Beginning in October 2009, the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) assembled a group of their board members to answer the question: What is a farmers market? The FMC Definition Task Force investigated existing markets, their self-proscribed labels and their connection to local farmers to help find an answer, releasing the result this past May. The definition that took shape through their extensive efforts states:
A farmers market operates multiple times per year and is organized for the purpose of facilitating personal connections that create mutual benefits for local farmers, shoppers and communities. To fulfill that objective farmers markets define the term local, regularly communicate that definition to the public, and implement rules/guidelines of operation that ensure that the farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced.
Jeff Cole, chair of the Farmers Market Coalition Definition Task Force, answers a few questions about the project and its future implications. The owner and operator of Silvermine Farm in Sutton, Mass., Cole is also the Executive Director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, a position he has held since 2000.
A Conversation with Jeff Cole
Q: How did your process of developing the definition begin and who was involved?
A: It began with our membership asking us what a farmers market might be defined as. At the same time, the FMC board came to understand that federal, state, and local authorities were struggling with defining a farmers market as well. The full board and membership were involved at the outset. After over a year of formal and informal member and board discussion in October of 2009 the board felt there had been enough research and input to assign the work to a task force for dedicated consideration.
Q: The FMC Task Force found that a core value of the farmers market system is to support farms and farmers. As a ninth generation farmer, how do you think this definition will help farmers to enter and stay in direct-marketing local food systems and, in general, support their sustainability? Or, more simply, how do you believe this definition will impact the future of farming?
A: We found that a core value inherent in farmers markets is to support local farms’ and farmers’ entrance into the local food system, as well as to contribute to their sustainability. This is because farmers markets simultaneously serve the needs of shoppers, communities, and farmers. There is no success without doing so and thus sustenance of the system itself and each of its elements- farmer, shopper, and community becomes the core value.
This definition is just the first step in putting in writing some critical societal values. I call it food with a face. It allows farmers and other individuals in our society to align their values, and to use a localized economic system for mutual benefit. In other words, successful farmers markets provide us all with opportunities to help each other thrive. Farmers, most of whom have a primary mission to grow flavorful and nutritious food, need a marketing system that allows them to sell that food in a manner that sustains the farm, the farmer, and all the benefits they provide to society. The future of farming is impacted by reinforcement of a system that serves people and takes power away from corporate giants, placing power back in shoppers’ hands- where it belongs in an economic system such as we have in the U.S.
Q: By focusing on the mission of farmers markets, FMC has established a broad definition to follow. Why was it important to leave the details for the local level?
A: Every farmers market is a unique and inseparable blend of farmer, shopper, and community. Each must be free to establish details of operation that address their unique needs. Yet there are still general principles and basic services that farmers markets must provide to be useful in facilitating mutual sustainability and in bringing control back to individuals in a community. We hope the definition meets those criteria, even if it is not perfect.
Q: An array of interests, including increased political and financial support and the lessening of consumer confusion, drove the research conducted by the Task Force. Why are these considerations particularly poignant at this time?
A: As a society, we have finally re-awoken to the fact that food production, and control of it, is critically important to our personal, social, and economic health. We now generally see the vast ill effects of our past food systems and I think at some level we understand that individual choice and control (versus corporate control) is required to create the healthful checks and balances needed in a complex and thriving society such as we enjoy. Yet some food corporations have seen the shift in society and have decided to cloud the system by co-opting the term, which goes against a basic tenet of most farmers market systems- clarity and honesty. So at the beginning of this year, I wrote a piece called ‘What’s in a Name?’ for the market beet, FMC’s newsletter, outlining some of the challenges faced by the farmers market sector stemming from recent efforts by retailers to use the ‘farmers market’ term to their advantage.
Q: What were some of the most surprising discoveries made during the process that could impact the sustainability of local food systems? How might the process inform future investigations seeking to adequately represent farmers markets?
A: Most surprising to me was how vastly varied in operational details farmers markets are, and how passionate about their solutions (systems) individual markets are. Second most surprising was how difficult it is to be clear and yet short and simple when communicating a definition. For example, coming from a state where farmers markets are almost universally producer only, I took our phrase “farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced” to mean that a farmers market may have other types of vendors in it such as bakers, cheese makers who are not farmers, or even non food producers, not that produce resellers are allowed. But our definition has sparked an interesting and appropriate debate over what that phrase means, could mean, and what values we are really trying to communicate. Hopefully, once the universal values are further established, we will find the correct and simple terms to communicate it clearly. And maybe that means we embrace diversity among markets by beginning to define different types of farmers markets. However for me there is one clear floor to our system – no farmers, no farmers market.
Q: How might this new definition affect the relationship between market managers and the local farmers?
A: I hope it improves the understanding between farmers and managers about their shared values, and allows them both to do a better job of communicating those values to each other, as well as to their shoppers. Participants in any farmers market share some core values, so I hope the language we have offered will engender transparency about the areas where there may not be full agreement, so that they can work together towards a shared long-term vision and market sustainability.
Q: What are the next steps with the definition? How do you think this definition can be used in shaping the future of farmers markets in America?
A: Next steps are to continue to establish mutual core values and to refine the definition accordingly. We see the definition not solely as an end unto itself, but an impetus to better understanding within our sector, as well as a pathway to mutual support with the public at large. The best outcome of this process for the future of farmers markets is continued dialogue that brings forth action that allow each farmers market to best serve the needs of its locality, which is the basic recipe for sustainability.