Our Opinion: Grant fuels growth for farmers markets

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The Berkshires' outdoor farmers market season comes to an end with Saturday's final Great Barrington Farmers Market on Church Street. As farmers and other food producers stow away their foldout tents and tables for the long winter, they may be pleased to know that their endeavors may get a little easier next year in the form of more marketing muscle and organizational support.

The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, in partnership with Berkshire Farm & Table and Alchemy Initiative, was awarded a three-year grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture ("Coordinating farmers markets," Eagle, October 24). The Farmers Market Promotion Program grant — $238,595 total — will go towards the creation of the Berkshire Market Collective.

The grant award itself serves as high praise for the county's 20 farmers markets, which have grown to become important players in the economies of the towns in which they reside. In the meantime, the markets have helped forge enduring relationships between farmers and consumers. Not to mention, farmers markets are singularly enjoyable affairs for residents and tourists alike.

But there have been struggles along the way, struggles that the Berkshire Market Collective hopes to begin alleviating. To understand the task at hand first requires an understanding of the individual farmers markets themselves, which run from ad hoc to rather formal affairs. Some have managers, while others do not. Some have marketing budgets, while others do not.

The Collective's first task is to meet one on one with organizers of each of the county's markets in order to learn what their needs are and how the Collective could best serve them. From those meetings, the Collective will develop a strategic plan and three-year timeline. Among the Collective's goals is to reduce the administrative burden of managing a farmers market and to be a resource for market managers to share information and expertise. The Collective is already working on a website that will include resources for market organizers, such as downloadable templates for advertising posters and postcards. There will be a back-end forum for farmers and market managers that will focus on common issues, including matters such as government regulations and permitting procedures. The Collective expects to explore whether markets could save money through shared insurance policies. It will pursue collaborative marketing. To help develop advertising initiatives, it will collect data on who attends specific markets and why. It will also likely look toward training markets to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, a time-consuming and formidable process.

Most of the farmers markets don't have the people in place to do these sorts of tasks. Not surprisingly, the workload faced by market managers has led to a high turnover rate. One of the problems the grant won't solve is the fact that many of the farmers markets are not organizations at all in the formal sense. While, for instance, the farmers market in Pittsfield has Alchemy Initiative as its sponsors, Great Barrington doesn't have a fiscal sponsor. Without backing or non-profit status, a farmers market is left out in the cold when it comes time to apply for grants.

In any case, thanks to this USDA grant, so begins the process of identifying addressing problems. Moreover, its serves as a significant marker that the Berkshires' success as a source and destination of food is not to be denied. Our emerging food movement will only grow stronger the more it comes together.

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