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Fairness at the Portland Farmers’ Market

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 Oaks Park 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 the market."

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 Chambers.

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 shape this."

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 which Portland 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 Suslovic.

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