After a few minutes of looking at the Portland Farmers Market’s website I was impressed . Not only was it well organized and attractive, it also offered insight into farmers market operations. The Portland Farmers Market runs seven urban markets each week, one of which is a year round endeavor. That takes complex planning and precision execution – but I found there is even more to admire.
I had a chance to talk with Mona Johnson of the PFM staff and, knowing a bit about farmers market operations, my questions quickly honed in on the geography and real estate of their markets. They have no permanent market buildings at any site. All their market locations are in urban neighborhoods where (with one exception) they can’t leave sheds or lockers. In essence each of their markets is a pop-up that has to be trucked in each day – and they service about 200 vendors and up to 35 thousand visitors every week during high market season.
Now sure, the farmers are going to bring their products to market by truck anyhow, so what’s the big deal. Well, setting up seven markets on six different days of the week is quite an undertaking and that’s aside from the publicity, vendor coordination, events and volunteer guidance that also has to be done correctly. Getting it right comes out in the details and getting it right also shows up in the results.
The Portland Farmers Market has grown in scope, volume, revenues and community engagement every year since its founding in 1992. I was awed and entertained as Mona answered my questions and chatted about the ins and outs of how the Portland Farmers Market’s teamwork successfully pulls it all off.
Commitment To Community
In order to succeed most non-profits require a mission statement that aligns with a commonly agreed upon, organization-wide shared vision. You have to articulate heart-felt values that unify and energize everyone involved. Now it may be that back in 1992 the three guys that started it all for PFM were passionate and also flying by the seat of their pants, but if that was so (and I don’t really know) very quickly they had to begin formalizing their goals and undertakings.
Poking around the website, it’s obvious community well-being is at the center of the Portland FM. The markets attempt to deliver high quality nutritious food to various neighborhoods within the city limits of Portland. One or two of those neighborhoods have poor food options – the so called “food deserts”. More than one of those neighborhood’s PFM market is financially run at break even.
Now, I know PFM is a non-profit, but the attraction of running profitable markets in order to support more communities by expanding operations is strong, yet the moral commitment to a mission-based vision is strong at PFM. Neighborhoods are selected, it seems, to promote community well-being rather than to merely expand the network of markets.
Another indication of the organization’s unified commitment to community shows up as regards vendors. The farmers market organization prides its ability to incubate new food artisans and farm initiatives. In fact this proficiency at fostering start-up efforts is, as I understand it, part of the new multi-year strategic plan PFM is now preparing. Providing a varied, wholesome product mix for the entire community is the objective, so entrepreneurial efforts are scrutinized carefully before support is thrown behind any new undertaking.
The Nuts And Bolts Of Operations
Part of any farmers market is getting the word out about what is happening at the market and when. That means using digital technology like websites, email lists and social media. (For more about the digital side of farmers markets click here.) The Portland Farmers Market website is in transition. As good as it is, it has some contradicting information, which prompted me to ask Mona what was going on about that.
As it turns out, the market’s current website is about five years old and was built by students at the Art Institute of Portland. The platform they used requires coding skills to change pages, so while PFM can add new information, changing old information is difficult. The new website that is now in planning will be on the WordPress platform which will eliminate that need to be a coder in order to change existing pages. Getting the right platform is important and WordPress will allow them to consolidate their website and blog into one site – not two disconnected sites.
But there is a lot more to providing information to a community than just a website. So although the PFM’s website is impressive and likely to soon be even more impressive, the social media campaign and general level of digital savvy is very high. The staff does SEO for the website so it shows up on the first page of any Google search for the keyword, “farmers market.” Most farmers markets don’t have a clue what SEO is, much less figure out the nuts and bolts of delivering first page search listings.
As to social media, PFM has a large Facebook following where they are very active and also has a considerable following on Twitter. These platforms offer a fast ongoing interaction with the Portland community. The one area of concern I have about the overall PFM digital approach is they intend to phase out their newsletter and discontinue using email as part of their conversation with their community.
Considering the multigenerational age groups that attend farmers markets, I question the wisdom of discontinuing email contact with the community. Facebook is starting to be used by all age groups, but there are those older citizens who just don’t feel comfortable with social media and stay closely involved with email – in fact, email seems to be having a renaissance of sorts. Of course, I don’t know what works best for PFM and they have gotten the nuts and bolts right for decades, yet maybe a reconsideration of email would be worthwhile.
Finally, as regards the nuts and bolts of market operations the financial side of any market is essential and once again, it seems PFM has gotten these nuts and bolts right. From what Mona told me, market operations are supported by the vendor table fees and they are transparent about these fees and have a schedule of them on their website. The organization also selectively reaches out for sponsorship from the local business community in order to keep vendor table fees down, and they also run fundraising events that are also community building events.
The combination of a large active Board of Directors and a twelve person professional staff (5 full-time & seven part-time) makes financial management at a sophisticated level possible. Most farmers markets envy this type of organizational structure. But PfM goes one better than most farmers markets; their Board members are thoughtfully selected from throughout the entire community their markets service. There are business members, shopper members, political members, vendor members and farmer members. The Portland Farmers Market seems to understand that finances shouldn’t get in the way of the organization’s mission. Once again, it seems PFM has gotten it right by paying attention to details.