A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Starting Your Own Local Farmerís Market

by Leslie Berliant

Anybody that has been reading my posts knows that I am slightly obsessed with farms and farmerís markets. As if the local, organic produce werenít enough, they also provide me the opportunity to circumvent the obscene and wasteful packaging that has turned the American food supply into a series of logos and corporate advertisements, as well as a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.

I spoke with my friend Danny Meyer recently, who started a farmerís market in West Los Angeles and is now starting a local farm stand in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and to the Director of the West L.A. market, Nathalie Deschatres, to find out how one goes about starting a farmerís market.

Know the Law

The establishment of the now ubiquitous farmerís markets in California was not easy, though. It came after a protracted and heated political battle with food distributors and grocers fighting to retain their middle man status and citizens and farmers trying to do away with them. As a result, there are strict regulations through the California Department of Food and Agriculture concerning Certified Farmerís Markets in the state. After farm inspection, the County Agricultural Commissioner issues yearly ďCertified Producer CertificatesĒ to the farmers. These certificates list everything that the farmer grows, how much of it and during what season. Only what is listed on the certificate can be sold at a Certified Farmers Market. Each state has its own laws governing farmerís markets, so start by researching the laws in your state.

In California, a Certified Farmersí Market (CFM) is a location approved by the county agricultural commissioner where certified farmers offer for sale only those agricultural products they grow themselves. California Certified Farmersí Markets are operated in accordance with regulations established in 1977 by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. The benefit for small farmers is to provide an outlet especially suited to moving smaller volumes of produce. CFMís also allow farmers to sell field run produce not restricted to pack and grade standards. This enables the farmer to sell tree ripened fruit which is too delicate for the packing and shipping process. It also increases profits for the farmers because of the cost savings. For the consumer, this means that produce available at a farmers market is fresher, tastier and has retained more of its nutrients due to short field-to-consumer time.

Location, Location, Location

Danny first came up with the idea to start a farmerís market because of the space. He was walking around and discovered a great space at the West L.A. Civic Center. It had an internal courtyard surrounded by government buildings and it was just sitting there unused and deteriorating. The space is actually very cool, with a late 40ís art deco design and a beautiful stage. Being a musician, he first thought that it would be great for playing music and having a concert series. Then he started to think about what else could be done to utilize the space and have an excuse for the concert series. And so was born a vision of a weekly farmers market/concert series.

Danny suggests having a number of locations in mind and basing your decision on how much support you can get from the people who control that venue. That support is more important than the location and can be critical to getting help with zoning issues as well as getting freebies like free power usage.

Do Your Research

Visit other farmerís markets, including those that are successful and those that are not in order to find out what works and what doesnít. Danny suggests that you may even want to consider starting with a farm stand and one or two farmers with a variety of produce in order to establish a clientele base before you develop a full-on market. This is the plan right now for the market they are establishing in D.C.

Establish a Non-profit Entity or Get Your City To Be a Sponsor

In California, Farmers markets can only be run by one of 3 entities: a non-profit, a government entity or a farmer.. The non-profit route is a bit more difficult. In Danny and Nathalieís case, it took about a year to establish the West L.A. Cultural Association, the non-profit that sponsors the market. In Santa Monica, where we have 4 very successful markets, they are city sponsored which allowed them to lose money for quite a few years without worrying about sustainability while they developed their farmers and clients.

A few words of advice from Danny and Nathalie about setting up the non-profit:

* Set it up broadly to be able to do other cultural things like parades and music events at schools which allows you to do more outreach

* When applying to the IRS for non-profit status, you will get dinged if you put the word ďmarketĒ in there, so avoid it. In their case, they ended up getting a slightly different designation which does not allow them to accept tax free donations because of the word ďmarketĒ.

* Get help creating the non-profit from someone that has done it before. They know what to say and how to deal with the IRS.
- Since farmers market are not that numerous, compared to other non-profits, IRS agents dealing with your case may not be familiar with how things should be handled. A tax accountant that has set up nonprofits before should be able to navigate this for a low cost and minimal headache

All Politics, All the Time

You have to deal with federal, state, county and city governments to get final approvals. Be prepared to get to know your council members, county supervisors and other politicos. Food safety is a big deal, as is any use of public land. Make sure that you enjoy the political process and the schmoozing that comes with it. And remember that the schmoozing doesnít stop once the market is up and running, you need to be sure to keep those politicians supportive and on your side.

Network, Network, Network

According to Danny, getting the city on board and engaging the local community was the most time consuming aspect. They worked closely with their City Council representative and were able to get his support. They also worked with the West L.A. Citizenís Association and helped to establish a local Neighborhood Council. In addition, they engaged the local Chamber of Commerce to support the market, and they were later helpful in terms of advertising it. Once their council representative was on board, they were able to leverage his support to get the needed street closures for the market.

In addition, they engaged the local Senior Center which is located next to that space and had the keys to the Civic Center that they wanted to use. The Senior Center director was very supportive and even let them hang banners from the building in order to advertise the market, at no charge.

Danny said that once you start, you will find that there are some really cool people that will just naturally gravitate toward the project and want to help.

Be Prepared To Spend Some Green To Sell Some Greens

Danny and Nathalie put in about $10,000 of their own money, which it took them a year to recoup. Among the expenditures:

* Buying and installing an industry grade sink with hot water accessible to vendors

* Non-profit incorporation

* Posters, banners, flyers and direct mailings to neighborhood
- Eventually, they offset the cost of direct mailings by selling ad space in the flyers to local businesses

Meet the Farmers

In order to get farmers on board, Nathalie went to other markets to chat with farmers and the market managers to find out who they would recommend.

Do it for Love, Not Money

Danny and Nathalie both said that the bottom line is that market has never been financially successful. With a lot of other markets around it is hard to get people to come out consistently. At the same time, they can get vendors, but those vendors wonít stick with it if itís not immediately profitable because of other options of places to go. And customers wonít keep coming if you donít have the vendors there. In the case of the West L.A. Market, they ended up paring down to crucial people and cut the fees to vendors. The current fees are 6% of gross income from certified farmers and 10% from non-certified food stands (hot foods and drinks) and crafts people.

In addition, establishing and then running the market is very time consuming with lots of tasks all week long. Make sure that your financial estimates include compensating people for their time.

Do the Madison Avenue Shuffle

Getting people to come to a new market is critical in order to keep the farmers and therefore keep the customers coming back. They advertised through:

* Flyers

* Targeted mailers

* Paid for by selling ad space in the mailers to local businesses

* Went door to door to local businesses and announced through the Chamber of Commerce

* Ads cost $250 - $1000 and included ad space plus, for some, 3 months free booth space at the market

* Outdoor Banners - Made and installed themselves

Nathalie also suggests educating people on the importance of buying local, fresh and organic in order to build your following. Let people know about the improved safety, health and environmental impact of the produce they buy at the farmerís market.

Bottom Lining It

* The key is to make it be sustainable. Start small with something that can consistently go on and on and then see if the market can support more.

* Work with the neighborhood council or community groups and get a commitment from them that they will come out every week and support the market. If you can get 20 good customers that will come out every week, they will be your sustaining group of people and help spread the word.

* Make sure to cast a really wide community net and know the politics of the area (community groups, churches, etc.)

* Make sure you have someone on board that likes the political process

* Be a bit of a pessimist about the financials.
- While the West L.A. Farmerís Market is a total success from the community point of view and in terms of revamping the space, it is not successful from a financial point of view.
- Danny suggests looking at the numbers and not getting too carried away with the community aspect.


Books: How to Start a Farmers Market

* The New Farmersí Market, Farm-Fresh Ideas for Producers, Managers & Communities, by Corum, Rosenzwieg, and Gibson (2001), published by New World Publishing.

* Farmers Market Management Series Volume 1: Starting a New Farmers Market
Other resources:

* USDA: Farmer Direct Marketing

From Celsias.com Ė November 2007


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