farmers market (copy)

Families peruse the vendor tents at the Northwest Farmers Market in May 2020.

MONTPELIER — At the heart of many Vermont communities, there is a farmers’ market.

Next month, a 10-year plan to support farmers’ markets at a legislative level is receiving recommendations from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, VT Farm to Plate and the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. Among the recommendations is a call for more funds to strengthen Vermont’s farmers’ market outreach in an age where the importance of marketing, search engine optimization, media relations and advertising has grown.

“If we are really serious about the food system, every spoke has to have a serious foundation,” said Mieko Ozeki, former director of the Burlington Farmer’s Market.

The recommendations suggest $500,000 be allocated annually for a statewide marketing campaign to help promote Vermont’s markets and grow their customer base. The plan also calls for $150,000 for two positions: one to manage the centralized resources and marketing strategy for producers, and one for the Vermont Farmer’s Market Association to better support its members.

Mark Montalban, manager of the Northwest Farmer’s Market in St. Albans and owner of Green Acres Homestead, said while he agrees with most of the recommendations, he is wary of how they might affect customer bases and small communities.

“My big issue with the plan is the assumption that people with money are going to come in and its going to trickle down,” Montalban said, adding that more support was needed at the local level for farmers markets and stakeholders.

Ozeki, who is now an advisory member of the Vermont Farmers Market Association, said the recommendations were borne out of several focus groups that helped formulate a document of perceived needs.

“Marketing is a really big gap (among vendor skills),” Ozeki said. “Not all farmers markets do things the same of the things we all have shared is we don’t know how to consistently market farmers markets.”

Montalban agreed that marketing training would be helpful for vendors, and voiced support for social media content coordination training, especially in an age where sales and commerce are transitioning to mostly online transactions.

“What I find good about the plan, is it can really help access for people,” Montalban said. “With the plan, it will allow more funds and more grants...”

The plan also recommends looking into establishing eight flagship farmer’s markets, possibly in collaboration with the Vermont State Parks system, Vermont Land Trust, and other landowners, something that Ozeki said could create a new and permanent branch of Vermont’s commercial system, guiding markets like a business hub.

The recommendations also include business assistance funding, including stipends to pay members of organizations to participate, and the organization of peer training and brainstorming with farms who have adopted the online farm and customizable Community-Supported Agriculture programs.

The document suggests creation of a state funding source to provide for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont’s (NOFA-VT) market EBT doubling programs for all 45 farmer’s markets across the state. The program, known as “Crop Cash,” is a double value incentive that matches 3SquaresVT’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to be used on fresh produce at Vermont farmers markets, according to NOFA-VT.

According to a release from the Agency of Agriculture and Vermont Farm to Plate, 1,833 farms, 26.9% of all farms in Vermont, sell some food direct to consumers, and direct-to-consumer sales provide an average revenue of $27,262 per farm.

Unlike some other farmer’s markets, Montalban said the NWFM operates as a 501(c4), which means the market operates in Taylor Park as a “public good,” and none of the vendors have to pay for their space.

The plan could also provide for the founding of a winter farmer’s market, which would theoretically increase annual vendor sales, and some of the funds could be used to rent portable toilets, supplies and advertisements, bolster their entertainment budget and bring in more activities for younger customers.

Montalban said farmers’ markets across the state saw an increase in sales of around 44% from 2019-2020, and many of those were due to customers ordering their groceries through online portals and picking them up in person. Of those households, he said 31% were receiving SNAP benefits in Franklin County, and he knows of many still signing up.

The proposed 10-year plan builds on the previous 10-year plan approved by the legislature in 2010. Efforts were made to reach Erin Buckwalter, the primary author of the recommendations, but she could not be reached. Attempts to reach the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund were also unsuccessful.

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