We’re at the halfway point of our second season at the Champaign Farmers’ Market, and it feels like a fitting time to reflect on the question at the heart of National Farmers’ Market Week celebrations: why do I love my market?
The job of a market manager has turned out to be quite an eclectic mix. We need to be experts on event planning, municipal ordinances, health department regulations, customer service, conflict resolution, marketing, food safety, fundraising, graphic design, accounting, and a host of other skills (and we need to be prepared to lug equipment around in all kinds of weather conditions). It can be incredibly frustrating to put hours into planning innovative events to help boost sales, only to have it all undone by a thunderstorm or a heat wave. You’re never really comfortable about how a particular market day will go until it gets underway and the weather appears to be cooperating or the crowds start to materialize. Nevertheless, I do love my market, and I do love being able to be a part of making it happen. And when I really think about it, the two main reasons I love it are the vendors and the patrons.
(I know what you’re thinking; you were sure one of those reasons would be the food. And of course the food is wonderful and the driving force behind a market, but when it comes to managing a market, love for the food isn’t quite enough in my book.)
I started working with farmers’ markets kind of by accident. I was teaching at a local community college and saw an ad for a summer position at the big Saturday market just a block from where I lived. I thought a little extra income would be handy, but mostly I was happy for a job that forced me to spend a big chunk of my Saturdays outside (I was feeling a bit cooped up teaching all summer). Plus, there was the added benefit of getting there at the start and getting first dibs on the best produce. That’s what I usually told people was my favorite part of the job, and I won’t deny, picking up the first strawberries or peaches or blueberries when they first start to appear at market is definitely a major perk. But the more I got to know the vendors, the more I came to understand and appreciate everything they put into the market.
As a patron, I think we sometimes feel like a market is a nice, happy, social time for everyone involved. We don’t see the hours of labor that goes into planning and harvesting, and setting up. We don’t know about the disappointment if a vendor is left with a table full of product that won’t hold until the next market. We don’t understand the risk that can go into selling at a market. What we do see are vendors who are excited to tell you about their products, who enjoy the connection with customers. As cheesy as it may sound, this experience really does make their produce, dairy, eggs, meat, bread feel more valuable, knowing that I’m supporting the farmers and artisans who produced it directly. The more I’ve learned about what they put into the crops they sell, the more I understand that a farmers’ market isn’t “overpriced” just because it might be a little more expensive than a supermarket (and market prices are not necessarily higher than the grocery store anyway!). It truly does have more value, to the farmer, to the consumer, and to the community (not to mention way better taste and freshness).It’s not all smiles and rainbows every week, but especially working to get a new market off the ground, I’ve been so grateful for the hard work, excitement, and commitment of our vendors. It can be very hard on the market manager to see an off day where weather is a mess, or sales are down despite good patron turnout, or for some reason the people just don’t come out. For us a market isn’t just a symbolic entity, a sign that our community is hip and into trendy local food; it’s a serious investment of time and resources and energy and hope. And when vendors who might be struggling to build a customer base or even losing money still thank us for the work we put into building the market, it’s very touching. Farmers’ market farmers are good people.
The other main reason I love working at a market is the chance to help people get access to great food. The excitement of patrons as they arrive or when they’ve found a product they’re excited about is so great to see. Particularly when it comes to people who thought a farmers’ market was out of reach for them. We’ve been working hard to make help everyone in the community know that our market is for everyone. It’s not some yuppie, fancy place to shop, not just Whole Foods in a parking lot. We want everyone to feel welcome, whether they are a superchef foodie type, or someone who rarely ever cooks a vegetable. Farmers’ markets can have such an impact on struggling communities and neighborhoods, and we are determined to make sure our market is no exception. So far this season we have already given out over $1,200 in matching funds to help SNAP recipients expand their food budgets. That’s more than we gave out in our entire first season. Watching customers return each week due to the program, or stop back by our tent to show us all the great stuff they bought really does make it all worthwhile, because not only is that an extra $1,200 that our community members didn’t have before to spend on food, it’s also $2,400 that they’ve now spend with the farmers. Research is showing that not only does shopping at a farmers’ market have a stronger economic impact on the farmers themselves, but it significantly benefits the local economy overall. So that investment in helping struggling families in turn put more money directly into the pockets of our farmers, which in turn stimulated our Champaign-Urbana economy. We all win, not just the patrons, not just the vendors.
So this is why I love my market, for the community.