There was a time when I cultivated tomatoes over acres, not in small pots on windowsills. I now make my home in Brooklyn and have no backyard, front yard, or rooftop to speak of. But in college I spent my summers riding in the back of pickup trucks; weeding fields; and selling tomatoes and peppers, blueberries and yellow squash at farmers markets' throughout the D.C. area. Back at school, friends and I yearned for food that didn't originate in the dining hall so we founded a highly successful biweekly farmers' market. I don't claim to have the wisdom of full-time farmers, but as a former farm worker and market manager, and as an active market go-er and home cook, I feel that I know a thing or two about what makes a good farmers' market.
It's a good time to start talking about what makes a good market because there's never been a better time for farmers' markets: Food consciousness is at an all-time high around the country, and President Obama is creating serious buzz with his annoucement that he'd like to see a White House farmers' market.
Markets succeed and fail for specific reasons. If you're a loyal shopper, it's good to think about what goes into your local market and what it takes to keep it going. If you're working toward building a stronger community food system that supports local food and preserves farmland, you need to consider what will create a stable, financially viable market. Whether you're looking to start a farmers' market in your neighborhood or you want to improve the one you've already got, here are some important issues to think about.
Farmers' Markets Should ...
1. Be 'Producer-Only'
At a producer-only market, vendors are required to grow, raise, or make what they sell. Farmers' markets are a place for local food, as in grown within 125 miles. If you live in Virginia, that does not include bananas or avocados. Believe me, I had people regularly ask for them at our market. Producer-only farmers' markets do not permit middlemen, such as "truck farmers" who buy from large buying clubs such as Costco or other farmers and resell those goods to consumers.
2. Have Rigorous Rules About Local Food, Within Reason
That salsa vendor might make delicious guacamole, but it doesn't belong at an East Coast farmers' market. Food in value-added products (baked goods, jam, cider, ice cream, etc.) should be regulated and monitored.
If at a farmers' market in New York a farmer is required to grow his own apples, then the baker at the stand next door should be not using apples from Washington State in his pies. Of course some things, like salt and flour, cannot be acquired locally.
Buying local when possible keeps things on an even playing field and leads to partnerships between vendors. If you have qualms about a certain product, don't hesitate to bring it up with whomever is running the market.
3. Have Ubiquitous and Informative Signage
Vegetable varieties and prices should be clearly labeled. If there's not written information, ask. Let your farmers know you're interested in knowing more about their products. No one knows the product better than they do. Unless they have a line 20 people deep, they'd probably love to chat with you.
4. Encourage Competition and Diversity
We don't just shop at farmers' markets because it's a nice way to spend a Saturday morning, we go because the food is better and deals can be had when food is in season. Encourage your local market to recruit new vendors. Competition is good for everyone. No one stand attracts the big crowds; a variety of vendors working together are what makes a successful market. Multiple vendors selling overlapping product means quality and value have to be kept up. Having as wide an array of products as possible--fruits, vegetables, herbs, flowers, plants, meat, game, dairy, poultry, eggs, fish, game, honey, jams and baked goods--means you can pick up most of dinner in one place.
5. Be Professionally and Independently Managed
Farmers don't just magically agree to be in one place at one time and then, voilà, a farmers' market is born. Professional management, such as for-profit, nonprofit, or government groups, ensures a market is run like a business. Of course, professional management comes with a fee (often a percentage of vendors' sales for the day), but it keeps things fair for both consumers and vendors. Management decisions are made independently of farmers, consumers, landlords, and local businesses but for the good of all.
Good market management recruits producers, sets standard rules, reads through vendor applications, conducts farm inspections, runs educational programs, lines up market music, and publicizes the market. They also help smooth over squabbles. I've seen farmers yell at each other over who is in whose tent-pole space, and it's not pretty.
6. Run in Winter
Shoppers should have access to processed foods, such as heirloom tomato sauce, cider, peach jam, dried mushrooms, dried peaches, and pickled beets, in nontraditional market months. It helps everyone extend their local eating season and also trains shoppers to realize that good tomatoes just aren't available in February.