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PODCAST

The Leading Voices in Food

E227: Big wins through the North Carolina Farmers Market Network

Hosted by: Norbert Wilson (Duke)
January 31, 2024


In 2022, more than 6 million people visited farmers markets across North Carolina. Today, we’re talking with a team of people who are the driving force behind the North Carolina Farmers Market Network: Maggie Funkhouser, Catherine Elkins, and Nora Rodli. The goal of the North Carolina Farmers Market is to create and support a thriving network of marketplaces for the state’s local food and farm products. The nonprofit network, which was recently awarded a USDA Farmers Market Promotion Capacity-building grant, will provide education, programming, and partnership development assistance to farmers market managers, including resources to support historically underserved populations.

Maggie Funkhouser is currently serving as the interim Board Chair of the North Carolina Farmers Market Network. She is the Manager of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market in Carrboro, NC, where she has worked since 2019. She was raised in North Carolina’s Triangle and has worked in local food systems there for many years, including as an educator, gardener, baker, and foodservice industry worker before coming to the farmers market. She carries with her a love of writing, language, and storytelling from her classical education background, and she is drawn to foodways stories and oral histories. She is especially interested in the intersection of food access and farmers markets, as well as learning more about making farmers’ markets inclusive, equitable, and accessible community spaces.

Catherine Elkins has long enjoyed the spirit and joy of farmers markets, starting in Pennsylvania visiting several Amish markets and continuing in North Carolina after moving to Chapel Hill. She volunteered for many years at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, and then after retirement, stole many of their successful strategies when designing, starting and managing the Olde Beaufort Farmers’ Market. She also assists with the Carteret Local Food Network’s Mobile Market which operates a red short school bus tricked out to serve many low income and senior communities in Carteret County with the freshest, most local produce and farm products from Carteret farmers.

Nora Rodli is the Program Coordinator for the NC Farmers Market Network.  She brings over 25 years of agricultural experience from working as a farmer and with farmer training and education.  She also has a healthcare background as an advanced public health nurse (APHN).  Currently living and farming in Boone, NC, Nora is passionate about the primary roles that local food and increased access to local food can play in health promotion and disease prevention, resilient local food systems and vibrant inclusive communities.

Interview Summary

I would like to take a moment to actually get to know you all a little bit better. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in farmers markets. Catherine, let’s start with you.

Catherine – Sure. I’ve been doing this for the longest, I suppose. I went with my mom many times to Amish markets in Pennsylvania where I grew up. She was not a very good gardener. But we could buy everything that she liked at the market. I also worked a bit at the Carrboro Farmers Market, and I then got an opportunity to work with the Morehead City Saturday Market, a one-year lifespan. And the Old Beaufort Farmers Market we started up the next year, that’s now in its 10th year. That makes me proud. I liked that market a lot. Managed it for two years, and I’m still one of those devotees that go on vacation and have to look up the closest farmers market just to check out new stuff.

Maggie – Like most managers, I did not go to school to be a farmers market manager. It kind of found me, I guess you could say. I went to graduate school directly after undergrad for classical languages. Then when I moved back to the Triangle, I just sort of started getting involved more and more with local food. I worked in restaurants, I worked in coffee shops, and one time I worked in an artisan bakery; I managed a culinary garden, and I just kind of kept getting drawn into different parts of the community in our local food system in the Triangle. In 2019, I applied for and was offered a job at the Carrboro Farmers Market as the assistant manager. I worked there for about a year. Then in 2020, I took over as the manager, and I’ve been here ever since.

Nora – So, I actually come to farmers markets as a farmer. For the past 25 years, I’ve farmed in various places around the country, mostly New Mexico and Hawaii and now North Carolina. That has given me the ability to see and experience farmers markets in a lot of different manners, whether it be a small market or a large market, and urban versus rural settings. I feel like I am uniquely on board as a cheering squad for farmers markets.

Thank you. We all need a cheerleader on our side, so it’s good to hear that. I really would love to ask each of you more questions about your past because there are some interesting connections that I hear. Catherine, the Marine Lab is in Beaufort, and I’m intrigued to know more about how those relationships develop. Maggie, I would love to talk more about your training as someone in the classics has influenced the way you think about this. I mean, this idea of food and agriculture is deeply within that literature, and so that’s really fascinating. And, Nora, I just can’t wait to learn more about Hawaii. But I can’t do that right now. We have other things to focus on. However, if those answers come up in your other responses, please feel free. I’m intrigued to talk to you all a little bit more about the North Carolina Farmers Market Network. What is it and who does it serve?

Maggie – I’ll kind of kick us off talking about the network a little bit, and maybe my colleagues can chime in. So, we incorporated this year as a 501 nonprofit under the name North Carolina Farmers Market Network. NCFMN, for short. That’s our kind of alphabet-soup title that I might say really, really fast. But there had kind of been plans and thoughts to form a statewide network in North Carolina for a long time. We gained a lot of momentum in 2020 because in 2020 we started, with the help of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, the State Extension and RAFI, when the pandemic hit, we started having these weekly Zoom calls that were specifically for farmers market managers. The reason we started them in March 2020 was because we were all really, really unsure about what was happening and what was going to happen to the farmers market spaces. Many of our markets across the state were shut down. Many of them had a lot of additional regulations and policies and emergency protocols that were really hard to implement, especially if there were no permanent staff or volunteer staff or part-time staff. In my position, I’m lucky enough to be full-time, but many market managers are not. So, we started out as a rag-tag group of market managers that were just trying to stay open and operating in a really difficult time. We had weekly calls, and we went over different policies we had, different marketing techniques we were using to communicate to the public about our pandemic response. I really clung to it as a source of support during that time. Then over the next couple of years, we started meeting biweekly, then we started meeting monthly. We kind of realized that we had a lot to talk about and a lot to share. Our Zoom name was COVID-19 Calls for Farmers Markets. But what started out as COVID-19 Calls for Farmers Markets turned into resource sharing, professional development, learning things like grant writing, bookkeeping, managing conflicts. And last year we decided to make it official. So, we applied for our FMPP grant, our Farmers Market Promotion Program grant, through the USDA, and we were awarded it. And then we were on the path to nonprofit incorporation.

Maggie, that is really fascinating, and it’s interesting to hear how a crisis of COVID-19 drew a lot of you together. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like it was beneficial in terms of the work you were doing. And it may have also had some personal benefits – just being connected to other people who were in the same field. And you all were able to talk about how you were managing things. Did that take place? Was there more than just sort of, “Here’s how to manage your books,” or “Here’s how to manage conflict”?

Maggie – For sure. The camaraderie was just incredible. Farmers market managers, it’s kind of a funny position, and maybe Nora can speak to this a little bit as a farmer who sells at a farmers market, and maybe a different perspective about what a market manager does or the role they occupy. But we do a lot of different things. On any given day we can be planning special events, applying for grants, communicating with vendors, communicating with our boards. And so, to have connections, especially for me being in the Triangle where we have a lot of farmers markets, I had never really met their managers or interacted with them. And now we’re total pals. It really was an opportunity for me to share experiences with people who have very similar jobs, and those jobs are often singular in their workplace.

Nora, since she called you out, I’m interested, from a farmer’s perspective, I would love to hear your thoughts, and, of course, Catherine, please feel free to join in.

Nora – Yes, I’d love to share. I feel like before meeting this network, and I’ve only been with them since April, I have to admit that as a farmer, I showed up at the farmers market and thought that’s when the market began and didn’t really think much beyond who was behind making it happen until I got there. And I’ve learned and been humbled by how much of an oversight that is. I definitely am guilty of not appreciating all of the work that goes into making sure that farmers markets happen. And I’ve spent the last six months learning about all the details of things that market managers deal with that farmers have no idea. And it’s similar to farmers, maybe, in that way where we wear many hats. And so, I feel like I’ve learned, one, to appreciate them, but, two, there’s not a lot of collective appreciation by anybody that goes on for farmers markets managers. And so, I think that by them grouping together every month because it can be such a siloed experience, it just seems like this really beautiful connection where, when you do your job well as a market manager, there’s nothing, like no one says a thing. No complaints mean success. And so, here’s a group that can give you compliments, you can empathize with one another, and know that you have each other’s back. It’s just a beautiful network.

Catherine – I think also what we noticed was that many times the overlap and potentially collaborative nature amongst managers is really great. These are not competitive people. They have secrets to share about what their special events might be, and not everybody has to hold Tomato Day on the same day. Or they may know people at City Hall that are the right people for this kind of permit or may as well share these things. They’re all on our same perspective. And plus, that, we found that there were many other states that had networks or associations. So, we could follow them, especially during a period of crisis and near panic as COVID was. Everybody’s just glued to their screens looking for information. And the states that had robust networks or associations already in place seemed to be able to help their markets succeed really well.

Thank you all for sharing this. It’s really fascinating to learn about the development of this farmers market network and to know that there are other farmers market networks in other states, and it’s great to hear of the learnings that you all gained from each other within the state and across states. So, this is really helpful. I’ve got to ask this question. I mean, it sounds like what drew you all together was the pandemic and thinking about how to navigate policies. Now that, I pray, we’re through the hard part of COVID, and I say that cautiously, what are things that are on your agenda now? What do you hope to see be different?

Maggie – Catherine kind of spoke to this. Even though farmers markets are separate spaces, our market is within 20 miles of four other farmers markets. But the goal is not to compete with them. The goal is to lift up farmers markets as accessible community spaces and viable spaces for our farmers to make direct sales. So, for us, we really want to strengthen that local food ethic across the state of North Carolina. Because selling at farmers markets is an extremely viable way that small-scale farmers can succeed in North Carolina. And so, if you have a market manager that is leaving after six months because they’re overwhelmed or they haven’t received a lot of institutionalized knowledge or training or what have you, then that’s where we can step in and say, “We have training, we can give you information, we can share resources, we can provide a network to you.” Our big, impactful goal that we’re working for is having a statewide nutrition incentive program, and I think Virginia calls theirs Fresh Match. Many statewide organizations have Double Bucks, Fresh Bucks, Market Match, whatever you want to call it, where they provide a dollar-for-dollar match for nutrition incentive programs like SNAP EBT or the Farmers Market Nutrition Program. And as of right now, farmers markets in North Carolina, most of them are fending for themselves. There are a few regional systems like in the western part of the state, the Triangle area farmers markets, Mecklenburg County farmers markets, that are working together. But we really want to have a statewide network where farmers markets across North Carolina can offer nutrition incentives to shopping at farmers markets.

Thank you for that. I’m really happy to hear how you all are working towards addressing policy questions and thinking about who the farmers markets can better serve by using programs like Double Up Bucks or the nutrition incentive programs, and seeing that work across the state. Because there are some significant differences in economic realities across the state. So, that’s wonderful to hear you all are doing that work. I’d just like to take a step back, and I’m going to go back to you, Maggie. Can you talk to us about the role of farmers markets in communities? What role do they play?

Maggie – We talk about this a lot in the farmers market space. Because from the outside, farmers markets are spaces of commerce. They’re a space where farmers can get together. Maybe you don’t realize there’s a level of organization behind it. But, in reality, anyone who is a regular at farmers markets knows that they are not just a space of commerce, that they are a community space. They are a third space, and an opportunity to socialize, meet your local farmers. And at our market, we were founded in the late ’70’s, we have customers who have been coming to our market for decades. They’ve known some of our farms for years, they’ve seen them get married and have kids, they’ve seen their loved ones pass away, they’ve seen them go through hardships, and seen them go through multiple recessions at this point. It’s a really unique space, especially in this kind of era where there is an increasingly globalized economy where you can order one-day shipping for everything you need. To be able to meet the person that’s growing your food or baking your bread is really unique. Many farmers markets promote the sense of community, and engagement between consumer and producer. A lot of us offer different types of community programming to kind of bolster that. So, things like kids’ activities, encouraging healthy nutrition and things like senior days, educational events. Catherine named Tomato Day, which happens to be a very big day for us. And we’ve kind of touched on Double Bucks and food access, and that’s another real priority for a farmers market. And, also, I didn’t mention this when we were talking about the pandemic, but we were looped under grocery stores as essential for the state of North Carolina. And so, that kind of maybe speaks to how we feel, and I hope others in our community feel about farmers markets as well.

Wow, that’s really fascinating. I didn’t appreciate that farmers markets were treated like grocery stores as essential workers. That’s really interesting. I’m intrigued, Nora and Catherine, what about your thoughts about the role that farmers markets may play in communities?

Catherine – Well, Nora would agree with that. The farmers are their own community, and they appreciate the opportunity to meet each other across the aisle, across the tables. “How’s things going on your farm?” “Let me tell you about what’s happening at my place.” Farming can be a really solitary profession. There’s many, many hours spent as just one person on a tractor, one person planting seeds, one person weeding. To have the camaraderie and the opportunity to meet up with your peers, that’s pretty powerful on a Saturday morning. It is a lot of time sometimes to give up. The better farmers markets, of course, are the ones where you’re talking directly to the farmer. How did they prepare this soil, or are they certified naturally grown? What does that mean to them on their farm? You get to actually have that conversation with a client, but only in person. So, it’s a big deal for the farmer.

Nora – Yes, for sure. I can speak to that. I feel like most farmers don’t have a lot of neighbors close by, and we can feel isolated in our own little work bubbles. And so, a farmers market is the social event of the week for us. Many markets that I have been a part of will have a standing lunch afterwards, and it develops into friendships that are really deep. I also wanted to just mention, from the farmer perspective, the value of meeting customers who are purchasing things from me and my farm, from others and their farms. It’s not just meet your farmer, but for us it’s like meet your customers. And it’s a chance to explain something, like why you’re excited about the diversity of such and such crops, why it matters. There’s only so much you can put into website descriptions and social media, and it’s just two-dimensional. Having the opportunity to meet and share space, the farmers market is so essential, I think, to not only understanding our food and where it comes from and how it’s produced, but increasing our value of it in this day where it seems like food is sometimes just an afterthought of convenience.

I love the idea of the farmers market being sort of like the water cooler for farmers to get together and swap stories and share in each other’s joys and probably also frustrations and pains. I can imagine how that’s a wonderful space for folks. I remember watching a farmers market, I was staying in a hotel, and this is how I can say it. They were there at five in the morning, and I was like, “What’s all this noise?” And it was great to see all of these farmers, one, setting up, but then I could see some of those exchanges. I had a sense of like there was a real community there. So, that’s wonderful. And this makes it clear that these farmers markets can be really beneficial for farmers. I’m interested to hear a little bit more on how farmers markets are supportive, if at all, to the financial wellbeing of farmers? Or is this just a labor of love? Is it just the water cooler?

Nora – I feel like they’re super economically important, and I think where I would say most importantly is as new and beginning farmers who are establishing their businesses. It is an extremely unique place to be able to try out different produce offerings and pricing. It’s like you’re practicing everything before you’re able to have a reputation to secure accounts that might be other versions of direct or indirect marketing. And so, farmers markets offer you that opportunity to gain instant feedback: “Did that sell, yes or no?” “What were the questions?” “What were the gripes?” It gives you constant feedback to be able to refine as you grow your business and make decisions for the coming years. That’s not only important as a farmer independently, I was also involved with some farmer-training programs, and we really highlighted farmers markets as giving that opportunity.

That’s a great insight, that it’s almost like a farmer incubator. It helps farmers test out different marketing means.

Nora – 100%, yes.

I would love to hear from some of the others. Catherine, Maggie, what are your thoughts about the financial benefit of farmers markets?

Catherine – We keep talking about it, how it’s so perfect for the farmer or for the producer but think of how perfect it is also for the shopper to keep coming to a place that’s always trying to reinvent itself in serving better and better and better food. My local brick-and-mortar store doesn’t do that. There are different priorities.

I am an economist. I am just loving this idea of price discovery in the market and the idea that each of these markets are different and they’re idiosyncratic and there’s something new happening. This is actually worthy of further study, but that’s another conversation for another time. So, thank you for sharing.

Catherine – I think you know probably better than most that farming is not a get-rich-quick scheme by any means. There are many examples of people, friends, who are pouring their heart and soul and muscles and fingernails into growing better and better, and they have to love it. They don’t usually pay themselves terribly well.

Maggie – Many of our farmers sell at multiple markets, and it’s kind of funny to hear things like: “Oh, I can always sell my cucumbers at the Carrboro farmer’s market, but I can never sell them at another market.” It’s so funny to think about how the different farmers markets are literally different economic markets, where our customer base has like their own kind of idiosyncratic interests, and maybe they love persimmons or something like that. At our farmers market, we’re definitely an incubator farmers market.

I want to ask one last question. And I say it’s last, and we will see how the conversation goes. Because this has been really a delight. For market managers and farmers, what does the North Carolina Farmers Market Network have to offer them? Catherine, why don’t you begin?

Catherine – Just like seeing your friendly farmer neighbors in person on Saturday morning, it’s also really fun and informational, educational, all those great words, to Zoom with the managers. We have a first Thursday of the month Zoom call to the managers who are members. We have a range of topics prepared. We have space for updates on legislature. We had somebody come in from Senior WIC to help us learn what they’re doing for us. How to collect data from your farmers markets is really helpful for boards and municipalities and us as the network. We’re going to be asking for data. How to send out a census. What’s everybody doing for the kids programs that’s new, haven’t been tried before? So, that Thursday morning event has a good deal of value, we think. We also have a connection to Farmers Market Network, and we’ll be able to offer discounts on insurances, I believe, as well as membership and access to their resource library, which is immense. We also wanted to make sure you knew that we were seeing other states like Virginia teach their managers best practices and have a market-management certificate, something we hope we can offer someday. We certainly will be hosting regional meetings to get to know the managers better. We have five regions around North Carolina. That’ll be pretty educational. That’ll have a program for it.

Nora – I would love to add to Catherine’s description that in addition to being a place where farmers market managers come together, we’re also a network that invites others who work in the food system and who are passionate about the same issues to become members. They’re valuable voices to include in every conversation. For example, just the other week I sent out something, kind of a newsletter. I had some questions that market managers had been asking me about food-safety regulation issues for farmers markets, which comes up a lot. And in the responses, others who worked with NC State or Extension roles, piping in saying, “I have a good resource for that,” or “Here’s the answer.” And I feel like the value of bringing together all these voices in the same room is huge.

Maggie – I love all of what Catherine and Nora were saying. You know, it occurs to me also that there are over 200 farmers markets in North Carolina. Supporting farmers markets is part of supporting North Carolina’s agricultural fabric. It’s part of supporting small-scale family farms, organic farms, spray-free farms. So, I think that if we can assist with marketing those farms and farmers markets, that feels very important and impactful to me. And then I also want to draw us back to education for larger stakeholders and maybe government organizations about some of our statewide initiatives like Double Bucks. I think that’s where we can really offer a collective kind of impact, where maybe individual farmers markets don’t have the capacity to work with larger stakeholders, but as a network we can come together and we can really have a much broader impact.

 

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