Springfield, MO

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Opinion: Farmers markets struggle to sow seeds

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While my personal agricultural talents have historically been better suited for mowing the lawn, I have managed and promoted center city farmers markets the past three years on Park Central Square, Park Central East, Jubilee Park and C-Street. What I have discovered is that Springfield’s current farmers markets have become a modern version of the New Testament’s parable of the sower.

It begins, “A farmer went out to sow his seed.”

There are dozens of vendors across the Ozarks growing produce and other food products on their family farms and in their backyards.

The path
The Bible’s parable goes on, “As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.”

Springfield’s farmers markets have become too scattered and fragmented. There are at least six in the city limits and markets in almost every suburb, including Ozark, Fair Grove, Strafford, Nixa and Republic. Only the Greater Springfield Farmers’ Market consistently offers at least 30 vendors, and even with its rich 30-year history, its mall parking lot location lacks a true sense of place.

Vendor fatigue also can set in for those attending multiple markets per week or on the same day. The scorching temperatures this summer wore on some vendors who tried to go to one market in the morning, another in the evening and then still tried to prepare for the biggest day on Saturday. This often resulted in inconsistent attendance, which undermines the important relationship-building with existing and potential customers.

Patrons who are accustomed to the Soulard Market in St. Louis or the City Market in Kansas City are underwhelmed by the limited number of vendors and the lack of a community gathering place at Springfield’s farmers markets.

Rocky soil
“Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”

Everyone wants a farmers market in their neighborhoods. Urban Districts Alliance has tried valiantly to promote a downtown farmers market but has struggled to get a strong base of customers to consistently patronize it in spite of the fact that there are 25,000 employees and 15,000 residents within a one-mile radius.

Despite a great deal of enthusiastic support, some of the new markets just do not have the critical mass of customers – residents, employees and tourists – necessary for them to be sustainable.
“Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.”

Because farmers markets are typically informal consortiums of participating vendors with no paid staff, conflict often arises among the members. Entrepreneurs are driven by their own self-interest, and it is difficult for produce farmers, ranchers, bakers, beekeepers, florists and others to agree on procedures, policies and promotions.

The complexity is compounded by having so many markets in the area. The leaders of the various markets need to coordinate planning more often so they don’t inadvertently choke each other out.

Good soil
The parable concludes, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop – 100, 60 or 30 times what was sown.”

The interest in local foods here in Springfield and across the country is great. However, less is more. Rather than having many mediocre markets, Springfield should endeavor to have one or two first-class farmers markets that exceed customers’ expectations and create an exceptional experience.

Leaders from the major markets should come together with the University of Missouri Extension, city of Springfield, and other community groups to chart an inspiring vision that is worthy of this area’s deep agricultural roots.

Done correctly, the fields will be white unto harvest.

Rusty Worley, executive director of Urban Districts Alliance, can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]


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