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Penn State Extension hosted its monthly Farmers Market Manager Forum on Jan. 26, offering market managers from across the state an opportunity to ask each other questions and navigate challenges as another farm market season approaches.

Since the spring of 2020, this manager forum has become a Zoom meeting held on the last Wednesday of every month.

Though the PA Farm Markets program began in 2017 as a way for market managers to join a collaborative association and share resources, Penn State Extension took charge of this program at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to help market managers quickly navigate policies and adapt to pandemic safety guidelines.

During the pandemic, program coordinators, through Penn State Extension, were able to provide more resources and support staff to managers at a crucial time. Since farmers markets were classified as essential food businesses throughout the months of pandemic lockdown, they were able to remain open to serve patrons, which included a surge of new customers looking for safer, open-air locations to shop. Many customers had begun experiencing shortages and supply gaps at their usual grocery supermarket chains and turned to farmers markets to shop.

The farm market managers found the weekly forum helpful.

“Our e-newsletter became weekly as well, to get the latest information out,” said Penn State’s Brian Moyer, who moderates the forum meetings and led PA Farm Markets over the last several years.

The newsletter is now back to a monthly release.

“It really created a network of market managers that has come to rely on one another,” Moyer said. “We did this for all of 2020 and the group wanted to continue and now meet monthly from January through November.”

The monthly forum meetings last about an hour. The Jan. 26 Zoom meeting was attended by more than 15 managers, along with other Penn State Extension educators. The sessions are recorded, and Moyer said that over 50 managers registered and will likely watch the meeting at a later time.

During the January meeting, market managers shared advice and expressed some concerns going into the 2022 market season.

Some markets had early and mid-season product shortages last year, as vegetable and fruit growers increased their own direct-sales markets in response to customer demand. The farms also struggled to find enough consistent labor to work at their booths.

Some farm market managers continue to seek out new and beginning produce vendors to fill formerly coveted market spots. Other managers are amending or temporarily tweaking their producer-only policies, giving other vendors the opportunity to supplement what they would normally sell with products from neighboring farms to fill such gaps.

At the beginning of last year’s farmers market season, farmers were approaching Moyer with questions about where and how to sell.

“Those aren’t questions to be addressed in May,” he said, happy that managers are working to reach out to growers now. “Those are questions to be addressed in January.”

Managers also discussed vendor payment options. Some asked about the necessity of legal review of vendor applications and policies. They also discussed supply inflation, increased insurance rates and market understaffing problems, wondering if the markets should raise vendor fees to reflect and address these challenges. Some managers are concerned that the advent of eWic debit cards will prevent vendors and markets from accepting EBT payments. Others discussed the benefits and costs of using programs and apps such as Farmspread, Marketspread, Farmers Market Metrics, and others to accept vendor payments, create market layouts and build promotional campaigns.

Some managers struggle with reaching vendors in a timely manner, or enforcing policies concerning no-shows and late arrivals. Others had questions about how different markets advertise, and if they should be holding pre-season informational meetings for the vendors.

Moyer recommended that managers create a “legacy binder,” containing contacts, notes and policies that could be passed on to a future manager if there would be a need for management transition in the future.

During the meeting, Moyer asked the group if they would be interested in a “sister markets” program, through which markets that aren’t geographically competitive, but similar in size and style, could be paired together so the managers could bounce ideas off of each other. In some instances, a more-seasoned market manager could be paired with a new manager in a mentorship-style collaboration.

“To have another person to talk with could be useful,” said Deb Martin, who is the market manager of the Bethlehem Farmers Market in the greater Lehigh Valley.

Managers mostly work in isolation, she said, and this mentorship could be beneficial. Another manager suggested creating an informational hotline-style list, where managers could volunteer their contact info and be available to field questions from those seeking guidance.

Through some grant funding, Moyer will be able to “send” a group of market managers to virtually attend InTents: TheFarmers Market Conference in San Diego in early March. Details of the conference can be found at www.farmersmarketpros.com/conference.

Penn State Extension’s own Farmers Market Manager Conference will be held virtually from March 21-25.

Moyer’s group and Penn State Extension have created an interactive map of Pennsylvania’s farmers markets, which can be accessed at https://extension.psu.edu/farm-market-finder-app.

If a market manager would like to be added to the group’s newsletter mailing list and listserve to stay up to date on future forums and events, they can contact Moyer directly at bfm3@psu.edu or at 484-269-0229.

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