UPDATED 2 pm with info from Daniel Price.
Without some revisions, farmers and other vendors hoping to
participate in the Portland Farmers' Market on
Wednesdays in Monument Square
and Saturdays in Deering
are unlikely to find the already murky admission process any clearer under a
new plan for market management set to be discussed by city officials on
Thursday, May 17, at 6 pm in the City Hall's Council Chambers.
The present system is a quasi-informal one governed jointly
by the city clerk's office and the Portland
Farmers' Market Association, in which the city individually
licenses vendors to sell their items, but with the number of vendors and the
diversity of their products determined internally by the association -
including voting on who gets to join the market when spaces become available.
The group running the market has asked the city to enter
into an agreement similar to those in place in other Maine communities, in which the city would
license the use of the space to the association, and the farmers themselves
would handle everything else.
City Clerk Kathy Jones sees an advantage in handling less
paperwork in her office, including relief from handling a waiting list so
burdened that at least one vendor has been waiting "four or five years" to sell
her flowers there. (The association tries to balance the diversity of active
vendors, to avoid having too many vegetables, say, and no meats or cheeses.)
But some criticism of the proposal has come from the concern
that the farmers would effectively control access to money-making opportunities
on public land during farmers' market hours.
"We feel that the process of leaving it up to a vote of the
membership, without any guidelines, could result in an unfair process," wrote
associate city attorney Ann Freeman in a March 8 memo to the council's Public
Safety, Health, and Human Services Committee. City staff, she noted, "would
like to see objective criteria govern and not simply the will of the
Association." Specifically, Freeman recommended there be "objective criteria,
based on position on the waiting list, by which new farmers are invited into
That concern didn't get any traction with committee members
in March, and is missing from a proposed license the city is considering
issuing to the Farmers' Market Association. The Public Safety Committee will
take up the discussion on Thursday, May 17, at 6 pm in the City Hall's Council
The lack of criteria has irked one local would-be vendor,
Eli Cayer of Urban
Farm Fermentory, which has applied to join the market to sell its items, which
include honey, mushrooms, mead, and hard cider. Though almost all of UFF's
items would be new to the market, two vendors selling cheese were admitted, and
UFF wasn't, in the last round, Cayer says. He is not sure why that decision
happened, or how.
At issue is not just a lucrative opportunity for local
agricultural businesses, but whether - and how - the city should cede control
over access to public land to a private group.
With no "objective criteria" along the lines of city staff's
concerns, more questions like Cayer's are sure to arise in the future.
But there's good news: "If folks come on Thursday and say we
think that the process is still not clear and we would like the city to have
more clear language, I'd be open to that," Freeman says, noting that she acts
at the direction of the councilors on the committee. "There's a lot of room to
UPDATE at 2 pm:
“We’re asking that the city step away from having any hand
in the management of the market,” Price says, noting that city staff are often
too busy to do much management (a point conceded by both Jones and Freeman).
The proposed license arrangement would clarify a lot of
presently gray areas. “There are a lot of things to running a farmers’ market
that the city’s rules and regs don’t address,” Price says.
For example, “It doesn’t say anything about how people are
admitted to the market.” Which means this new arrangement would, technically,
be clearer and more transparent than the existing system, but its effect may be
substantially the same.
(Price says that in other cities, when farmers’ markets are
on public land, there’s next to no regulation — perhaps the city rents the
space to a group of farmers, but with no licensing or other oversight models on
could base its new policy.)
Price says the process used to involve a waiting list, but
that is “outdated,” because of the efforts to keep a balance of types of
different vendors. The association now accepts applications and presentations,
and existing members vote on who should be admitted, depending on how many
slots are available and their own perceptions of what’s needed in the market.
Price says those factors at present include:
-preferring people who produce most of what they sell (as
opposed to buying and reselling others’ items)
-the timing of the products intended for sale (the market
sometimes can be slow to start in the spring, as early harvests come in, and
winds down slowly in the fall, so producers with items at those times may find
it easier to get in)
-if people are already in one of the Portland markets (Wednesday, Saturday, and
winter), they are known quantities and more likely to get open spots in one of
the others if they apply
-ensuring that the quantity being produced will be enough to
meet the demand at the market
“We’re really not trying to keep people out,” Price says.
Most of the members of the market are in what he calls “the more the merrier
camp,” as opposed to the “there’s only so much to go around” school of thought
about adding vendors.
“There is no objective criteria and I don’t know how you
create that” in the face of varying demand from customers. “The only truly
objective way to do it is the waiting list,” Price admits, but goes on to note
that such a system could end up admitting people who are not serious about the
endeavor, or who produce too little to be a viable seller.
Price knows he has his hand on the rudder of a very
important factor in local agriculture: “This farmers market will make or break your business.”
As for Cayer’s concerns, Price notes that if there were a
waiting list, Cayer would be behind several dozen people in line, so it might
take many years for UFF to get to the market anyway. In the meantime, his
advice is simple: “Keep trying. Apply next year.”
I'll update this story
when I hear back from the Portland
Farmers' Market Association people and from Public Safety Committee chairman Ed