Thursday, January 28, 2010

It looks immodest but...

the most recent post to the Institute for Social and Economic Developement's Remarkable Women series does capture many of the good things about our market:

Eileen Nichols: A Remarkable Woman in Agriculture
Submitted by Daniel Krotz on Thu, 01/28/2010 - 11:20
in Refugee Agricultural Promotion Projects BlogNews

Eileen Nichols, Director of the Webb City Farmers Market in Webb City, Missouri, had been pondering the idea of a farmers market in Webb City for a while, although she says, “I didn’t know anything about farmers markets; I just thought they happened organically.” At first she imagined that her involvement would be simply opening and closing the market Little did she know how her vision would grow into the thriving market it has become (including winning the Missouri Market of the Year award in 2009), and Eileen’s work is resonant in nearly all aspects of it’s success. Since its inception ten years ago, the Webb City Farmers Market has grown from 3 vendors to 54 last season, including 30% immigrant growers. It has become a community center, a place where customers and farmers not only interact but also become invested in one another.

When Eileen thinks about the market’s success, she says the “best thing we did when we started” was asking for a mentor from a neighboring town’s market, the Greater Springfield Farmers Market. The mentor attended an early organizational meeting in Webb City and suggested that the market should limit its vendors to producers only, which Eileen says has been critical to its success. Eileen’s experience working with media has also been an asset; the local newspaper supports the market with free advertising. Another successful component has been site visits: in a policy developed by Eileen, every long-season vendor is visited twice yearly by an inspection team of managers and board members, while short-season vendors are visited once. This practice not only promotes food safety, it gives growers an opportunity to learn about different techniques and for the market managers and board to better know the growers.

The visits were helpful when Eileen met with Hmong farmers eager to sell at the market. Four years ago Eileen was not aware of the Hmong farming community; they now make up 75% of the produce growers at the market. However when they began selling she noticed that the Hmong farmers were taking a lot of their traditional Asian produce home, unable to find customers. After a site visit to learn about their practices Eileen found funding for a project with five Hmong families, including workshops and a farm field day where farmers learned about caging tomatoes and peppers. Eileen has witnessed trust grow between the farmers and mentors as new techniques are implemented, as well as customer education, such as recipes and tastings at the market of traditional Hmong vegetables. “One farmer,” she says, “implemented everything beautifully. I was so pleased when she called and asked where she could buy more tomato cages.”

When asked what she likes about working with farmers, Eileen says simply that farmers impress her. “They have a clear understanding that what is good for the market is good for their bottom line.” For example, the farmers decided to allocate 20% of the market budget to Cooking for a Cause, a weekly meal prepared by market volunteers, the proceeds of which go to local non-profits, from the Humane Society to Friends of the Library. Additionally, farmers voted to allocate up to half of their vendor fees to the market’s music budget, allowing for live music at every market. The farmers understand how important both programs are to building the community spirit and atmosphere around which the market has grown. When asked in a survey about problems they wanted to address, farmers spoke first about making the market more accessible to customers through better management of parking and traffic, as well as installing a hard surface under the pavilion (which was completed in the 2009 season) to ease access for wheelchairs and strollers. An appreciation of everything the market brings is shared by farmers and customers who value access to local produce and view the market as a community resource. “Even in scary economic times,” says Eileen, the market is mutually beneficial for the community and growers.

With the success of the Webb City Farmers Market, Eileen receives many calls from others wanting to start farmers markets in their towns and seeking advice. While she is happy to discuss Webb City’s unique successes and challenges, ultimately Eileen believes that “farmers markets are the essence of local. If you could clone it, it would lose the value. You can take ideas from others, but it needs to reflect each individual community. What works for your community is what you need to be aiming for.” Fortunately for Webb City, Eileen has helped to create a market that reflects the needs of farmers and customers while growing community.

To learn more about the Webb City Farmers Market visit: