Foodie, Activist, Organizer
We promote it to the ends of the earth.
- Organizing around food
- Extension and regional food systems
- Institution and infrastructure
- Social entrepreneur
- Skills for organizing
- Flexible networks
- Multiplying the idea
Ten years ago Richard came to the Twomey Center at Loyola University. He was to produce (write and edit) the English-language version of a central American magazine. He had been looking at alternatives to east-west (north-south) conflicts. He was a native and had studied third world social development and International Relations at Loyola. “Loyola let me redefine my position here at the center. It is truly wonderful that their commitment to their core values let me take this risk, thus taking some risk themselves. It really helps the university and the farmers’ market to have Loyola connected. It gives the Farmers Market efforts legitimacy and the growers like the connection to the university. It makes the university look good for doing something for the community in such a full way. We play up and down this connection depending upon who we’re meeting with and what our message is.
In New Orleans in 1995 there were foodies and consumers who shared the frustration of having no access to fresh and unique produce (fruits and vegetables). In New Orlean’s history, there used to be 32 Farmer markets throughout the city, and by the late 80s there were no more. Food choice and access continued to decline in the 90s, leaving only a “horrible selection”. Levels of violence were up in the city, sprawl issues were emerging – good farmland paved over for strip malls and loss of a sense of place. There had become a “regional disconnect” from where their food came from, despite the vital importance of food in the culture of New Orleans and Louisiana people.Into this milieu came the idea of a idea of the farmers market. A number of people from diverse backgrounds and occupations had come together over this issue of local foods and Richard was invited to be a part of it – only to head it up. Some would contend it was his idea. Richard’s partner was a media savvy, experienced organizer who gave Richard one of his first basic lessons about putting together groups of people so there can be no real failure. He notes that they made a good dynamic-duo. He was more than happy to go out and talk and meet with farmers and do lots of legwork, while she performed all the miracles behind a desk – such as getting the support of government and civic leaders, including press people.
Early in its development, the editor of the local food guide, Zaggat was involved. Also on the ad hoc steering committee were people from all sectors: public housing, economic development, public health advocates, farmers, community organizer. Twomey Center made a good place to base the effort. It was an outreach arm of Loyola University to be advocates of peace and justice. The University allowed Richard to redefine his position from writer and editor of the Center’s newsletter, into the director of Economic Institute which evolved as a course of establishing the farmer’s market. Richard notes that they gave him lots of space, allowing his time and resources to go after farmers to participate in the market. Richard notes that he had “no agriculture background”, and had in a sense, learn not only what it meant to farmers to farm, but what it meant from farming community to community and then learn how to communicate the benefits of the FM. Richard said that he kept going to the farmers, meeting with them and talking with them repeatedly, “after five times of coming on their farm, they would agree to come to the FM, I think out of politeness and also a hope that it would get me off their back – that they would come to the FM one time and fail and have a good reason not to come back. But they what they would find is that they would get to meet the shoppers and feel their friendliness, that after that they were hooked.”
The Farmers’ market took about a year of meetings of the Ad Hoc Steering committee which approached the market’s as the initial community-building project, as a flagship of future projects. They received some grants to help cover costs. The mission of the organization was clearly laid out early in the process: to create an ecologically-sound economic institute. In south Louisiana and New Orleans food plays a huge role and is so important to the identity and behavior of everyone, and uniquely to the various and diverse communities that constitute the Delta region. The Farmers’ Market seemed to be a most natural link between everyone – agricultural and non-agricultural, all socio-economic groups – and could serve as the “community green” to reconnect all these groups and people back to food sources.
While Richard approached well-established farmers, his greatest and easiest success came with the small farmers – noting that many of the original sellers at the market were growing on one to two acres. They were new farmers – homesteaders, back-to-the-landers, etc. – that were producing on these small plots, but they were the more profitable farmers, sensitive to consumer-demand, reading gourmet magazines, going to up-scale restaurants – and just keeping ahead of trends – and willing to experiment – being in a position and a scale where the trial could fit in with their production methods.
Over the years, the market has attracted the attention of the moderate-sized growers (50-100 acre). Richard notes with a grin, that these growers used to look to the big growers for insight and inspiration on growing and selling. However, with the successes that have been spawned as a result of the market, they have started following the smaller growers.
The market, in the beginning, offered the unusual, unique and heirloom varieties – none of the basics. Later, the perception that the basics could be better done by the big guys in California was shot out of the water. The basics were as well received (if not more) by shoppers. With consumer-farmer relationships established, the emphasis became equally about access to fresh food choices and to supporting the farmers that sold there. Richard also noted, that while the basics were about 20% more than the wholesale distributors, restaurants have taken to buying from local farmers because it is also more cost-efficient as well as better tasting. There is less spoilage because it doesn’t have to travel so far – and it is fresher because it can be picked when it is mature and delivered within a day versus within a week.
Extension is not ready for a regional food-system, where food that is grown within a region is sold and consumed within that region. Why? Because they are used to transportation issues being paramount when deciding varieties to plant – but a regional food-system nullifies this issue and so farmers can focus on unique and more delicate varieties. Maturation rates, hormones and pheromone treatments need not be considered anymore.
Extension agents are used to being the expert providers of information. Some agents are tireless in these efforts. One in New Orleans does a column weekly in the newspaper, has his own radio program, has a Master Gardener booth at FM. He’s excellent at public relations: raising awareness of ag issues. But initially Extension wasn’t helpful or downright hostile. Some time there was a lack of response. Other times the attitude was: “This is our job.” Hostility. But in the last five years extension has been rethinking their core values. Today, they don’t feel so much the need to drive, but to support now. Before there was territorialism. Extension used to be job-for-life program. Our effect on their measuring indicators are tiny. They must pay attention to lots of squeaky wheels and to contact hours.
But we began to understand the cultures of various communities of growers And we we upfront that “we have no ag background.” The trick is to approach them in a way that makes them comfortable. Ask for information. And you’ll become the squeaky wheel they will react to. In this way plant seed of change or capacity of change among extension, even if they can’t help you at the time. Extension is changing – they have started having community meetings and asking for feedback. It is our hope that Extension will play a bigger role in this. Extension should play our FM role. Usually extension offices that call us, but not one of those inquiries have resulted in a farmers’ market. Extension folks are so used to presenting and not doing it or cultivating. small growers, their practices and their selling techniques.
We want to build up the institutional capacity of the ECOnomic Institute. The farmers’ market has been a great place for farmers to learn about producing, selling and managing all these systems. We have provided workshops once a week, “entrepreneurial roundtables”, and will focus on one topic per session. At the end of Saturday’s market, there may be a farmer meeting, however, the farmers are so wiped out by the end of the market, that there’s no energy for a meeting much less a workshop. We let the farmers tell us or suggest what the workshop’s subject will be. We’ve had record-keeping, business plan development and webpage development. Sometimes it has been hearing their frustrations and figuring out how to best address it.
The workshops occur once a week mid-week. Richard notes that this added opportunity to come to the city, trains the farmers to be more comfortable with driving in city traffic and mixing with urban people (getting to know your customers needs, your community’s needs). Richard would like the farmers to feel like they have a right to the city, much as the market has helped urbanites feel connected to the country. (There have been some technical workshops on farms.)
“I spend lots of time on the phone and delivering materials, researching and writing up reports to further support “new agriculture”: Green Papers.”
“We talk til were blue in the face about growing heirloom varieties or organically. It is always better to hear it from the consumers. Those who are growing on one acre or so are the ones best adapting and fitting the consumer trends. They are the ones who are watching the ‘Food Network’ cable channel and reading Gourmet Magazine. They are the ones that visit the fine restaurants and talk with chefs.”
“We are interested in having a regional model of community competition. It doesn’t require huge investment to try something new and the market situation allows farmers to learn from each other, from the person in the stall next to you, but you’ve got to be in a posture of keep on learning. It’s remarkably exciting for me to be a part of the transition of the marketplace and market economics: consumer-driven agriculture.
“To help this process, we support the market by promoting it. We work hard on getting good signage, good publicity. We make sure the market looks good and the farmers understand that and work with us to make sure the displays look appealing and that everyone is laid out to the market’s and their advantage. It’s also a matter of trust. We’ve got a track record to show that there’s no good-old boy network and that management is transparent. The market has to be self-sustaining, that is one of our founding principles of the market. We have low-overhead; the market is year-round, open-air and situated on a loaned parking lot. We are not interested in getting a structure or buying land. This has worked for everyone, and further investment would change the character and requirements of the market.” We promote it to the ends of the earth. There are cooking demonstrations from prestigious restaurants with well-known chefs. The chef’s name and dish that will be demonstrated are listed weekly in the newspaper. The paper also lists what produce is available for that week – another nice touch. For the newspaper, we’re “not news, but a process.”
Another aspect of the farmers’ market is the vendor listing for restaurants and food coops to find local farmers with produce in the amounts and quality that they need. We establish meetings so that farmers can meet with chefs and coop managers and learn that they are regular people who really appreciate and desire their produce. Farmers are nervous about the city and chefs. “They don’t know they want to sell to chefs, until they meet with them and have an opportunity to do business with them.”
Strawberry grower really took the opportunity. She called all the restaurants portraying confidence and comfort – straight-up on her strawberries – thinking she would sell a few extra cases. She “nearly freaked out that they loved her stuff.” Now the farmers are selling the basic vegetables to the restaurants. Although local produce runs about 20% higher in price, the restaurants prefer to buy it for two reasons, it is fresher and tastier, and because with the shorter-distance there is a reduction in spoilage and they may even save money.
The ECOnomic Institute will help farmers on a one-one basis on adding value. One example are the workshops. They have published food-handling guidelines for the area and are writing a manual on how to establish and develop farmers’ markets. They publish a weekly e-newsletter and maintain a website that changes frequently. Through the website, consumers and producers can find each other, learn how the farmers’ market operates (including what is being sold that week) and gain information about the institute.
Selling to restaurants is harder. farmers become enabled to sell to restaurants through their experience at the FM. Key are the diversified customer-base and the educational component. We talked to and visited many farmer markets throughout the United States. Everyone was very helpful and provided lots of information, stories and insight. We had on-going relationships with the NY farmers’ market, fellow in Maryland Ag. They also helped us develop language skills to talk to different disciplines, such as the municipal and state health departments and planning departments.
Richard said that he took a conscious risk when he set the date of the FM opening and then started campaigning for it. He views himself as a social entrepreneur. He’s doing public policy because of other activities–for example, health department policies. Once you identify policy problems, then you begin cultivating new leaders and sharing, building relationships with other organizations.
Richard is committed to entreprenurism – to help others and for oneself. His organization has moved away from just being a social service organization with sidelines of research and communication.
“We didn’t look at the market as just selling, but as a community-building tool. The Bylaws of the market say that both producers and consumers are on the board, and now we get board members from those who attend the market. There is limited space,so it makes it easier to turn farmers away and to select those that are really good for the market. For instance, they may have produce or fruit that there is a need for. Or they fulfill the community-building goal of the market. The farmers pay a fee to sell at the market, which is used to pay for the market manager. We also inspect farms to make sure they are in compliance (producer-only). We play the “hidden-hand” role and figure ut how and when to let more growers into the market so that everyone has sufficient share of the market. We keep an eye on prices and encourage friendly competition, but not undercutting. We want to build real support for agriculture; we have people identified with produce making it yet more friendly to consumers; such as the pie-lady, the mushroom-man, blue-berry lady, etc.
We are also responsible for doing public relations for the markets and its farmers. Early on there was great press support for the market. We were a positive “process”, not just an event and with so many activities and people centering on this “community green”, there are lots of stories and lots of angles. We have been friendly with the press and invite them to the market and even help discover stories. Recently, when a newspaper or journal or whomever wants to do a market story, they find us because they know that we’ll help them get what they need.
The press has also helped with reshaping agriculture in the area, by featuring market farmers innovative and unconventional approaches to farming and marketing. Other farmers have read about these successful farmers and two things happen; they come to see these smallscale farmers as leaders in the agricultural community, and they start to consider changing their operation – it’s the first step in change. When they hear that a farmer at the farmers’ market has gone from part-time to full-time farming, this catches their ear and their imagination.
I think the farmers market has been so successful in promoting sustainable agriculture, because sustainable agriculture was not its focus – marketing has been the focus. There is no mechanism and no way to track and record these issues. The farmers’ market has enabled non-agricultural press to write about sustainable agriculture issues by providing a real example and real people and their real stories. It has allowed there to be a connection that wasn’t there before.
We aren’t taking chances with our market, such as opening others in New Orleans. We want to make sure that we’ve got this one down right, and besides, it’s continually changing and we’re discovering so many things that can be done through the market, that opening another would seem to compromise this one. We’re pretty tapped as it is, although we have one woman on board that has been looking at satellite farmers’ markets and we hope to find more funding to continue her work.
We have kept away from such things as WIC in order to first establish a market that works (not do too many things at once). We quickly produced a brochure which explains the mission of the organization (mission is bigger than FM).
Richard’s thoughts on skills, attitudes and approaches needed for organizing regional food systems.
- Skills needed to bring diverse partners to work together.
- Context keeps it focused and leaves ones personal agenda out of it.
- Meet with people and say, “here’s who we are, do you want to join?”
- We took a good year to meet continually and this process let leaders emerge. Those with the vision stayed believing strongly enough that it was worthwhile although no immediate returns. Those who didn’t left and left a stronger board as they did. “Grandstanders” seem to fall away.
- We had trainings about what it meant to a board member. Something tangible keeps people involved (gives them a way to explain what they are doing for themselves, for their friends and family and their colleagues. If it had been “sustainable agriculture” then you get people who like to talk.
- Create a “safe community of interest” and
- Establish trust and respect for those who are so different and wouldn’t meet otherwise.
- Language changes from group to group, and facilitating a FM means finding the common language.
- What’s in it for New Orleans? Finding out and learning what is in it for them and where they are coming from .
- Identifying hot button items.
- Creating working ecological economies. Developing strategies for a bioregional economy.
- Don’t be like most environmental and social justice activists: always defining ourselves as “against.” There’s nothing positive, nothing building, just destructive. No wonder we look like a bunch of crazies.
- Changes come when we form healthy relationships, and we need to have social spaces conducive to building new institutions and structures.
- When everybody is a potential friend – like to learn their language.
- Move away from the Alinsky approach that your thinking was this is right way and everything else is bad way.
- build new community with win-win and build wealth.
- It’s much easier to do community organizing this way.
- In traditional Alinsky organizing, all we’re doing is responding to someone’s agenda.
- Setting up a model community with shared values about behavior.
- Different perspectives and ideas are all supported – with a few values weaving through community of buyers.
- Positive community organizing.
- Need the leadership there with outside perspective “champion”. Need clear idea where want to be 3-4 years from now.
- Don’t take the organization in a direction it’s not ready to go. The market is a built-in rudder and it determines direction.
Looked at the Basque region – whole economic system has changed – it is flexible, owner-operated. Rethink the role of private sector. Underneath all this is the philosophy and belief-system.
Ben Burketts group, black farmers in MS, getting access to the city.
FM needed someone in the city who could work on the permits, parking, culture. The center is the entry point in to the city and the urban marketplace. We creat opportunities and those that want to utilize them do so.
Tom Danna didn’t want to come into town for a long time. He was a great organic grower with 20 acres in production, and we would have loved to have him at the FM. We made an exception in his case, to let another farmer, his neighbor, sell his stuff and we’ve looked in cooperative arrangements between farmers. It’s a case-by-case. If exceptions don’t outrightly help the FM, if it fosters a future relationship, like a formal cooperative, then we allow it (as long as it is not detrimental to another farmer).
How to help transition farmers to the city? Easiest for new farmers, semi-retired, people going back to farming after being in an urban environment – they come to the farm with these new people skills and an understanding of the city. Sometimes these new farmers are able to transfer knowledge from one field to another, for example, we have a farmer who used to be oil chemist and has applied his chemistry skills in growing organic oranges.
Some farmers just aren’t “people” farmers — Not comfortable in social situations outside their rural communities.
Low-key leaders – they take it upon themselves to introduce FM concept to others. Innovative as well as entrepreneur. Introduce those that would become a leader – has a vested interest in seeing market succeed. He trying to fulfill needs of market. And a bravagado – who’s turning to in rural – the innovator. If these farms can be profitable as farms – then they’ll stay farms.
We have green consumers. Borderline aggressive eco-buyers.
We received so much help that we like to provide the same good-will to those communities that contact us for help and advice on starting a farmers’ market. They are are so excited to start a farmers’ market that advise ends up being a “reality-check”. In a sense we try to talk them out of it, stressing that it’s a long-term commitment as well as a large time commitment throughout the year. And just like the farmers, managing a FM means working when the FM is open, usually during the weekend or evenings. I strongly encourage them to come out to our market and show them around to the farmers and let them see all that we do to support the market. I spend lots of time on the phone consulting other communities as much as when I was doing research back when we were starting out FM. I ask them “What’s you mission? What are your goals: economic or producer development.” I walk them through issues revolving around staff, board, funding streams, and the rules and regulations. It means examining what kind of NPO you want out of it and what assets do they have now. Do they have key community leaders who are supportive of the FM, who have the vision? It means creating and training for a manager that promotes trust at all times and cultivates leadership among farmers and consumers alike.
Chris in Baton Rouge was a grad student and for his project he was to set up a farmers’ market. “He was just as crazy enough like us.”
A key to multiplying the idea is identifying potential partners, including nontraditional leaders, like chefs. We like starting with a visible model of consumer-driven market (such as FM or CSA), This approach is basic to organizing becauuse it’s one of new relatiohnships where everyone sees their own self-interest.
Other enterprises coming from FM. Working with a low-income neighborhood to do pasta processing, which they could initially sell through the FM and with the connections set up with restaurants throughout New Orleans. (The FM has enabled restaurants to find and buy a wider-range of products grown and produced locally). We ‘re providing tech assistance, looking into local labeling and this is all social-engineering when we foster enterprises, reshaping community perspectives and attitudes and enabling people to succeed in doing their own thing.