Setting best practices for best profits

How do you start a farmers’ market? How can it be publicized? What’s the optimal day of the week to operate a market? The best practices for market establishment and operation can be difficult to pinpoint, but with challenging economic conditions accompanying consumers’ greater interest in local food, it’s more important than ever to operate markets as effectively and efficiently as possible. To help boost success, a group of Ohio farmers’ market managers have united to help strengthen venues across the state.

Beginning the network

The Cooperative Extension Services unit for southern Ohio, located at Ohio State University (OSU) South Centers in Piketon, is home to a cooperative development center that aids rural economic development by establishing and strengthening cooperatives. During 2007 and 2008, Tom Snyder, the center’s program manager, met with farmers’ market managers across the state and found that a vehicle for unified networking and professional development would be beneficial.

Eddie Lou Meimer, manager of the Marion Farmers’ Market, says there is a need for collaboration to facilitate problem-solving and to develop best practices for establishing, marketing and growing sales venues.

Following those discussions in late 2007 and early 2008, the Ohio Farmers’ Market Management Network (http://www.ocdc.osu.edu/farmersmarkets/about.htm) was formed last March. Meimer serves as interim president and director. In addition to several OSU divisions, county extension educators and the state department of agriculture have partnered to support the network, which is operated as a cooperative.

Photo courtesy of www.Morguefile.Com.
The USDA estimates that more than 4,600 farmers’ markets are operating across the country.

Although still in its infancy, developing bylaws and planning its first annual meeting, leaders of the network are planning a multifaceted program to help markets serve growers and other vendors better. Education, training, research, leveraging grant funding and establishing best practices are among the issues to be tackled. Meimer says that opportunities for networking have already paid off by helping members solve problems.

“Sitting down with others and picking each other’s brains is so valuable,” she adds. “We all have problems in some area that we’ve solved that can help other markets.”

To date, about 20 market managers, representing about 500 vendors, have joined the cooperative. Growers and other market vendors also have membership options. As more of Ohio’s 140 markets get involved, the cooperative plans to investigate services such as health care coverage, liability and regulation management and group purchasing.

Creating a road map

Beth Knorr, interim secretary and director, says the network is an opportunity for Ohio’s markets to develop a different type of relationship. Often, venues in close proximity to each other see themselves as competitors. Knorr, who manages two markets conducted by Countryside Conservatory in Akron, hopes members will find ways to collaborate and support one another.

Developing a market manager’s guide is a priority project that is currently underway. In addition to offering guidelines for creating new markets, Meimer says it will seek to solve some common problems.

“We hope to develop something that a ‘market master’ can go to for state agriculture standards,” she says. “No one can keep up with all the rules. Now, each vendor must determine which agriculture department and health department regulations apply.”

Lack of clarity about food safety regulations creates difficulties and inconsistencies from market to market. Knorr says that the interpretation of mobile food retail license requirements often varies from county to county. For instance, rules related to proper cooling prompt confusion. Some areas allow simple, inexpensive coolers, while others insist upon refrigeration, making fair competition virtually impossible. Network leaders plan to meet with agriculture and health department officials to discuss members’ questions and concerns about specific regulations and ask for consistent enforcement throughout the state. Knorr points out that it is equally important that inspectors be well-educated on current regulations.

Some markets have had difficulty in recruiting vendors with adequate time and produce available to participate. Encouraging alternate days for operation may allow some growers to serve multiple markets. Knorr says that although consumer interest in her markets has increased, network members will develop techniques for driving even more traffic.

Christie Welch, farmers’ market specialist with the Business Development Network at OSU, says building awareness of existing resources and programs will be a vital role of the network. A comprehensive listing of online educational opportunities, best practices and related information will be established to make services more accessible; it is being developed through a USDA market promotion program conducted by Growing Ohio’s Farmers’ Markets (http://www.ohiofarmersmarkets.osu.edu).

Welch’s program and Growing Ohio Farmers’ Markets are two of the established tools available to market managers and vendors. Funded by a USDA rural development grant, the services facilitate education in the business side of agriculture, offering monthly training programs on management, marketing and money. Technology, such as Web sites and electronic benefits transfer processing, legal issues and business planning are also among the offerings. The program also provides confidential consulting and technical assistance at no cost.

Market organizations around the region

Ohio isn’t the first state to organize its farmers’ market managers. Several states in the region have established networking and educational groups to assist members with creating new markets and managing and promoting older ones. Some groups are able to offer a wide range of cooperative insurance services, including health coverage. All place an emphasis on education, networking and working with regulatory agencies and legislatures to formulate reasonable guidelines.

New Hampshire’s Farmers’ Market Association (www.nhfma.org) focuses not only on manager and producer education, but also works to strengthen consumer demand through public outreach. The seven-year-old group has been successful in securing funding to test accepting electronic benefits transfer payments at its markets. It has coordinated unusual events such as an indoor market and fundraising event at Borders Book & Music stores.

A grant from Project for Public Spaces, Inc. allowed the University of Michigan to create an organization in 2006. The Michigan Farmers’ Market Association (www.farmersmarkets.msu.edu) offers online resources, along with such workshops as Farmers’ Market Manager Boot Camp.

More than a decade old, the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association has developed a 300-page market manual (available for purchase at www.mfma.org). Member markets benefit from cooperative liability insurance and advertising, and due to the group’s efforts, some state regulations have been modified to more effectively serve producers, markets and consumers.

In the empire state, the Farmers’ Market Federation offers a market manager certification program and collaborated with the state agriculture department to introduce a wireless electronic benefits transfer (EBT) program. Shoppers purchasing with EBT receive increased value with NY Fresh Checks, vouchers good for additional merchandise during the same visit.

Recruiting younger consumers and improving the marketing skills of vendors and managers are among the goals of the Farmers’ Market Alliance of Western Pennsylvania(www.farmersmarketalliance.com), which provides assistance with establishing market Web sites.

The Federation of Massachusetts Farmers’ Markets has been in existence since 1978. One of its unique services is a mediation program to facilitate conflict resolution. Its market management program fully operates six member markets. Management services such as budget administration, fee collection, and placing managers and venders may be arranged as are appropriate to individual venues.

North Dakota Farmers’ Market and Growers’ Association (www.ndfarmersmarkets.com) provides members with online resources, such as grant information. As with many of its sister organizations, it publishes an online market listing for consumers.

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping and agriculture. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.