For farmers, a marketplace of ideas

Farmers sat beside social workers, sat beside regional city administrators and community planners at a meeting of the market minded on a recent Monday – 30 people in all.

In a well lit room on Jamestown Community College’s Cattaraugus campus, overlooking Olean’s mountainous vista, Diane Eggert, executive director of Farmers Market Federation of New York led the attendants in an assessment of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats faced by farmers markets across Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties.

Vendor camaraderie, loyal customer bases, and cooperation with EBT/SNAP programs were a few of the things which farmers and market managers claimed to have going well for them, though consensus was out. The diversity of opinion throughout the room reflected unique advantages and challenges faced by different markets across the Southern Tier. Each has become use to the array of social, political, and economic conditions specific to their locality, whether that be Fredonia or the Seneca Nation.

“What if there was a network,” Eggert said to her captive audience, “a way of connecting with counterparts across Southern Tier West, that would facilitate brainstorming solutions to these challenges. Or at the very least provide a sort of support system, someway to let you know that you are not alone in facing these issues.”

The room fell silent while farmers and managers considered the proposal.

The Farmers’ Market Federation of New York is an organization that develops a variety of programs and services to support and advance the farmers’ market industry in New York State. These benefits include the development of a “regional brand” complete with promotional materials, as well as the development of mentorship programs for young farmers, connecting young startups with aging generations of growers in a time when only 1 percent of the nation’s population grows crops commercially. The average U.S. farmer is 56 years old.

As united members of a regional chapter, markets in Southern Tier West would have access to these benefits, including access to the federation’s 501c3 tax status, making them eligible for grants and charitable donations.

Some participants were worried about the potential loss of identity. When presented with a future choice between independence or cooperation, one farmer from the Seneca Nation, who asked to remain nameless, was concerned for a third option. “I don’t want our market to risk losing its identity in order to comply with the demands of the larger whole. That’s the point of farmers markets, our customers come for the personality specific to our community. On the other hand there are very real benefits to cooperating over working in isolation.”

Eggert was insistent that any process in developing the regional network would be wholly organic, and that decisions on criteria and expectations of network members – if any – would be decided solely by regional participants.

“A laminated phone tree would be an improvement on whatever coordination between markets we have now,” said Arianne Correll, Westfield Farmers Market manager. Many in the room were inclined to agree. At the end of the summit, business cards were exchanged, and the group planned to meet again in mid-January, having discussed the idea with their colleagues, intent on a strategic plan.

New York has nearly 650 farmers markets, the second highest state total in the United States. This is a number that has exploded over the last 10 years, as knowledge has spread of the benefits that come with eating fresh, locally produced eggs, greens, and meats. Vast distribution systems ranging across oceans and continents has greatly separated producers and consumers of goods in recent decades, even to a point where some feel they’ve lost more than just a spiritual connection to their food.

Accountability, nutrition, and regional economic stability are also regained through the development of localized food distribution systems. Many find such markets not only a way to receive their daily bread, but reinvest in their hometown economies.

For more information on Farmers Market Federation of New York, or to find a market near you, visit www.nyfarmersmarket.com.

Ben Carpenter is a Dunkirk resident.