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Farmers Market Metrics: Tools, Resources and Data May Be Coming to Your Town

Darlene Wolnik
Written by Darlene Wolnik

Why we need standards to measure the impact of Farmers Markets

 

From June 2014 to 2016, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be conducting applied research on these questions at nine market sites in three regions and share those results with their project partner, the national farmers market membership organization, Farmers Market Coalition (FMC). FMC will use the research as a basis to build a series of trainings and ultimately, an online database for markets to select metrics, proper collection protocols and then upload the data, which is then downloaded into reports, also supplied. The focus of this research will be to uncover the barriers and challenges that keep markets from collecting and using data as well as refining metrics for market communities to begin to make their case on the potential multiple benefits of markets.

Forty-plus years after the farmers market revival began, most of the more than 8,000 markets listed with the USDA expect to have many impacts: curating local agriculture sales, acting as the town square, encouraging knowledge transfer, expanding new businesses and new initiatives, and offering healthier options for all, including for at-risk citizens. Markets often have other less universal goals too, such as welcoming immigrant communities or supporting non-market initiatives. However, reports that show the multiple benefits of markets, and the unique market characteristics that deliver those benefits, are often only anecdotal if they exist at all.

Therefore, any measurement of success for markets across the US needs to identify universal indicators for any or all of these changes, to allow markets to compare that change to other similar markets while still making room for each to tell its own unique story. It’s also important not to duplicate the tools already available and to support existing data collection initiatives.

Where to start? To begin at the grassroots level, it seemed best to start by asking these questions:

  • What if someone collected the best metrics now available within food system reports and research and refined them for markets and market partners to use?
  • What if markets took the lead in deciding which of those metrics to use (with some help) based on their immediate issues or to help with their long-term planning?
  • What resources are needed to help largely volunteer entities know how to properly collect or supervise the collection of data and to use that data to make their case for expanded capacity?
  • And what if those results (indicators) were collected and shared at the national level so everyone could see the data, compare results and decide what else could be measured?

Here’s what we know: Almost all markets and their partners already collect data. It may be the tally of how much and how many SNAP transactions the market had, or it might be counting how many visitors came to the market or how many products were available to purchase, or an annual total of the acres in production among market vendors. The reality is that there is actually a great deal of information available about markets. There are even a few excellent tools for farmers markets to use for collection and some reporting, such as Market Umbrella’s SEED tool, Projects for Public Spaces Placemaking audits, Demonstrating Value’s market toolkit, Wholesome Wave’s nutrition incentive tracking portal for its grantees, or state-level market tracking such as West Virginia or Washington State and so on. And a few markets and their partners are great at analyzing how adept at showing the changes in their community. So there are already dozens of reports available that detail the impact of markets on their shoppers and their vendors, on the neighboring businesses and on the larger community.

Data (and some tools) surely exist. So what’s the problem?

Data is often collected across different time spans, using different definitions, rarely uses comparable analysis or matches the output with the specific market profile. And the market community itself is often left out of the design of the collection and the reports.

How that data was collected: what questions were asked, and of whom and when and how well designed it was to ensure no bias or assumptions colored the results. Understaffed markets organizations are often uneasy in participating in the actual collection, often leaving it to external partners; as a result, the raw data is often not shared with the markets.

What type of impact does that data really show? Is it an internal benchmark or goal specifically for that market community to learn from or is there an external change that can affect policy? Can it be compared to other sectors or other markets in the food system? Does it show a wide spectrum of benefits, meaning more than just economic? Markets rely on external partners to provide that analysis, but often that analysis represents only the change that partner is primarily interested in.

From June 2014 to 2016, the University of Wisconsin-Madison will be conducting applied research on these questions at nine market sites in three regions and share those results with their project partner, the national farmers market membership organization, Farmers Market Coalition (FMC). FMC will use the research as a basis to build a series of trainings and ultimately, an online database for markets to select metrics, proper collection protocols and then upload the data, which is then downloaded into reports, also supplied. The focus of this research will be to uncover the barriers and challenges that keep markets from collecting and using data as well as refining metrics for market communities to begin to make their case on the potential multiple benefits of markets.

The three years of the FMC pilot will be an iterative process and, therefore, is designed to encourage feedback and input from as many voices as possible. The nine markets will receive stipends and support from UW and FMC throughout the process. Other markets (those not selected as pilot sites) will also be invited to offer feedback on some of the activities, and participate in some of the educational webinars to offer training and resources for the nine markets. Regional partners’ input on metrics along with selected national leaders feedback will be solicited. Finally, the draft reports and info-graphics will be uploaded on FMC’s website for comments and an invitation for funders to assist with future iterations.

You can already view prototype reports uploaded on the FMC Resource Library that were completed in June of 2014 with support from the Knight Foundation. These infographic reports are from farmers markets that uploaded 2013 data to test out the reporting template; that quick round of prototypes will assist in the reporting phase of the 3-year University of Wisconsin research. At the end of the three years, there should be a beginning set of metrics (an early draft set is already up on the FMC site), resources to address data collection barriers at the grassroots level and drafts of the reports using the data collected by the nine markets. All of the data collected will be given back to the markets in spreadsheets, in infographic-style reports and made available to researchers and partners to continue to expand reasonable and disciplined data collection and analysis.

Additionally, information on static market characteristics will also be collected on what is called the Market Profile. The Profile will serve many purposes: it will cross-reference market profile characteristics with metric data, so that an analysis might reveal correlations between markets that operate at certain days, times, or scales and may assist with creating market typology that can be used by partner organizations and funders to better understand how to support markets. By outlining the structural framework of those markets, the quality of the metrics will be increased and will allow the market’s capacity to be understood more fully and be gauged in regard to their collected projects or larger impacts within their community.

In the future, FMC’s Farmers Market Metrics’ Market Profile instrument may work in serving a primary role as the go-to national market database containing information both historic and dynamic. This database may help stakeholders understand the variety of approaches there are to build and sustain many types of farmers markets, from Saturday morning “flagship” markets to “food security” markets in a location with limited access to healthy food.

In short, farmers markets are highly efficient mechanisms for behavior change through civic engagement and for expanding direct relationships with those who produce necessary goods. It’s time they were measured for all that they offer.

About the author

Darlene Wolnik

Darlene Wolnik

Darlene supports sustainable entrepreneurial activity and assists in building movements for alternative economies and civil society through research, analysis and hands-on training. Her work has focused on expanding the number and reach of public and farmers markets for the last 15 years, but her background includes retail design and management and working as a community organizer on consumer and environmental campaigns since the 1980s. Since becoming an independent consultant in 2011, she has worked with more than two-dozen organizations on healthy living initiatives in places such as New York City, Vermont, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oregon, North Carolina, and Ohio among others. She authored the 2013 Vermont Market Currency Feasibility Report and the 2014 Local Food Awareness Report for Gulfport MS, both found on her www.helpingpublicmarketsgrow.com website.

1 Comment

  • […] This is a reprint of a blog that I wrote for the Farmers Market Metrics page on Farmers Market Coalition’s site. There is a growing need for food and civic systems evaluation that is designed and implemented in partnership with the grassroots organization and uses contextual and disciplined metrics that are useful to that organization and to their partners. The new pilots and research happening at FMC and their partners, such as University of Wisconsin-Madison, are hoping to address that need. ecocities emerging […]

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