When a business survives and thrives for forty years, it’s an impressive feat, and it’s even more remarkable for a farmers market. Limited operating hours, competition from bricks and mortar grocery stores, and numerous other farmers markets in the area, seem to conspire against the ongoing viability of any agricultural enterprise selling directly to the consumer. These headwinds have individually and collectively caused many a market to fizzle and fade.
Catherine Barr, executive director of the Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Market for the past 24 years, has helped steer her organization past a multitude of potential disasters during her time at the helm, by establishing priorities and maintaining strict policies that have helped make the MBCFM markets the most successful markets in California.
“We’re all about the farmers,” Catherine said during a recent interview. “Lots of other markets are more about making money from stall fees and let anyone in that wants to sell their crop or consumer product. This approach tends to result in a lot of people selling the same commodity, such as tomatoes, and that tends to limit the amount of money any one farmer can make, so they drop out.”
Catherine went on to explain that she keeps a “Commodity Bible” with her at the four markets. “Every year we ask each farmer to list the products they intend to sell in the coming year, and that enables us to see if we’re going to have too much or too little of any one crop. We have to consider the bigger overall picture.”
This approach of protecting the farmer by controlling who-sells-what and making the farmer the top priority are top priorities at all the MBCFM farmers markets. “It all fits together, that’s why our markets work,” according to Catherine. “The farmers at our markets put the community first. They’re literally selling to their friends and neighbors. The farmers themselves are generally at the booth, not an employee.”
“This continuity between the grower and the customer builds relationships that are not found at other markets or grocery stores. This relationship has to start with the farmer, and that means protecting them. Farmers make investments in land and equipment, and these decisions are based on anticipated sales,” Barr explained.
One example helps illustrate changing consumer demand. Catherine laughed when citing this example. “A few years ago, no one sold kale. Then everyone wanted to buy it, so demand far exceeded supply. It took some time to correct the imbalance.”
Regulating supply also means allowing competition. “No vendor has a monopoly on a crop. If we only have one vendor selling rutabagas and another farmer wants to sell it as well, we say go for it. On the other hand, if we have 20 farmers selling onions and someone new wants to come in and sell their onions, we have to tell them ‘no’ since it’s not fair to the onion vendors.”
Catherine further explained, “Another way we protect our farmers is keeping the focus of our markets on fresh produce — not food stalls or crafts. When we set up our bylaws, we established a policy to limit the number of artisans to farmers ratio — about 15% artisans to 85% farmers. We strive to keep the ‘farmers’ in farmers markets!”
Forty years is long enough for a farm to pass from one generation to the next. Longtime shoppers have watched many farmers’ children helping at the market, and now some of these ‘kids’ are now running the farms and coming to the markets. It’s keeping the family farm business in the family, and that multi-generational factor is another reason why our markets have continued to thrive.
“We’re all in this together,” Barr explained. “Our farmers rely on the shoppers, and the shoppers know they can rely on their farmer friends at the market.”