Finessing the Farmers’ Market Model
20 May 2015 at 10:12 am
Being denied charitable status and facing accusations of elitism have been barriers on the road to success for one Melbourne social entrepreneur who continues to drive the farmers’ market movement with hopes of improving access to quality produce.
Journalist Nadia Boyce looks at the farmers’ market phenomenon in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Miranda Sharp, the founder of Melbourne Farmers Markets, has been in the food industry for a long time. She was first a caterer in the 80s and 90s, and then wrote for Epicure in The Age. Those experiences, she said, showed her the increasing disconnect between consumers and the agriculture industry.
Put simply – people didn’t really know where their food was coming from.
In response, she started Melbourne’s first farmers’ market at Collingwood Children's Farm in 2002, before moving to Gippsland and organising three more from her kitchen table. Moving back to Melbourne was the turning point for Sharp, and the beginning of a tough but rewarding experiment with social enterprise.
She spoke to Pro Bono Australia News about how she has grown her network of markets from the ground up, the challenges of being denied charitable status, and how she deals with accusations of elitism.
A Unique Model
Miranda Sharp has boosted the prospects of success for the markets through painstaking care and attention to detail, ensuring she offers farmers the best possible chance of earning a profit.
“We have a base of farmers and producers,” she explains. “Each week over time we’ve developed a market mix for each event that happens…. we coordinate that very carefully.
“It’s probably what sets us apart, because we put a lot of effort into that organising aspect of it. We survive by balancing the number of stallholders we can fit at each site, what is appropriate for the season and also try not to duplicate so that they all have a good day’s trade.”
All funding is self-generated, by charging stallholders a site fee. Sharp says the organisation has grown from having a roster of around 50 farmers when starting out to now having hundreds rotating through the seasons.
Yet it is still a struggle at times, she concedes.
“We have costs of renting our office space and staff. It’s very, very labour intensive. And then we also pay a site fee for each market. We have enormous promotional mechanisms in place, but we try and keep [the spend] to a minimum, use social media where we can. It’s because there’s such good will, and it’s a very positive thing that we’re doing, we do get a lot of support,” she says.
“As you can imagine, support is one thing, but if nobody turns up on the day, it kills it. Every effort can just be wasted if it’s a horrible, filthy, weather day!”
Despite the common use of the term ‘farmers’ market’, Sharp explains that genuine farmer’s markets are surprisingly rare.
“The irony is that they’re called farmers’ markets, but as it’s a common-use word, we don’t have any legislation, or any protection – but the definition of the word is really very unique, where a farmer can actually have a marketplace.”
The social impact of the her markets resonates well beyond event day, Sharp explains.
“It’s like an iceberg. The bit above the surface is the market day, and it’s a wonderful, engaging thing to do, and people respond very positively to it, but beneath the surface, a lot more happens – the education, the connectivity, the advocacy, the policy-making, and leadership – that’s where I see the important work happening,” she says.
“The issues in the industry for small producers have gotten greater, so we’re tackling on their behalf, food regulations or talking about land use and development and squeezing farmers out.”
Sharp says that the farmers market industry is actually much smaller – and much more challenging to succeed in – than it appears. Despite the growing fashionability, perceived authenticity and cultural status assigned to the act of buying fresh local produce.
“When things like the contamination of mixed berries hit the headlines, everyone suddenly goes ‘oooh, I must head to a farmers’ market and I must buy local!’ But three weeks later, it has dropped off,” she says.
“It seems like it’s enormous but it’s actually miniscule and it’s barely making ends meet…that’s the challenge so many of us are facing with funding and viability at the moment in the community space. There are so many layers involved, and each one can displace all the work.”
For Sharp, a major blow came when she was denied charitable status – a move on the part of the charity regulator she says she cannot understand.
“Part of our challenge is that while we’re a Not for Profit, the original advice that I got was that as a company – a registered Not for Profit – we would also have a good chance of getting charitable status as well,” she says.
“What’s been determined is that because our main beneficiaries – being regional small business – farmers – are for-profit, we can’t qualify as a charitable organisation.
“We work with community organisations, councils and primary schools, Gasworks Art Park, Melbourne University, Abbotsford Convent, Collingwood Children's Farm. They’re all community-based, and a number of them are charitable organisations with charity status, but we can’t get it. We do a lot of the work, they get a lot of the benefits, but we can’t seem to prove our status in the mix.
“It is incredibly frustrating and costly to us and now that social enterprise has caught up in a very broadly defined area – with no structural definition – partly I’m thinking, why did I do this!?
“My motivation is to be recognised for our work, sure, but to just be able to have a fair structure for what we do so we can keep costs low enough for small producers to participate and run a sound organisation that has healthy trading without unnecessary costs.”
Sharp’s initial decision to register as a Not for Profit came after careful consideration.
“When I started the market at Collingwood Children’s Farm I owned it. I had the risk, I had the joys! I’ve always believed that from the community aspect, our food needs to stay in the community, driven by the community, and so I gave the entity to the Collingwood Children's Farm, and they have obviously used it for significant fundraising and also profile to bring a new audience both to the farm and to talk about local food. That was way back then,” she recounts.
“When I moved back to Melbourne three years ago, and the demand was there to do more, start more markets and have a bit of a network, I thought, what structure am I going to create?
“The only structure I really felt comfortable with was a Not for Profit. A company limited by guarantee, with a voluntary board of directors, with myself as an employee of the company. So that’s what I did.
Sharp hopes that the benefits of the structure she has in place will eventuate in time, enabling the organisation to increase its work in the advocacy space.
“We’re at a point where we can’t cope with any more but there’s so much more we need to do,” she laments.
Tackling Cultural Connotations
Farmers’ markets have seemingly experienced a boom in recent years, but that popularity has often come with the assumption that they are a cultural phenomenon reserved for the well-to-do.
Sharp concedes she has mixed feelings about the positioning of farmer’s markets as a cultural fixture. She must refute misinformation and maintain the authenticity of her offering, while also leveraging the influx of interested consumers.
“The negativity at times is just so disheartening,” she says. “When people are labelling us elitist and you talk to a farmer who is reliant on it, they are so offended by the idea that they’re just selling to the rich and that they’re doing something that’s a trend.”
“It’s really insulting to them, but at the same time, we have to start somewhere, we work endlessly.
“We’re not supported by anyone to do it, so we can only cope with doing so much at a time. We feel that if we can get more traction behind us, then we can start taking on the bigger projects of food waste, excess and imperfect [produce] and redirection to low-income communities and so on.
“It’s why we’re working with primary schools. Carlton Primary School statistically is one of Melbourne’s most challenged primary schools – surprisingly – because it’s at the bottom of the [housing commission] flats. So we can demonstrate the balance and the community benefit if only people will ask, otherwise they will only go on making [assumptions].”
Moving forward, Sharp hopes to ensure the viability of and success of each and every market.
“[I’d like] conservative but healthy profitability, because if we’re striving for each stallholder to attend, I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect that for ourselves, just to run a decent, albeit Not for Profit, business.”
From the food industry, she’d like to see action on food labelling, so the real value in purchasing locally is highlighted.
“If there wasn’t so much ambiguity, if we all could talk straight, then I think farmers would be a hell of a lot better off, because there’d be fairer competition in plain english. You can’t hide things if it has to be in print and unambiguous,” she says.
“In our patch we’d also love to see legislation to define what a farmer's market is because then we wouldn’t have the kind of ‘anything goes’ farmers’ market which very much undermines the authentic version.”
In the meantime, funding remains a barrier.
“I don’t go around with my hand out but we definitely need – our organisation certainly needs – the charitable status, that would make a huge difference,” she says.
“Also, it’s very hard for us to get grants. there’s no specific grants for our sector. We need to make more fundamental progress as the basis of the organisation, before we can start tackling the really challenging stuff.
“I really want to get stuck into some of the other educational aspects which will assist the public to access local food more often with more connection and better understanding of what they’re actually buying.
“Then we’ll really make a difference.”
Read more about Melbourne Farmers Markets here.