Farmers markets managers have busy season too

Monday, May 3, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — For those seeking bright green asparagus and gem-like radishes, farmers market season starts in April. But for the people who manage the markets, the less appetizing work starts months before.

There are vendors to find, contracts to sign, boards and sponsors to satisfy.

"You're coordinating, you're organizing. You're making sure everybody has all the licenses they're supposed to have," said Hally Bini, manager of the Maplewood Farmers Market, which first opened on the grounds of the Schlafly Bottleworks in 2004. "There's the logistics, all of the equipment. It comes down to making sure the vendors will be there. Filling in all the holes. I'm on the phone — a lot."

And recently the workload for market managers had gotten a little heavier.

The number of farmers markets in the country has nearly doubled in the past decade, to almost 5,300 last year. Missouri and Illinois have seen their numbers rise, too, and this year a handful of new markets are launching in the St. Louis area, adding to an already healthy boom.

"It just seems like every municipality is jumping on the bandwagon," said Julie Holley, of EarthDance Farms, which sells at the Maplewood and Ferguson farmers markets.

With the expansion has come some growing pains. Markets are struggling to find suppliers as demand goes up for produce and products from small-scale farms. Some are grappling with red tape from more rigorous regulators, who have taken notice as markets get larger and vendors expand their wares, selling everything from blueberries to bratwurst.

But as market managers navigate the new terrain, one of the biggest challenges is managing the expectations of the often fickle and increasingly demanding farmers market shopper.

"Every consumer has their own image of what they want the market to be," said Diane Eggert, executive director of the Farmers Market Federation of New York. "Sometimes it doesn't match."

When Leigh Sweet was asked to start a new farmers market at Chandler Hill Vineyards in Defiance, she had no experience and little guidance.

"It was a baptism-by-fire kind of thing," she said. "I literally went to Google and typed in 'farmers market'."

Her approach was typical.

"Just like the rest of the country, we're experiencing a rapid growth in farmers markets, which led to an explosion of inexperienced market managers, with very little backup," said Eggert.

In March, the federation published a comprehensive guide for market managers, one of the first of its kind.

"We did it to help these new managers," Eggert said.

The 200-plus-page guide explains to market managers how to recruit farmers, set up budgets and work with local governments, among other things. It also dives into one of the thornier areas of market management: vetting vendors.

Some farmers markets, such as Soulard and Kirkwood, allow vendors to sell products they didn't produce or grow, often imported produce from thousands of miles away. Other markets insist the "farmer" is actually in the "farmers market."

"When people go to farmers markets, they go with the assumption that everything is home grown," Holley said. "That's not always the case."

When Julie Ridlon, a St. Louis-based caterer, launched the Clayton and Maplewood farmers markets, she set particular standards, saying vendors could sell only what they grow — a growers market.

"It's frustrating to go to a farmers market that's perceived as a growers market and find Thompson grapes," said Ridlon, who now consults for new markets. "You know they're not being grown in Missouri and Illinois."

More markets in the area are adopting the growers market model in an effort to support local farmers and communities. That usually means products have to be produced and grown by the person selling them, depending on the market manager and the market's policy.

At the Tower Grove Farmers Market, vendors are allowed to sell a percentage of goods they didn't raise or grow, but they have to tell the management about it or face getting the boot.

Sometimes things get a little touchy.

Patrick Horine, Tower Grove's market manager, got a complaint from the manager of another market that one vendor at the park was growing suspiciously perfect cauliflower, which is notoriously difficult to grow, especially in this climate. So, Horine inspected the vendor's farm.

"They had a unique growing method; they were grown within tall plants," Horine remembered. "They were, indeed, growing this perfect cauliflower."

At the Maplewood Farmers Market last year, things didn't end as well for one vendor.

Word spread in the self-policing world of the market that the vendor operated a concentrated animal feeding operation, known as a CAFO, violating the expectations of most farmers market shoppers.

"They were upset about it, and I understand why," Bini said. "But it's not written in our rules that CAFOs are not allowed. We just say you have to sell your own product."

So Bini went to the farmer, explained the controversy, and asked if he wanted to stay. He chose not to — to Bini's relief.

"It's not a practice of farming I personally support," she said.

Bini, like some market managers, say they try to visit as many farms as they can, just to get a personal look at the farm and their practices. But as market managers juggle an increasingly busy schedule, that is not always realistic.

"I think a lot of the responsibility falls on the customers," Holley said. "I always encourage them to ask questions."

In other words, she says, know where you shop and from whom you buy.

"Every market that I know of is run a little differently," said Gretchen Morfogen, who recently launched the Webster Groves Farmers Market.

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