Getting farmers markets right PART 3: choosing a community-owned organisational structure

Southern Harvest was founded to support the food economy of the entire south east NSW and capital region. The Bungendore farmers market is just one way they do this.

Since the resurgence of farmers markets in recent decades, a number of proven best practice principles have emerged. While the application of these principles can vary according to a community’s needs, the evidence shows that adhering to them as much as possible increases the benefits of farmers markets for stall holders, customers and the wider community.

Our “Getting farmers markets right” series of articles is designed to assist communities who want to start a farmers market in their local region. It aims to provide greater insight into these best practice principles by drawing on existing research, online resources and guides on farmers markets from across Australia and the globe, and is enhanced by the experiences of our committee members in establishing and running successful farmers markets.

So far, we’ve explored excluding agents from farmers markets and why it’s important to define your local region. In part three of this series, we will be arguing the case for choosing a community-owned organisational structure.

A farmers market’s vision, goals, objectives, and operations is directly tied to the organisational structure the market will take. While there are different organisational structures a farmers market could take, ideally, we believe farmers markets should be community based and run on not-for-profit principles. 

Let’s break down our reasons why.

IT’S MISSION ORIENTED

Many people looking to start a farmers market are attracted to the not-for-profit structure. This is often based on the understanding that a not-for-profit has no “owner” and that any profit generated from its activities is reinvested into the organisation to further its mission and for the benefit of a broader public interest, not for the purpose of benefiting the founders.

While there are excellent examples of for-profit farmers markets that continue to direct profits towards developing local food systems for the benefit of farmers and the community, in principle, the not-for-profit model is a sound insurance policy that ensures a farmers market’s mission won’t be derailed by profit motives or needs. This brings us to our next point:

IT’S EASIER TO PRIORITISE BEST PRACTICE

While a not-for-profit can and should pay reasonable compensation to employees such as a market manager (retaining employees and reducing volunteer burnout can be viewed as an integral part of advancing its mission) it cannot distribute profits to individuals, like a business might do for owners.

When the burden of generating profit for private ownership is removed, it becomes easier to focus on other best practice principles, like committing to building a thriving local food hub exclusively for local producers and specialty food makers (ie. the best practice principle of no agents or resellers) and resisting the temptation to include non-food stalls.

Community-owned markets are better placed to recruit volunteers, such as the SAGE Farmers Market did when they gathered crafters together at the local primary school to sew produce bags to replace plastic.

IT’S OWNED AND CONTROLLED BY THE COMMUNITY

In a not-for-profit organisation, there is no single owner or owners who control decision-making on behalf of the business. Ownership and control are handled by a committee or management group that ideally represents managers, stall holders and community stakeholders (everyone that makes up your local food community). This allows for the committee to be a diverse group representing different interests in the market and viewpoints in how it could be effectively run, providing opportunities for stall holders and other community members to have an equal say in decision-making processes and determining the market’s culture. Community-led markets that are run by a diverse committee generally have missions that simultaneously prioritise farmer success with broader community food needs.

There are even more benefits to the community by having a diverse committee involved in market decision-making processes and operations. Firstly, it increases community buy-in and ensures that the market is successfully embedded in the community. Secondly, it allows the committee to draw on the breadth of knowledge, experience, skills and networks (all valuable resources) of its members, increasing the overall potential and impact of the farmers market. Thirdly, it ensures that any disputes between vendors, or vendors and the community, are brought to a balanced “jury”, allowing for better conflict management and resolution. 

IT BUILDS SOCIAL CAPITAL

Beyond profit, community ownership builds social capital. When locals know that their farmers market belongs to them, it creates a sense of unity, of place, of security and local pride. Social capital is premised on the principles of social connectedness, trust and reciprocity to enhance the social fabric of our communities. This kind of community building is, by its nature, not the realm of private enterprise. A community owned farmers market is more likely to see the market as part of a greater local food system, rather than a profit-making business enterprise.

Committee members volunteering at the community-owned SAGE Farmers Market in Moruya.

“BUT WHAT IF…?”

But what if a community can’t get a group together to start a farmers market?

Look, there are examples of privately owned farmers markets that we can point to that operate in the interests of farmers and the community. But it’s rare.

Running a farmers market is hard work. It can often be like trying to make a pyramid with ping pong balls. Making a profit that equates to a living wage from a genuine farmers market is rare and we know that when a farmers market isn’t honouring the best practice principles – which we acknowledge place limitations on the number of stall holders – farmers suffer.

If you’re trying to get a group together to start a community-owned farmers market, just keep reaching out. Don’t give up. Develop a strong relationship with your local council. You will often find that there is a receptive business development or strategic planning manager within council who is eager to help.

Perhaps you have a local business chamber that can help get your inaugural committee together. Don’t forget that you should include at least one stall holder on your committee, so there’s one member already. Write an article for your local paper about local food systems and why your community needs a farmers market. Be clear about your reasons and you’ll attract the right people to help you. Demonstrate that you’re communicating with local farmers and producers and convey their desire to connect with their local customers.

Don’t give up on the community ownership best practice principle. It will really pay off in the long term.

We intend to write a lot more about how to start a community-owned farmers market in the future, but for now, we hope this article persuades you to take the community-owned, not-for-profit path.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO SUPPORT BEST PRACTICE

As a customer, be engaged with your market. Perhaps you can occasionally volunteer to help run the market or become a member of the community organisation. Subscribe to the market’s newsletter, if they offer one, and follow them on social media. A community-owned organisational structure invites you to take ownership of the market simply by being engaged.

As a market operator, commit to remaining focussed on serving your local community by maximising the benefits of the not-for-profit model. Demonstrate how community ownership ensures that any profits are directed back into the market and ideally also the local food system that supports the market. Engage with your local community beyond your faithful customers, emphasising your not-for-profit status, so everyone comes to understand the important role your market plays in your local economy and food system. Nurture and grow that social capital.

And of course, join the FMANSW to show your support for our Purpose and Charter to improve outcomes for farmers and communities alike.
For more information or advice about a community-owned model of market operation, contact us.

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