Occupy Pearl Street

Farmers Market Stories From the Trenches

by Rosie DeQuattro

“Oh, wow, yellow watermelon—I want one!”

“Where’s the corn from?”

“I love the customers here. There’s a lot of them—I love that part.”

“Why aren’t there more local farms here?”

“Why do customers ask for stuff that’s not in season?”

“Feels like it’s more expensive because we’re spending cash.”

“Customers here are huge about bringing their own bags.”

“Are your bagels made with eggs? Answer: “No, just the egg bagels.”

“We love this market!”

Happy shoppers. Sold-out vendors. That’s the Acton Boxborough Farmers Market (ABFM). I am part of the Leadership Board of the market, and also one of the market managers. We have just closed the books on our third season. And by all accounts, from vendors, shoppers and the community at large, we’ve been a success. We easily filled up our cozy village location with vendors and farmers, most of whom will be back in the spring. We have earned recognition from and the respect of other farmers markets. And it seemed we were blessed by Zeus with a three-year streak of mostly clement Sunday mornings. But, as with most successful enterprises, the devil’s in the details—and the details are legion.

In the summer of 2008, the year leading up to the ABFM’s first season, I answered an announcement in our local weekly: Anyone interested in starting a farmers market in Acton should call Jennifer Taylor (now Campbell). Campbell was 23, lived with her boyfriend in Acton and loved shopping at farmers markets—why not have one in Acton, she decided. Full of youth and energy, she campaigned around town. She distributed surveys at Acton’s popular Oktoberfest. The survey asked the public’s preferences for day of the week, how much shoppers were willing to spend and what products shoppers would most likely buy at a farmers market.

She talked to growers and fishers and government officials. She received a good response from a mass e-mail she sent out to farmers listed on the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture’s website. Campbell also found a solid ally in Jeff Cole at the Federation of Mass Farmers Markets (aka Mass Farmers Markets or MFM). “They were great,” said Campbell enthusiastically. “And they still continue to help us.” MFM supports markets with services such as offering liability insurance at affordable rates and helping to find vendors who are looking for markets. Even today, when a question comes up at the ABFM that no one seems to be able to answer, someone calls Mass Farmers Markets.

From Campbell’s initial effort emerged a group of committed individuals. We deemed ourselves the Leadership Board (LB) and took on the quotidian tasks of board, staff and volunteer. We were 11 members strong and we fanned out with to-do lists to smooth the way for a successful 2009 market launch. We were a disparate group—among us, a clinical laboratory technician, a finance auditor and a rocket scientist. We ranged in age from 24 to 60. We bonded over a common interest in promoting local farming, in educating the public about the benefits of eating healthy food and over a shared desire to inspire community in Acton.

We pretty much hold by those same principles today, except that now our leadership board numbers five.

Oh, that life could be as simple as it seems to be in Barre. The Barre Farmers Market started 30+ years ago when four farmers got together to sell their extra produce. Market Master Mark Cooley took over the now-40-vendor market from his father, Earl Cooley, who ran it for 17 years. Nowadays, the elder Cooley, 87, fills in when his son needs a break. Since its inception, the Barre Farmers Market has had only three market masters. Vendors are assigned to the same spots year after year. “Ninety percent of our vendors come back every year,” Cooley tells me. He once suspended a vendor for two weeks for selling before the opening bell. “Follow my rules or you can leave,” Cooley told the vendor. The vendor left.

But back in Acton, we were lobbying our Board of Selectmen for usage permits and liability insurance, our Health Department for food licensing permits, our police and fire officials about road-closure restrictions and emergency accessibility. We had decided on Pearl Street, a quiet, partly shady public street in West Acton, and we contacted the owners of all the properties bordering the street. Immediate neighbors were three residences (all willing to share Sunday mornings with the market), a public library (whose circulation increased dramatically when it began opening during the market), a Christian Science church whose morning service coincided with our market hours (we promised to keep our noise-level very low until services were finished) and a busy parking lot shared by several village businesses and apartment dwellers (which would become the parking lot for some of our vendors’ trucks).

When a neighbor complained that her Sunday morning quiet was affected we attained permission to prohibit parking on her side of the street. Another nearby resident saw no problem with the market’s location (right across from her front yard) because the whole farmers market concept was a “trend du jour,” as she put it, and wouldn’t last. But mostly we had the town’s and the neighborhood’s support.

There are 247 farmers markets in Massachusetts and seemingly as many ways to administer one. There are farmers markets at Agways, at farm stands, Garden Centers, as a part of a larger nonprofit (Roslindale Farmers Market is sponsored by the nonprofit Roslindale Village Main Street), through municipalities and privately. Most are volunteer-run—meaning no pay, like ours. Some market managers receive a little pay, usually just a stipend, like Lexington’s.

David Webber is the farmers market coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR), another useful organization for nascent farmers markets. He can guide you through the government licensing processes, help you maintain your website, train you in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and on the dreaded EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) machine (both are implements of the food stamp system).

He’s a patient listener and will be your new BF (best friend.) In our phone interview, Webber said a few markets do fail every year. The biggest mistake new market organizers make is to fail to research supply and demand. In other words, ask yourself what already exists for local food. Will you be competing with farm stands? Are there other farmers markets nearby? Are there enough local farmers eager to sell their products at your market? Is there enough product to go around? Webber told me that in 2011 alone, eight new farmers markets have come online.

“In 2001 there were 101 farmers markets in the state; in 2011, 247 not counting the increasing number of winter markets.” In 2010, there were 15 winter markets; this year there are 20. However, to supply the huge increases in venues, there was a 27% increase in the number of new, small farms from 2002 to 2007. And new in 2011, since State law now allows Massachusetts wineries to sell their bottles of wine and to give out samples of their wines at farmers markets, wineries too are looking for farmers markets to sell their products. Good news for farmers markets.

Farmers markets perform a crucial balancing act. We are constantly confronted with tough questions. How to showcase an attractive mix of products that will be sustainable and provide a profit to the vendors? How do we define local when there are not enough farms right in town to supply a weekly market? In Acton, the in-town farms weren’t interested in participating in the market because of staffing (they would have to hire someone to run the stall) and scheduling (some of them didn’t want to work on Sundays). How many all-produce vendors is too many in a market? Will the increase in competition dilute profits? What about fish and seafood? Not all farm-raised is bad. What about consumer demand?

The Lexington Farmers Market (LFM) defines local as Massachusetts. However, if a farmer/vendor from out of state approaches the market with a quality product the market needs, the product will be considered. Seafood is a perfect example. Like us, LFM struggles with being a producer-only market and with balancing that with consumer demand. Globe Fish is one of the most successful vendors at Lexington’s market. It’s not a fisherman selling what he just caught, but rather a company that buys fresh fish and seafood at wholesale to sell at several farmers markets. Co-Market Manager Lori Deliso said, “Some days, there’s a line 40 deep of customers waiting for the market to open so they can buy fish. Globe brings them in and then they shop for lots of other stuff at the market. They are a huge draw.” At ABFM, we’ve learned to “adjust” our expectations to allow farmers to sell products from other farms, to allow some prepared foods and to craft a market that has a mix of products that will attract shoppers and give them reasons to return every week.

Pearl Street in West Acton is big enough for 21 vendor spots, end to end. It’s tight. Some vendors are weekly; some come on intermittent, pre-determined dates. Some want 10 feet; some require 15. Occasionally a vendor doesn’t show up or, conversely, one shows up unexpectedly (!). Keeping track of who comes when, and where to place them each time is a major challenge. Here are some of the actual notes I’ve taken during the three seasons of the ABFM. They might give you a sense of the panic that sets in on occasion.

• Received pasta vendor’s application and full fee for season, but there’s no more room for him on the street.

• How do we split up working on the 19 Sundays of the market, and still have a life?

• An anonymous box arrived at my door today: 4 cupcakes, 12 meringue cookies and a blueberry tart. Is this an application from a baker!?

• Sandwich boards vs. banners. Metal frames vs. wood; Doodle vs. e-mail; Dropbox vs. Excel spreadsheets. Help!

• How many T-shirts would you order in YXL, YM, YS, or how about adult XXL?

• Two weeks before opening day and so much to do yet. How do we get everything done with one board member in Greece, one in Toronto and one deep into planning a wedding?

• Board members are dropping like flies. Not everyone cares if the ink used to print our logo on the shopping bags is soy-based, or if the bags are 100% cotton, organically grown in the US of A.

• How did this happen: We have 15 vendors and 13 spots?

• The bagel vendor is using Styrofoam!

• Is that SWORDFISH he’s selling?

Our rule-by-committee approach wouldn’t work well in Fitchburg. There, it’s a one-woman show: Sheila Lumi. By day, Lumi works as community coordinator for the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program for the City of Fitchburg. The rest of the time she is volunteer extraordinaire, both leader and worker bee of the Fitchburg Farmers Market Association. Lumi will stop just short of selling her soul to support her local farmers and get more of their good food onto the tables of Fitchburg families. She’s done it all—the permitting, the signage, the partnerships, the SNAP administration. And she is present at every market day.

“It’s just me. Help is not something I can depend on. So many get excited and then never show up to do anything,” she says with equanimity. Originally a two-vendor operation, the Fitchburg Farmers Market Association now has a floating number of vendors, anywhere from seven to 24, and two locations. Lumi is about to launch the first winter market, which will operate on the first Thursday of each month, January–June 2012. She feels confident. “I feel that it’s really making a difference in Fitchburg.”

And let’s not forget the huge effort farmers themselves make in order to participate in a farmers market—many of them traveling to multiple markets. One of our regular farm vendors is Applefield Farm in nearby Stow. Ray Mong has owned and operated the 25-acre farm and farm stand for 27 years. He sells at three farmers markets.

The process of coming to market takes place over the course of several days. Mong and his team of two, sometimes up to four, pick the produce, wash it all (the potatoes, the onions, the garlic, the carrots) and pack it into crates. Early on the morning of the market, the crates are loaded onto a truck and driven to Acton or Maynard or Harvard. Unloading and setting up the seductive display of Applefield’s bounty, not to mention the canopies and tables and weights, takes about an hour and a half; packing up, a little less. But then there’s the unloading back at the farm. Is it worth it?

“It’s huge,” Mong says. “We sell more at a farmers market in three hours than all day at the farm stand.” He tells me the reason is because he can charge retail prices at a farmers market, as opposed to the wholesale prices he charges to his restaurant and store accounts. Selling at farmers markets also drives what he’ll plant.

“I grow more items that I know will sell at farmers markets.” To be profitable “you kinda have to have it all.” Farmers need multiple farmers markets, retail food shops and restaurants. And you can’t just sell veggies. “A big part of our business is the stuff you can’t eat”—flowers, hanging baskets, gardening supplies, cards, etc. And the markets provide great visibility, he adds.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my three years (and counting) of running a farmers market it is to cherish and nurture volunteers. The kiss of death to an all-volunteer enterprise is when members feel unnecessary. The division of labor and responsibility is a big and sometimes delicate issue. For example in our loosely tasked division of labor, it’s often the case that the strongest voice assumes the most agency. It is the main cause of our attrition. One exiting member of our Leadership Board said she felt some board members wanted her for her muscle alone, and weren’t “interested in new ideas of how the market should be run.” Another ex-member said she “left the board because I was not needed. The founders … were not interested in board members who would question or suggest alternatives … there was no space to participate in the policy-making—but rather they wanted worker bees.” We have some work to do yet, but we’ll get there.

Deliso, from the Lexington market, said, “The first three years were pretty rough. For a while there it basically took up a major piece of my life.” She was putting in 25 to 30 hours a week on farmers market business. After about four years, the market management realized how much work it was and how many people were needed to run the thing and ensure its sustainability. Both market managers in Lexington draw a small salary. “I think it’s crazy not to pay anyone—it’s such a lot of work,” Deliso says. The market has grown to about 35 vendors plus a number of stalls for artisans and community groups. At this point, the managers have some breathing space. Deliso’s husband even noticed how much less time she was spending dealing with farmers market issues. In 2010, the 7-year-old market won a Best of Boston award. Deliso credits the vibrancy and long-term success of the market to its volunteers. “We have 62 regular volunteers. I feel so wonderful … so fortunate to have these folks come forward.” She says volunteers seek her out through various channels, with great ideas; and that “as long as it fits our mission and we make sure they will actually do it,” the market will support them entirely. At the LFM, volunteers are definitely not just worker bees. They are Lexington residents, college and high school students and senior citizens who serve the market as events planners for both children and adult activities. They spearhead the bike-to-market day events. They coordinate activities with the public library. And they serve as technology wonks and sandwich board makers, too.

I would be remiss if I didn’t relate two more brief stories that illustrate what farmers markets are up against. These stories traveled quickly through farmers’ and farmers markets’ networks, and are now used as lessons in the training of new market managers. At the time, however, the pedagogical value of the incident was lost on us.

The first story is the Tomato Incident. On opening day of our first season, a customer alerted us that one of our farmer/vendors was selling produce not grown by that farm. On the second market day a sticker with the initials “D.R.” (for Dominican Republic) turned up in the tomato bin of said farmer. A small squadron of ABFM Leadership Board members visited the “farm” only to find no actual farmland. Confronted by the nasty owner, the LB members were told to look in Northborough for the real farmland. Little did the owner suspect that the members would indeed pursue their cause to Northborough. Once there it was even more evident that the “farm” was a purchaser of produce, not a producer. The board sent a written notice to the vendor expelling him from the market lineup. A few irate phone calls ensued, but apparently this vendor had been outed at other markets and by other farmers. The offending vendor disappeared from our market.

And then there was the Peach Caper. During our second season, 2010, former LB member Dia Chigas bought a bag of luscious-looking peaches from our fruit vendor. At home, Chigas’s husband was about to bite into one of the peaches when a pesky sticker got in the way. This time it had the name “Georgia” on it. Chigas spoke to the owner of the fruit farm who explained that his grandson from Georgia had been visiting and had brought peaches. The workers who loaded the trucks for market that day must have mixed up his grandson’s peaches with local ones. (Yeah, right). But we decided to give him another chance. Then, a vendor in the stall next to the offender questioned the huge amount of blueberries on sale so early in the season. That was enough to send the truth squad out to the offender’s farm and, upon finding no blueberries growing, called his bluff. Embarrassed, the vendor dropped out of the market.

The moral of the stories: Know your farmers, thank your farmers market volunteers and kiss your market managers. And stay tuned for season four!

Rosie DeQuattro is a regular contributor to Edible Boston. By the time you read this, the ABFM will have closed for the season and you can find Rosie reclining on her living room sofa, reading a novel and eating (local) bonbons.