Our Farmers Market food fight
February 23, 2010
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