    Reply to Maggie Urias, the DA started the Blitz the SLO FMA needed the community to be aware
    of what was going on with thier market.
    You sound like the City Council that said thier hands were tied( a lawyer proved that a lie) then
    it was, we can’t use a hammer to solve this problem. This was after the HAMMER TAKE OVER
    BY THE DA!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Arbolmano says:

    I was a Farmer particpating for many years in SLO Co Farmer’s markets. I think removing Peter Jankay from managing markets would be a boon to markets. One quickly learned that if you were not “one of his buddies” your market experience would suffer. As an organic farmer I was dismayed to see him repeatedly refuse to allow organic avocados to be sold in markets he managed because his buddy was already selling avocados (pesticide laden ones that is). The Thursday market has always been more about the party than the food, moving it to a more food centered venue really makes sense. Remember the original intent of the Thursday market was to stop the “cruising” that used to occur. Since my time in SLO I have been farming in Santa Barbara and sell at markets there. A whole different experience, mainly due to superior management, the markets are just that, markets for food.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 4

    • Farmfool1 says:

      Arbolmano does not know what hes talking about there is a ORGANIC AVOCADO grower in the
      SLOFMA and a local one to boot.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. R.Hodin says:

    The NCFMA may have been supportive of the SLOFMA regarding the conflict with the DTA, but it was not a party to the issue. Other than your personal history with the NCFMA, I have no idea why you’re even mentioning them in your broad-based piece.

    I understand that the associations have been membership-exclusive and difficult to join, but the markets have valid reasons for that policy. If you want to see what a free-for-all type of market looks like, just visit the SLO Swap Meet some Sunday.

    I feel that our local farmers markets are great, and that’s a reflection on their management and vision. I personally know farmers who feel excluded from existing markets, but I feel that is not the problem. What we need are more venues for markets, and that will happen when new markets are created by either existing associations, or by excluded farmers banding together and forming new associations. There are no limits to the number of farmers associations which could be formed to accommodate every local grower.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  4. bobfromsanluis says:

    I spoke to one of the farmers at the SLO Farmer’s Market recently and I asked him about the negotiations with DTA; he told me: “It’s not over. It’s getting worse.” The opinion stated here is a cozy attempt with the DTA to paint the farmers as “the problem”, but as a former downtown merchant, I still say “the problem” is the DTA. As I have mentioned on Dave Congalton’s show several times before, IMO, the DTA is a self serving operation that benefits a select few, but receives funding from everyone who operates a business downtown. Let the farmers manage their part of the “Thursday Night Event” and the DTA manage the rest, or, even better, let the farmers manage their part and the Parks and Recreation Department manage the rest of the “Thursday Night Event” and remove the DTA from its’ oversight role completely.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  5. mkaney says:

    Maggie I am not sure what point you’re trying to get across. You didn’t really address any of the specific issues that have been brought up. If the DTA wants the market to be robust, and they can control the non-producer area, then why would it matter if non producers were in the NCFMA or not? You brought up that many farmers are from out of the area, but other than to point out that the fact contradicts the image the opposing party is trying to put across, you didn’t say why that actually matters.

    What I DID notice was your statements about farmers that seek to profit from our town but “want to act with complete impunity” and your use of the word “turf.” I don’t see the farmers getting setting up in the middle of the street, or on streets that aren’t closed off, or doing anything particularly obnoxious, so it would appear that they are not acting with complete impunity. It sounds to me like you’re flabbergasted that a bureaucratic organization (DTA) is not being allowed the level of control and influence that it wants. And to that I say, GOOD. Frankly, I’d be fine with farmers just lining up on the shoulders of roads (when the shoulders are public property) whenever and wherever they want. I don’t think we need to increase the influence of bureaucracies. What services is the DTA providing the farmers that I as an average person actually want?

    It sounds to me a little like the mafia going to the farmer and trying to extort his cut, and then having the gall to demand “justice” when the farmer doesn’t cave in. I’m not even sure why the DTA should be allowed at the negotiating table. Quit being control freaks!!!

    And no, I’m not a farmer.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  6. Alon_Perlman says:

    Keep the Farmers and the Market IN the SLO Farmers Market.

    In my opinion, if you want to support AgroTourisem, Local Production Agriculture, Small Farmers, Small Farmers Markets both in the other county communities and Inside this Small Agricultural County’s Seat (City of SLO), Then you should send an email to-

    slocitycouncil@slocity.org slocitycouncil@slocity.org

    And urge them to support the LOCAL farmers and have the DTA come to the negotiating table as a partner without lawyers.
    Or -you could urge the SLO City council to make San Luis Obispo be “More like Santa Barbara” or whatever model the Down Town Association Powers seem to have in mind. After all, its a free country.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

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