Struggling Farmers’ Markets Association faces uncertain future

With no funding for an executive director and a shortage of volunteers, the association in danger of folding, says its outgoing chair

The room fell quiet as outgoing chair Jennifer Morrison made her plea “not to let this organization fold” to the 40 people attending the recent annual meeting of the Farmers’ Markets Association of Manitoba Co-op Inc.

“We need support from the membership,” said Morrison. “We can’t run this organization on a small volunteer board.”

But when the call went out for nominations to fill the three vacant seats on the association’s five-member board, only one hand went up.

“I’ve got a few ideas,” said Jeffrey Veenstra, a young farmer who runs a market vegetable garden near Birds Hill Park and sells at the nearby Pineridge Hollow Farmers’ Market.

Naturally, he’s now on the board and, like his fellow directors (no one offered to take over from Morrison as chair), has his work cut out for him.

There was lots of enthusiasm when the association was formed in 2007, and many expected it would be a key driver of the province’s emerging local food movement.

Local food remains hot, but the association’s future is shaky, at best. There’s no money for hiring an executive director to handle administration, marketing efforts, and communication with its 40-member markets, some of which are behind in their dues.

One of Veenstra’s ideas is to open up memberships to customers of farmers’ markets, something now allowed under provincial rules governing co-ops.

“If we could increase the amount of members, we could increase revenues, too,” he said.

A lack of funding “is definitely limiting the things we’re capable of doing right now,” said board treasurer Alan Graham.  

Joe Braun said he fears history is about to repeat itself. An earlier version of the current association folded in the mid-1990s, largely because of volunteer burnout.

“Now we’re into our second dilemma,” said Braun, liaison for the Altona Farmers’ Market.

Volunteer boards have a very tough job, he said. It’s critical for organizations to keep their membership engaged, but for a small group of volunteers it’s hard to find time for that on top of everything else, he noted.

“The flow of information is so difficult to accomplish,” said Braun. “But it has to be done or it all just falls apart.”

It’s no mystery about what members are looking for — a study done in 2008 found vendors wanted help on how to price and market their wares, and something more tangible than a website link with their organization. Until 2011, the association had an executive director able to spend time on finding resource people to offer that sort of training and skills development.

But when the funding for the position ran out, the volunteers had to take over. Call the association’s office and a voicemail message says don’t expect your call to be returned immediately. Board members also have the unpleasant task of asking for payment of outstanding dues, said Meg Dias, another board member who resigned this spring.

“We could be doing other, more positive things, for the organization,” said Dias.

People need to remember why the association was formed in the first place, said Pat Herman, one of its founders and co-ordinator of the Pineridge Hollow Farmers’ Market.

Prior to its formation, markets had no joint voice to deal with issues such as outdated guidelines for operation, which used to restrict markets to being open just 14 days a year.

“One of the big things that we did was help with the establishment of the farmers’ market guidelines,” she said. “That was done in conjunction with MAFRI and the Department of Health and it was very important for markets.”

The association also developed a group liability insurance program and sponsors people to attend MarketSafe, a food-handling course designed especially for vendors at markets or the farm gate.

“That means there’s more people out there handling food properly when they’re selling it and that’s very, very important,” she said.

The association also helped administer a $450,000 infrastructure upgrade in 2009 funded by Canada’s Economic Action Plan, a $45,000 provincial grant for market site improvements, and conducted an economic impact study showing farmers’ markets in the province generate $10 million of economic activity annually.

It’s unlikely any of these would have happened if there’d been no association, said Herman, who served on the board for three years.   

“So I think if this group stops now, it would be tragic,” she said. “We worked very, very hard to get this started.”

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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