On any given Saturday here on the First Coast, residents can spend their day in a vibrant open air market shopping for the week ahead. It is immensely rewarding to return home and unpack a bag of fresh produce from one of our wonderful farmers markets, knowing that you supported local farms and bought the freshest seasonal fruits and veggies available in our region. But did you?
In many of our region’s farmers markets there are two types of vendors: farmers and resellers. A farmer works the land with a staff of local farm workers, deals with the unpredictable nature of Mother Nature, harvests their crops, cleans and packages their produce, all so we can enjoy it at home. A reseller goes to a wholesale store, purchases cases of conventional produce most likely from the same large agribusinesses distributed at any grocery store chain, and then resells it at a higher price point at the farmers market, to you the unknowing customer.
Carmen Franz is the Fresh Access Bucks Manager for the Florida Certified Organic Growers and Consumers Association. She has been working with the Riverside Arts Market through the transition to becoming a producer only market, where only true local farms are allowed as vendors. Unlike other states, like California, that have state Farmers Market organizations that exist within the Department of Agriculture, Florida doesn’t have any institution regulating its farmers markets. “In Florida, most farmers markets are really distribution centers for produce grown from all over the world, as well as some local produce,” says Franz.
In most of our region’s markets, the number of farmers far outweigh the number of resellers. But having just one reseller in a farmer’s market can create an unfair playing field for those who are actually putting sweat, love and passion into their produce.
“Farmers don’t like to talk about other farmers, but we would have vendors tell our staff that they cannot compete with the prices of the resellers, nor the variety being offered,” says Katie Delaney, Riverside Arts Market Farmer Liaison.
According to RAM Director, Krysten Bennett, when the market first began resale was allowed by farm booths but only up to 50% of the produce being offered. This was because there were not many farms in the region willing to participate in the early days of RAM, so this accommodation was made to allow more vendors to attend.
“The problem was that there was nobody on the staff with the expertise in farming to monitor that 50% rule,” says Bennett. “We shouldn’t have put a guideline in place that we couldn’t enforce, and some vendors began to take advantage of that.”
In 2014, RAM hired an agriculture consultant to visit with the farmers on Farmers’ Row. He learned that the resale situation was becoming out of hand. RAM conducted a survey at the consultant’s recommendation.
“Overwhelmingly the results of the survey said that people coming to Farmers’ Row thought they were buying directly from the person who grew the food,” says Bennett. Uncomfortable with this misconception, an advisory committee was formed. It was decided that Farmers’ Row would become more like the Beaches Green Market, a true producer-only market where only locally grown food was sold.
“We do not allow reselling within the art vendors at RAM, and so we felt like we needed to hold our Farmers’ Row to the same standard,” says Bennett. “We hired a farmer liaison to help monitor the farmers and protect our visitors to be sure that our consumer’s expectations were being met.”
Through the course of the year, RAM lost only two vendors to the transition who did not meet the new standards. “Unfortunately, the two vendors we lost had a large share of space at Farmer’s Row, but since the transition we have increased from 12 approved vendors to 23,” says Bennett. But many customers have been disappointed with the change now only seasonal local produce is available. “People have been saying Farmers’ Row has died, but it hasn’t. It has just changed its personality. It isn’t about just a quick in and out to fill your bag. Now I see more people talking with the farmers, and building relationships,” she says.
Charles Alvarez, a fourth generation farmer and owner of Alvarez Farms, recently joined the vendors in Farmers’ Row, and he thinks it is a win-win for everyone. “It is called a farmers market. It should be for the farmers, to support them and give them an outlet to sell,” he says. “Now, people are getting fresh produce that is grown seasonally in their area.”