By Cia Morey
Last week I attended the Maryland Department of Agriculture’s (MDA) Maryland Farmers Market Conference held at the USDA Beltsville Agricultural Research Center. There were three tracks of workshops offered: Market Management 101 for new markets and folks deciding if they should start a market; the Farmers and Vendors track that provided tools and updates for farm vendors who attend markets; and the Taking your Farmers Market to Next Level track. There were so many great sessions it was difficult to decide what to attend. I ended up attending at least one session in each track but know that I missed some very interesting sessions. Although there is not enough space to cover everything I heard and learned, some of those ideas, informative facts and updates are below.
I attended a session that had three market representatives on a panel discussing why they began their markets or reinvented their markets. It was obvious they all faced challenges. One of the challenges that I’ve heard from many smaller markets is how hard it is to attract food vendors or even a baker/bakery. This panel confirmed the challenge. A prepared food vendor or a baker may try a market for a couple of weeks but if they don’t get the foot traffic, they may not continue the market for the full season. It is very important to manage expectations for not only the farm market manager, but for the establishment as well.
The Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) provides information, tools and represents farmers’ markets interest at the state and federal levels. During their session, they provided great statistics on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In 2012, participants in SNAP nationwide redeemed more than $16.5 million in benefits at farmers markets. This represents a 45% growth in one year. In the past two years, the number of farmers markets welcoming SNAP customers has increased 209%. Still, only .0025% of SNAP redemption happens at a farmers market, so there is room for growth.
A great idea to mention to committed SNAP customers at market – consider buying $100 worth of tokens from the farmers market at the beginning of month and have access to fresh produce for the entire month.
The Farm Alliance of Baltimore City was a presenter of the Maximizing Time and Sales Workshop. The Farm Alliance is a network of urban farms working to increase the viability of urban farming and improve access to urban grown foods. They share a vendor stand at a local farmers market, have farm stands in and around their community and some farms sell directly to restaurants and have their own CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture). Maya Kosok shared how the farms prepare for market day by beginning in mid-week. They use Google docs to fill in an inventory sheet so each farm knows what others are bringing. One farm has a cold storage area that is padlocked and farmers bring their products to the area the Friday before the Saturday market day. One of the farms transports everything to market. The Alliance agrees ahead of time on quantity and costs. If they decide on bunches instead of weights, each farm is given different color bands to bunch so they know at the end of market which farms sold out. By combining to share a stand at the farmers markets, they maximize their labor effort at the market. As the saying goes, many hands make light work.
A tip that was mentioned that I thought was a great idea for any farm vendor — The Alliance has a “brag book” with pictures of each farm and on the other side a write-up of that farm. When the stand gets busy and a customer wants to ask a question, the vendor can give them the book to look through while they keep assisting with their customers. Maya said some customers look through the entire book which gives the vendor time to finish with their customer.
Lynn Rubin with University of Maryland Extension (UME) made a presentation on Market to Mealtime, a program that teaches consumers how to choose, store and eat more local produce. UME actually sets up an educational display at the farmers market. They visit the vendors and see what is available at market and they work that information into their discussions with shoppers. They have recipe cards they give out and may even do a cooking demonstration with produce found at the market. Only markets that accept SNAP are eligible to have the Market to Mealtime at their market. Interested SNAP markets should contact their local UME office to see if they can schedule a visit.
And finally, one of the best new things I learned, new this year – farms that sell at a farmers market and are approved to accept the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FNMP) checks and WIC Program Fruit and Vegetable (FVC) checks are now able to accept those checks at their farm stand. They have to have a stamp number issued by Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) and they can only accept the checks if they first sell at a farmers market. The 2013 FMNP and FVC Application lists a space for the farmer to indicate where they sell. They should include all farmers markets and farm stands where they sell their produce. If you have any questions you should contact Amy Crone with MDA (410-841-5776, firstname.lastname@example.org).
MDA did a great job putting this conference together. It is nice to see familiar faces and new faces who want to learn about farmers markets.