This fall, the Oregon Farmers Market Association (OFMA) was awarded a $247,000 federal grant through the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program. OFMA, in partnership with five Oregon farmers markets, Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems, and other partners, received this three-year grant to launch the Beginning Vendor Support Network (BVSN), which aims to study and support the role of farmers markets as small business incubators for their beginning vendors.
The Manzanita Farmers Market is a partner in this program. Also included is the Clatskanie Farmers Market, Baker City Farmers Market, Umpqua Valley Farmers Market, and Albany Farmers Market. All of the markets participating in this project deserve praise, said Kelly Crane, Executive Director of Oregon Farmers Markets Association.
More than half of the vendors at the Manzanita Farmers Market this year are local business startups that are in their first, second, or third year at the market.
“This is hard work, and these market managers are doing it so that their markets can reach their full potential for their vendors and customers and the communities that host them,” said Crane. “We’ve been inspired by how dedicated and resourceful they are.”
The entire USDA grant will be spent on this project with the goal of directly and indirectly benefitting the five markets, but none will be directly sub-granted to the markets themselves, as that is not allowable according to the USDA guidelines for this program. There is, however, a good chunk of change that is earmarked to be spent explicitly on these markets.
“Up to $4,000 will be spent on technical assistance and supplies for each participating market in 2020 to launch a ‘beginning vendor support initiative’ at their markets,” said Crane. “In addition, this grant is already currently paying all of the markets for their time spent gathering data for this project (Manzanita is receiving $6,440) and also covering any travel or other expenses the markets incur because of participation.”
It is widely known that the average age of the American farmer has been steadily climbing, reaching 58 years old as of the most recent USDA Agricultural Census, said Crane. This highlights the need to support and encourage new and beginning farmers, ranchers, and the institutions, such as farmers markets, which help them succeed.
“Farmers markets are recognized as a place where many new producers get their start, due to their low fees, relatively simple paperwork and general accessibility, making them powerful engines for small business development,” said Crane. “They are a place where brands are built, products are tested and refined, capital is raised, and skills are learned.”
Recent evidence from the USDA also suggests that farmers and ranchers engaged in direct marketing are more likely to “survive” as business owners and carry a lighter debt-load than their commodity-cropping counterparts. Helping farmers markets themselves become better at incubating these entrepreneurs during their early years at farmers markets is a strategic way to shore up a critical access point in the food-business entrepreneurial pipeline.
“We believe that farmers markets are a natural gateway to the local foods economy for food and farm entrepreneurs, and we want to help markets be the best they can be at supporting their newest vendors,” said Crane.
To this purpose, in late 2018, OFMA launched the Beginning Vendor Support Network (BVSN), which aims to study and support the role of farmers markets as small business incubators for their beginning vendors. This program is designed to create a community of practice around five small and medium sized rural farmers markets, giving them the tools they need to better help their newest vendors succeed.
“At the Manzanita Farmers Market, we’ve seen vendors both succeed at expanding their business after being a vendor, and also those who discontinued a business enterprise,” said Emily Vollmer, Market Manager of Manzanita Farmers Market. “On the success side, we have hosted at least two different new food businesses that were vendors at the farmers market in the early stages of their business and then went on to open at ‘brick and mortar’ locations in Manzanita. On the flip side, we have also seen about 20 vendors not return to the Manzanita Farmers Market as vendors in the span of two years (2017 and 2018), though some of them may still be in business elsewhere.”
The Manzanita Farmers Market also continues to see an increase in the number of businesses interested in being vendors at the farmers market. Compared to 2017, the Manzanita Farmers Market is hosting over 40 more business vendors during 2019, for a total of over 90 businesses that attend the farmers market for one or more market dates this season.
“We believe that farmers markets serve a critical role in the local foods economy to support food business entrepreneurs, and provide a way for community members and visitors to have access to and enjoy these unique and quality handmade and homegrown goods,” said Vollmer.
The managers of the five farmers markets will spend the next three years hearing from experts, sharing insights with each other, launching customized support initiatives for their own vendors, collecting and analyzing sales and customer data, and working with consultants. In partnership with the five farmers markets, Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems, and other partners, OFMA has been awarded a 3-year federal grant through the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program, as well as a grant through the Ford Family Foundation, to do this important work.
“The whole purpose of the BVSN is to study and support the role of farmers markets as business incubators for their vendors,” said Crane. “This is research in action, so there is a lot of ‘doing’ happening at the same time as the ‘researching.’ We are helping the participating markets learn more about themselves, their vendors, and the goals those vendors have for their businesses’ growth – especially their newest vendors.
With the OFMA’s preliminary research pegging their current vendor pools at 62 percent “New and Beginning vendors” (NBV), meaning 3 years or less selling at any US farmers markets prior to this season, this group of markets is excited to have this support, said Crane.
“We provide them with free tools and training to collect surveys and sales data from their vendors, and provide them with quarterly and annual reports that help them understand their markets better and make better informed decisions,” said Crane. “They can also use this data to help decision makers such as local government and potential funders understand the big impact their markets have on their communities and their local economies. We also help to facilitate a community of practice around supporting their newest vendors.”
All five market managers participate in monthly calls and annual convening where they can hear from each other and from experts on issues affecting their NBV’s.
“It’s a really supportive learning community, and we think we can learn as much from their peers as from the experts,” said Crane.
Next year, the OFMA will work with each market to develop their own initiative to launch at their own markets to help their unique group of NBV’s. They’ll have up to $4,000 to work with for hiring consultants, buying supplies, etc.
“We are really excited to see these take shape,” said Crane. “Markets are, in our experience, really creative and good at knowing their own needs. We will help them evaluate how these projects pan out and how they do and don’t affect their NBV’s, so that other markets can learn from them.”
At the end of this project, OFMA will be able to see how each market has grown and changed over the course of three years, will know a lot about how small to medium-sized farmers markets in Oregon help food and farm businesses get started, and will have real life lessons learned from the market projects.
“Our hope is that this information, which will be publicly available, will help other markets all over the country – but especially in Oregon – understand how to better support their newest vendors,” said Crane.