Farmers Market Coalition (FMC)
May 2021 Impact Assessment II
Darlene Wolnik, Farmers Market Support Program Director
Diana Broadaway, Network Coordinator
Compared to pre-COVID normal, are there dimensions of your sector that have experienced a sustained increase or reduction in activity? What aspects of Pandemic disruptions or adaptations were temporary, and which appear to be longer lasting? Do any appear to be permanent?
The duration of the farmers market sector’s disruptions and adaptations varies, based on factors such as location, state-level policy support, market type, organizational and administrative structure, resource capacity, and specific changes adapted. Below we have bulleted some of the areas of increased activity (including related policy changes), reduced activity, and temporary versus longer-lasting adaptations
- SNAP sales (reported by some outlets)
- Nutrition incentive spending/redemption (reported by some outlets) – particularly in markets where incentives were increased (i.e. doubled or tripled); the recent addition (2019) of the GusNIP Training, Technical Assistance, Evaluation, and Information Center (NTAE) that provides support to the program’s grantees may also have created more capacity for those programs to shift and increase their programs
- Online sales (longer lasting)
- Staffing expenses (reported by some outlets)
- Staff turnover (reported by some outlets)
- Documentation of market procedures/guidelines
- Market and market organization collaborations
Because of the communication from markets to their state/local agencies and elected officials, there were some changes included in the December 2020 COVID Package specific to farmers markets:
- $100 million in additional Funds for Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program with reduced match (10%) requirements
- $75 million in additional funds to the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program
- Increased funding for the WIC FMNP program to $21 million as well as additional funds to LAMP
- Most nonprofit organizations were added to the Paycheck Protection Program (this was added because of direct reports received from market and state NGOs organized as 501c5 and 501c6 entities)
Other examples of state and federal policy updates:
- Policy changes including Virginia passing legislation in spring of 2021 naming farmers markets as essential businesses. This was a priority for the Virginia Farmers Market Association (VAFMA) to achieve after markets were shut down entirely for a period in 2020. Additionally, the VAFMA team reported to its peers on FMC’s State and Network Listserv that some of their insurers told them if markets were not included in the list of business types declared as essential, they would not be covered by their liability policy. The FMC team followed up with other insurers across the US and found most honoring their market liability policies, essential declaration or not. FMC is now working with its Farmers Market Legal Toolkit partner, Vermont Law School’s Center for Agriculture and Food Systems to help research the legal scope of insurers “duty to defend.”
- Online SNAP processing is moving more quickly into the local food arena after direct communications between many market operators or state farmers market associations and their elected officials. Congress directed and provided funding to FNS to develop an online SNAP-EBT solution and Training/TA for direct marketing farmers and farmers markets.
- Vendor participation either by choice or as a result of restrictions on certain vendor types (i.e. prepared foods, crafts and other artisans, flowers, some value-added producers); generally temporary although there are reports of older vendors suggesting they will not return
- Events and other social features (e.g. music, sampling)
- Revenue from stall fees
- Volunteers (generally)
- Limited entry and socially distanced walk-up models
- Restrictions on certain vendor types
- No seating, events, or sampling allowed
- Operational shifts due to changes in infrastructure access (e.g. loss of venue and/or parking due to municipal COVID-19 restrictions or city/county led initiatives including mass COVID vaccination sites and “safe-sleeping villages” for the unhoused)
Long-lasting or permanent adaptations:
- Hybrid market models (including online pre-orders and pickup options)
- Some public health measures (e.g. handwashing stations)
- Box programs
- Software for managing online orders
- Expanding resource development around civil emergencies and natural disaster response
As we will highlight frequently in this assessment, markets across the country experienced a wide range of impacts from COVID-19 and responded in an equal variety of ways, making sector-level assessments difficult.
What types of innovations, pivots, or adaptations have proven to be the most impactful or important for your stakeholders or sector?
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted market operators’ ability to adapt quickly to changes in their environment and implement significant operational modifications in the face of uncertain public health guidelines and a general lack of state/local policy support for farmers markets. That said, the constant reactive nature of managing an open-air market during times of public health or natural emergencies has sapped many organizations capacity and may endanger their future.
Below we have highlighted the most significant innovations, pivots, and adaptations impacting our stakeholders and sector:
- Online sales; growing availability of new platforms
- Market model shifts (curbside or drive-thru pickup, delivery, limited entry for walk-up markets, box programs)
- New network development (increased communication, resource-sharing, and collaboration within sector); greater desire among some markets to build trust/community with one another rather than working in isolation (e.g. Flagship organizations)
- Brand awareness campaigns (e.g. market branded products, social media outreach, market memberships, book clubs, podcasts, etc.)
- Promotion of markets as essential services (safe way to buy groceries, support farmers, and access fresh, locally produced food via shortened supply chains)
- Mapping/evaluating assets in an effort to build community partnerships and new relationships with state and local authorities (some markets in some locations) including the unveiling of the Projects For Public Spaces/Slow Food International Market Cities initiative to analyze and support all markets in an area
- Cultivating effective conflict resolution skills, particularly as it relates to issues of free speech and ADA accommodations around mask requirements
Some markets have been able to increase their nutrition incentive programs in response to the pandemic. One such program in Vermont, Crop Cash, doubled their existing incentives through spring 2021. A winter market in Vermont was able to offer $40 in produce for every $10 spent on their SNAP card, accounting for approximately 22% of their sales over the course of the season. However, this boon in sales also posed challenges. This market moved to 100% online purchasing early in the winter season and, while SNAP customers were able to pre-order product online, payment had to be processed manually at pick-up, outdoors, sometimes in frigid temperatures, which impeded the performance of EBT processing equipment that does not always work well in extreme conditions.
This is indicative of many of the important innovations and adaptations implemented by markets where a shift to sustain vendor sales, increase food access, and/or offer multiple purchasing options often posed a new set of challenges. Some markets were able to meet these challenges head on. As the market manager of Napa Farmers Market in northern California put it, “the pandemic offers an opportunity to revise ‘business as usual’ operations and rethink or remove practices that no longer serve the organization or mission.” However, lower capacity markets have largely struggled, lacking the capital to invest in new technologies or the staffing or other resources necessary to implement new market designs and enforce safety guidelines.
Given the innovations and adaptations you’ve seen, how would you say your stakeholders and/or your sector demonstrate resilience during the pandemic?
Using the term resilience to describe farmers market operators’ actions in 2020 may not be accurate yet. Since the 1970s, mission-driven markets have prioritized one-on-one interactions allowing those new to local food to enter and use the market at their own comfort level. In 2020, market operators were forced to stress only their food access role and jettison the rest. They spent the few resources they had amassed before 2020 getting food to the most at-risk and building or maintaining a very complex contactless payment system for shoppers. Further complicating this issue, food access programs including SNAP, FMNP, and WIC were already the programs with the least amount of administrative support from their funders even though they require enormous staff time to oversee the deep organizing and financial systems involved.
In addition, market communities suffered a great deal of open hostility as they were left to their own devices to define how to manage risks for open-air spaces, even having tense exchanges with their small business vendors who often had their own take on what should be mandated and how.
As food system organizers, it may be helpful to alter our thinking around “resilience.” Often, marginalized communities are pushed into prolonged states of distress in which their ability to “survive” is defined as resilience when, in fact, it is more generally an indication that stress and exhaustion has become the norm.
Within local and regional food systems, it may be helpful to talk about it not as a finite state that is achieved and sustained as a result of some imperceptible quality attributed to that sector but as an ongoing process which involves ebb and flow, where conditions of “recovery” and “rebuilding” will inevitably be influenced by outside factors and where continued progress requires funding and policy support at all levels. All this said, the agility of markets in response to COVID should be celebrated and rewarded. This sector has proved flexible and innovative in adapting to the huge variety of changes brought by the pandemic.
What data did your sector find most useful in navigating pandemic disruptions? Please share any survey findings, sales data, or other data/metrics related work that you, your partners or stakeholders conducted during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the conversation among market operators and market organizations to the need for more robust data collection and analysis. This is taking several forms, including surveys and reporting mechanisms developed by FMC, surveys and other data collection tools developed by state associations and network organizations supporting farmers markets, and collaborative efforts with USDA-AMS to provide input regarding the development of broader USDA-funded surveys and data collection. The added support from researchers via this project has been helpful in sustaining and building those relationships for better evaluation of our sector, a primary goal of the FMC Market Support Team.
The COVID economic impact survey conducted by FMC for Summer 2020 had 461 market organizations responding in all 50 states and some territories, providing FMC with data from their markets. Our Farmers Market Support Director, Darlene Wolnik, summarized the findings from this survey in a blog post titled “How Can FMC Markets Analyze This Year”, published in December 2020. Among the most significant findings from this survey is the wide variation in economic impacts experienced by markets and producers:
- 63% of those responding to FMC’s survey said that some or all of their vendors reported increased income for the summer months of 2020. The type of vendor category that reported increased sales was highest among fruit and vegetable, followed by value-added and meat/dairy categories.
- 60% of those responding to FMC’s survey reported that some or all of their vendors reported decreased income; the type of vendor category that reported decreased sales was highest in the artisanal/crafts category, followed by value-added.
Some of these variations in sales were likely related to restrictions in vendor participation due to state and/or local guidelines as well as shifts in operational model which may have increased sales for some vendors but not others. The same survey indicated that 26% of respondents began to offer a market-level pre-ordering online platform (to select and purchase individual products), 24.5% of respondents began to operate a curbside or drive-thru model, and 17% of respondents began to operate a pre-packed market box (market aggregate) program during any or all of the market days in June, July, or August 2020.
To help farmers markets highlight the challenging work of 2020 to staff, board members, sponsors, and other stakeholders, FMC tested a new annual report for markets where they could select up to six different metrics to showcase their market in a single page graphic-style report. Markets could choose from the following list of metrics (developed based on feedback we heard from markets regarding the data points they would find most useful in explaining their work and changes to operations in 2020) and also select up to two custom metrics which the market had data for and wanted to include in the report:
General FM Market Day Metrics:
- Total Market Sales
- Total SNAP & Incentive Sales
- Total Visitors
- Total Volunteer Hours
- Total # of Vendors Supported by Market
- Total # of Market Days Held
For Markets with Curbside/Drive-Thru Models:
- Number of Cars on the Busiest Day
- Total Sales on Busiest Drive-thru Market Day
For Markets with Market Box Programs:
- Total Number of Market Boxes Distributed
- Total Sales ($ amount) from Market Boxes
For Markets with Online / Pre-ordering:
- Total Online/Pre-order Sales
Reports developed using these metrics yielded a variety of useful data, including a moderate size market in Ohio which saw $659K in total sales and an average of 742 visitors per market day from May-October 2020. Another small to midsize market in New Jersey indicated 900 hours were donated by volunteers and $64K in sales were received via their online pre-sale platform from April-November 2020. A large market in Missouri supporting 79 vendors received close to 72K visitors between March and December 2020 and saw over $2 million in estimated total sales for 2020. Another large market in Alabama received 51.5K+ total visitors between March and December and served an incredible 1,200 cars on the busiest day of their drive-thru market in 2020. FMC will be promoting these reports and showcasing the work of these markets leading up to and during National Farmers Market Week 2021 as examples of the impressive response by farmers markets to the challenges of 2020.
The pandemic also underscored the need for market operators to develop and implement a long-term budget process. In 2019, USDA-NASS estimated that only 48% of markets in the U.S. had an annual operating budget. The objective of the flagship market budget case study FMC developed with USDA-AMS for this project is to help more market organizations establish a budget process to a) assist with future planning, b) evaluate expenses to determine which reflect the organization’s mission and values and which do not, and c) build reserves to better prepare financially for disruptions like COVID-19.
In response to operational changes brought on by the pandemic, some market operators began investing additional funding in personnel/market staff. Reports from markets in California and Washington respectively indicate existing funds being shifted from other expenses (e.g. advertisements and marketing) or new funds obtained from government stimulus allocations (e.g. CARES Act funding) to personnel costs in the form of increased hours and/or new staff.
In 2020, National Farmers Market Week (NFMW) gave farmers markets a forum to promote themselves as essential services within their communities and we saw a huge presence around our FarmersMarketWeek and FarmersMarketsAreEssential hashtags on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In the blog “Reflecting on National Farmers Market Week 2020”, our Communications Coordinator states there were “nearly 5,000 downloads of NFMW-specific resources” and estimates the “social media reach of National Farmers Market Week  related content was more than 16 million, with 7,257 mentions of our hashtags or the phrase ‘National Farmers Market Week’.” We hope to increase that reach even further during NFMW 2021 by continuing to promote farmers markets as essential services and exploring the broader role of markets as agents of change within their communities.
Are there groups or sub-sections of your sector that are currently experiencing disproportionate negative impacts from pandemic-disruptions? Are there groups or sub-sectors that face disproportionate challenges in recovering or re-establishing operations as pandemic-disruptions dissipate?
The last year has revealed the increasing need for state associations and other organizations which support networks of farmers markets to have access to sustained funding and policy support for their work. COVID-19 shone a light on the capacity challenges faced by these organizations and the pressure on them to provide resources and technical assistance in times of crisis. So many of these organizations rose to that challenge in 2020, creating and making accessible hundreds of resources for their markets and even markets and larger network organizations in other states/regions. Much of this work was done with minimal guidance from state or local authorities or additional funding from public or private sources. State leaders from across the country, including states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Oregon and Washington have done a great deal of work to ensure their markets had access to materials pertaining not only to state and local public health and market operation guidelines but also resources such as market signage; preparedness plans establishing market policies and practices in response to COVID-19; weekly statewide meetings where market operators and managers share questions, ideas, and strategies; and even market census initiatives.
As of April 2021, state associations continue to grapple with evolving guidelines and demarcations around operations as “markets” versus “venues” (including music, sampling and other entertainment or recreational activities) and communicating those updates to market operators. As markets enter the spring/summer 2021 season, state and network organizations are encountering similar challenges to last year. For some, that means another season of providing guidance and recommendations to market operators with little or no support from state and local regulatory agencies. A few have even been put in the position of acting as the regulatory body, tasked with setting standards for farmers market operations in their states. This creates additional burden for these entities as administering (and attempting to enforce) these types of guidelines without the backing of government authority can be difficult, never mind the fact that these are typically low-capacity organizations lacking the staff or resources to fill this role.
State farmers market leaders are also faced with new concerns around formally defining (at the state level) transactions for local food products made fully online so as to differentiate between these sales and what is defined as a farmers market, offering traditional in-person services. Since the online sales do not offer the same social benefits, lacking a physical space or face-to-face interactions between producer and consumer, some state leaders would like to advocate for a legal distinction between the two market types.
Additionally, the 2020-21 *indoor* market season brought unique challenges for indoor market operators. In convening a community of practice around this topic in the fall of 2020, FMC struggled to determine how to help these markets with the very specific set of challenges they faced (e.g. market layout within restricted spaces, ventilation, weather/climate considerations, quick operational shifts from in-person to online models, etc.). Participants were happy to have a forum to bounce ideas off of one another and share their experiences, but FMC recognizes there is a larger need there in terms of technical assistance and policy support to assist indoor markets in preparedness for similar crises they may face in the future.
It should also be said that there are many different types of markets varying in size, location, and capacity, with different administrative structures and connections to their community. These differences can create significant disparities in how effectively a market organization is able to respond to a crisis like COVID-19.
How have questions of equity, access, diversity and inclusion shaped your sector in the past year, and what efforts (if any) are in place moving forward? Please provide as many specific examples as you are able.
Diversity, inclusion, and racial equity are issues which the agricultural sector and our food system more broadly continue to struggle with. Farmers markets in the United States remain predominantly white spaces. Farmers Market Coalition believes that if farmers markets and other direct to consumer marketing channels want to effectively combat racial inequities, we must actively work to change current structures and focus market leaders on setting goals for systemic change.
With this in mind, FMC is supporting a working group of Black food systems leaders in the development of an anti-racist toolkit for farmers markets. This toolkit will be a living document which will include content intended to encourage dialogue between market operators, staff, and their communities. The idea is that this toolkit can be used by market operators to begin the process of systems change and will be designed to be built upon with feedback and consultation from other communities. This new resource will tentatively become available by Fall 2021. The creators envision portions of this toolkit being shared through learning opportunities like workshops, conferences, and webinars; through communication tools such as blogs, newsletters, and social media; as well as through technical assistance to market operators and partner organizations in our sector. FMC will support their work by shuttling consulting requests and helping to find a permanent home for the toolkit, as well as assisting the Working Group with wide dissemination of their materials.
In addition to development of the anti-racist toolkit, individual market operators, market organizations, and state and network farmers market leaders are developing (or have previously developed) anti-racist strategies, reviewing vendor guidelines and other operational rules and at times seeking consult from outside diversity, equity, and inclusion experts and/or BIPOC food systems leaders. There is much to be done in this work and, while not comprehensive, below are some specific examples of state and network level initiatives related to this work:
- Identifying racial equity as a focus within strategic plans
- Focus on internal staff and board training, education, and professional development
- Creating diversity, equity, and inclusion and racial equity committees
- Attention to avoiding performative statements or actions
- Evaluating white-dominant norms and biases in current processes (e.g. hiring, communication, internal operations)
- Incorporating racial equity sessions/discussions into annual meetings/conferences
- Greater consideration of SNAP equity and efforts to prevent “othering” of SNAP customers at markets
- Seeking out BIPOC food systems stakeholders and leaders, inviting them into food systems leadership circles, and compensating them for their time, input
- Talking to underrepresented and underserved communities to find out who these leaders are
- Building coalitions of local and state food, farming, and policy organizations to talk about how best to address food justice in coordination with other social justice issues (e.g. income, healthcare, housing) for a particular state or municipality
- Embedding DEI and racial equity content into existing market trainings and peer networking initiatives (e.g. reading assignments, check-ins to ensure accountability)
- Reviewing job postings and descriptions to remove language and requirements (e.g. education, other credentials) which potentially create barriers or deter particular candidates from applying
- Adding pronouns to staff profiles, communications, and verbal introductions
- Evaluating wage equity and leadership diversity at the organization and market level
- In terms of policy work, looking more broadly at social and economic disparities impacting food systems beyond food access (e.g. land access, labor)
- Offering scholarships or sliding scale fees to attend conferences and trainings for individuals and organizations with limited resources/capacity
- Offering scholarships to emerging food leaders to attend anti-racism trainings
- Acknowledging the long-term commitment needed to be effective in this work. As a state leader from Oregon Farmers Market Association put it, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Also there’s no finish line.”
As an organization, FMC is working to build antiracism strategies and goals into our own strategic plan and all staff are meeting monthly to determine how best to implement and operationalize our desired outcomes. We are currently seeking a consultant to assist in meeting internal objectives. FMC is also adding language into our advocacy initiatives explicitly supporting the need for land reparations and better access to USDA programs for Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
Looking to the 2021 season, what issues are top of mind for your stakeholders or your sector? Are there areas where cross-sector technical assistance (e.g. choosing the right online platform, partnering with emergency food agencies) would be timely for your sector?
What will be the future value proposition of markets? Some market operators are still trying to determine if COVID has permanently altered the direct-to- consumer relationship, particularly when we think about markets where an online pre-order model has added an additional layer between producer and consumer.
As FMC considers how best to support farmers markets and other farm direct outlets going forward, we know that technology will likely play an increasing role but also understand a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be applied to farmers markets as factors such as varying market typologies, governance structures, geographical location, vendor participation, and consumer demographics may all play a role in the success and failure of a particular platform or new operational model.
During the pandemic, markets responded to the needs of their communities. It remains to be seen what real assets and challenges will remain post-COVID and these will likely continue to change season-to-season. One challenge FMC and state leaders face is how to teach markets to better assess moments in time, to identify when data collection and analysis might best serve them and to know which data points will best illuminate their work. Markets do not generally look backward or prioritize assessing impacts from past events. Rather, they tend to take lessons forward and apply those to future operations.
In essence, local awareness of what a market is in all its complexities is unformed – we don’t yet know if/how the perceived value of farmers markets has changed and this will likely be different for different market types operating in different locations serving different types of communities. Unfortunately, there has still been little sustained advocacy at the local level for markets to be seen as essential services.
In addition, sponsorships and fundraising remain a significant concern for market operators, a trend that will likely continue beyond the pandemic.
In FMC’s view, the way the various LRFS channels interacted within this project is indicative of something that was missing in our approach previously. While markets are interwoven with many of these channels, we don’t necessarily talk to them. FMC wants to help people better understand the role of farmers markets both within individual communities and also within their civic systems and the larger public market landscape. As an organization supporting farmers markets and farmers market operators, FMC’s partnerships with other local and regional food marketing channels has become increasingly important in terms of advocacy, technical assistance, funding opportunities, network development, and data collection and evaluation within the larger context of farm direct work.
Farmers Market Coalition is prioritizing sector analysis of farmers markets but needs help from researchers. We feel applying more funding to this cause would help farmers markets and other farm direct channels better evaluate the work being done. Impacts, trends, and outcomes differ so much from market to market which makes current assessment of the sector very challenging. Greater support for state farmers market associations and farmers market network organizations is needed as well as funding which would enable FMC to expand data collection, evaluation, and technical assistance work in an effort to more accurately assess the state of the sector at different levels (i.e. market types, location, market operator vs. state/network org, etc.). Such assessments would help determine where focus is most needed in terms of disaster preparedness, growing and strengthening networks, and better defining the future role of farmers markets and direct-to-consumer marketing in local and regional food systems.