For organizers, farmers' markets a labor of love
Over the last 10 years, farmers' markets have become a staple of summer life in many communities across the state and the North Shore. The markets are a way for local farmers and food producers of all sorts to sell their products. But for the people and organizations that operate them, farmers' markets are more a labor of love than a source of profit. Farmers' markets on the North Shore are run by a combination of individual volunteers, community organizations, or the cities and towns themselves. The goal is not to make a profit for themselves, they say, but to connect local farms with customers and create a weekly community event.
"The mission is to bring local agriculture to the community. That's the main goal," said Estelle Rand, who is in her ninth year running the Beverly Farmers' Market. "To me it's not the kind of thing that is ever really going to provide a salary for a person." Rand is the sole proprietor of the Beverly Farmers' Market and does not take a salary, she said. This year she hired one of her volunteers as an assistant manager. Farmers' markets in other communities are run on a volunteer basis by nonprofit organizations, including Salem Main Streets and the Danvers Rotary Club. Whatever revenue is generated by the Danvers Farmers' Market is used to give out scholarships, said Danvers Rotary member Matthew Schroeder. "Essentially it's a community service project," Schroeder said. "It takes a lot of energy to get them up and running. Rotarians devote a lot of time to the leadership of the market."
The main source of revenue for farmers' market organizers is the weekly fee charged to vendors to set up a booth at the market. The fee is typically in the $20 to $25 range. That revenue is used for such expenses as advertising, signs, and social media to promote the market. Some markets receive grants to provide matching money for customers in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. In many cases, the sites where the markets are held are provided free of charge by the city or town. Mass Farmers Market operations manager Sarah Gupton said farmers' markets will continue to rely mainly on volunteers and nonprofits, with perhaps a paid market manager. She said one company tried to make a business out of operating farmers' markets, without success. "It's just not geared for that," Gupton said. "It's more a community thing." One of the biggest problems facing farmers' markets now is their popularity, Gupton said. The more markets in operation, the fewer farmers there are to go around. Massachusetts now has more than 280 farmers' markets, including 25 in Essex County, according to Mass Farmers Market, a nonprofit that manages markets in Boston, Cambridge and Somerville and offers training and support for other markets. Gupton said demand for the markets has grown as people have become more aware of the importance of eating local, fresh food and supporting local farms. For vendors, it's a chance to bring their product from the farm to a central location with an eager clientele. Kim Gregory, who runs her business, Pure Pastry, out of her home in Beverly, said the visibility gained by going to farmers' markets in Beverly, Somerville and Melrose has been "out-of-control helpful." "It's so mandatory for businesses to do that because customers want to see who's behind the business," Gregory said. "They want to see the face. They want to see the baker." Gregory also noted her concern with the "over-saturation" of farmers' markets, leading to fewer customers. "There should be a 50 mile radius where there's only one and everybody will go to that," she said. "It would make it a bigger and stronger one with a lot more vendors." Beyond the business side, farmers' markets have become community gathering spaces for families and people of all ages. Many of them have added musical entertainment. "One thing we battle is the idea that farm food is expensive and only for certain people," said Rand, the Beverly Farmers' Market head. "We try to make sure people feel welcome."
By Paul Leighton firstname.lastname@example.org