A weekly farmers’ market requires daily attention. Obviously, the farmers, bakers, and cooks work hard to provide an abundance of products for your weekly market, in hopes that the community will come to shop. Those organizing the market also work diligently throughout the week to make the event run smoothly. When I managed Northside Farmers' Market, an advisory board employed me, guided my work, and set the vision and regulations for the market. As manager, my primary task was to increase sales opportunities for the market’s vendors. This goal required constant attention because farmers’ markets in Cincinnati struggle to attract the type of crowds that can support the number of farmers and food producers the public expects to see.
The general public may not realize all that goes on behind the scenes at a farmers’ market. Almost every farmers’ market in the city lacks a permanent home. Each week the market appears and then disappears for the next seven days. Some of my duties centered on the logistics of organizing the ephemeral event. I garnered permits and rental agreements from the city, physically set up, and then took down, signs, flags, tents, tables, and no parking signs. I juggled vendor placements throughout the season, politely asked panhandlers to leave the market area, and coordinated electricity needs.
And then there was everything else. A grocery store has a storefront that remains a reminder of the goods and services even when the store is closed. I found that we constantly needed to work to grab the attention of our customers. I coordinated music, children’s activities, cooking demonstrations, and adult and children’s cooking classes to draw new faces and build excitement around cooking with local foods. We managed alternative forms of currency too, as a way of bringing more value to the market for both customers and vendors. I wrote grants to experiment with different marketing techniques. We piloted a shuttle service to and from market to help improve food access in the neighborhood. I maintained social media, an e-newsletter, and participated in every outreach opportunity I could. It was a full time job that paid a part-time wage.
We did these extra activities, and more to keep attracting new faces to the market, as well as to hold the attention of existing customers. I felt the constant need to pull in new shoppers. While we did have a core group of shoppers that reliably showed up each week, it was really not enough.
Perhaps the rise of processed food and other conveniences has reduced the number of shoppers at farmers' markets? Twenty years ago, one farmer told me, produce sales were much higher because people cooked. When the vendors set up their booths the people may not come. Or if they come, they do not buy enough to support the farmers and the market. As people’s eating and shopping habits change, so do the duties of the market manager.
I found the work rewarding. The more I heard the stories of farmers, connected with other market managers, and met invested community members, the more I felt driven to create the best opportunities for consumers and vendors. Cincinnati has an inspiring community quietly building a more resilient food system. The Ohio Farmers' Market Network brings together markets to share resources and educational opportunities; here in Cincinnati market managers meet and create campaigns, events, and ideas to create better markets. Grants help to bring dollars to market management to try new things or increase marketing. Additionally, much work is done by other business and organizations to round out opportunities for farmers, such as Ohio Valley Food Connection’s efforts to connect farmers to grocery stores and restaurants.
You can participate by shopping at your neighborhood farmers market or frequenting restaurants and retailers that source locally. Download the CORV Local Food Guide to find a farmers’ market near you.
Ana Bird grew up on a homestead in West Virginia, and volunteered on organic farms in Europe for two years after gaining her degree in Global Cultural Studies. In Cincinnati, she managed the Northside Farmers' Market for two and half years, and now works at Produce Perks Midwest as the Statewide Program Coordinator for Ohio’s nutrition incentive program.