Growing a farmers market takes time and patience
By Julia Kyles
In the middle of winter, it may seem like it will be a few years, rather than a few months, until College Park’s farmers markets reopen for business. But the markets are not hibernating; the organizers work year-round to ensure their bounty and appeal. Robyn Gaston, volunteer market organizer for the College Park Farmers Market at Paint Branch Parkway, knows this all too well. “I really do work on the organization, and the planning and the market 12 months out of the year,” she noted.
That work includes a myriad of activities, not all of them related to selling fresh food, baked goods and the other items that make farmers markets so popular . Like many great human endeavors, farmers markets require permits, licenses and insurance.
“The market is insured. The vendors are insured. Everybody is insured, no one just shows up. Food vendors are licensed by the [Health Department] and are regularly inspected,” said Aaron Springer, a volunteer who works with College Park’s market manager, Julie Beavers. Springer helps organize the Hollywood Farmers Market in North College Park. Food safety is a key concern at farmers markets. The requirements for licensing are complex and vendors who don’t pass spot inspections have to leave, Gaston explained.
Springer noted that the background office management work is complex beyond insurance policies and paperwork. There are also a multitude of interactions with a variety of people and organizations, and those interactions continue off-season. “We work with the tenants of the shopping center, we work with the shopping center management, we work with the city of College Park … to move this forward,” he said.
In addition to managing these negotiations, market organizers work with vendors, communicate year-round with people who have questions about the market, manage social media accounts, and participate in professional conferences and similar events.
Springer estimates that off-season work amounts to two weeks’ worth of time, spread out from December until the market opens , while Gaston estimates she does some sort of market-organizing work four days a week throughout the year, even if it is a few minutes here or there. noting that the pace picks up in late February or early March, as markets get ready to open. In April, she starts working with new and returning vendors to keep them on track. “Because we’re only talking about a month before we start,” she said.
Gaston also reminds vendors to get their permits. “All of the people who sell beverages and the majority of people who sell edible stuff must get a farmers market permit from the county. And if you get it before April 30 … [the fee is] significantly less. So I’m just like that little bug in your ear reminding you of what you need to have,” she said.
Springer and Gaston both balance their organizing efforts with other careers, and they certainly don’t work with the markets for fame, glory or money — volunteer work doesn’t pay, after all. They stepped up because they saw the need.
“I got involved locally because I saw that our markets were under some degree of stress, and they needed a little rejuvenation,” Springer said. His experience with farmers markets includes shopping at them as well as photographing them for Edible Chesapeake magazine, a popular guide to the region that ceased publication in 2009.
“I like farmers markets. I’ve been shopping at farmers markets for well over 25 years. Whether it’s farmers markets from when I lived in Baltimore, to our D.C. [and] Maryland farmers markets, I think it’s a great way to find excellent produce, meat and veg, and prepared goods,” Springer said. In addition, he is friends with vendors and market managers, and he thought he could use that experience to help improve the city’s farmers markets. In 2017, he decided to volunteer. “I figured that I could bring … just enough [experience] to make it work and not drop the ball.”
Gaston volunteered to organize the Paint Branch market after vending there for two years. In addition to being a special education teacher, she makes and sells soap.
When she started vending at the College Park Farmers Market at Paint Branch Parkway five years ago, there were just a handful of vendors, including Miller Farms, a market mainstay. Gaston listened to customers and vendors, who talked about what the market had been in the past, so she knew that it had potential. And she drew on her experience — she knew how the market could evolve. So midway through the season three years ago, with Phil Miller’s support, Gaston set up social media accounts and sent out calls for vendors. By the end of that season, the market was up to 13 vendors.
Even though both Springer and Gaston were familiar with farmers markets before they started volunteering, they learned a good deal after they stepped behind the scenes. “I just figured I would organize, and people would sign up, and we would roll from there,” said Gaston. That wasn’t the case. “It is really, really hard work … and time consuming,” she noted.
The finer points of food safety regulations came as another surprise. “I know more about health department regulations than I ever needed to know,” Gaston joked. She credits a Prince George’s County’s health inspector with taking time to patiently explain the rules. “I have a lot of young vendors. They know how to cook, but they needed to learn the other pieces of their craft. So I needed to learn … [about food safety regulations] so I could explain it to them.” Gaston also encourages vendors to and make sure they know to contact the county’s health department for more information.
Springer knew that permits and licenses were necessary, but the processes of obtaining them still took him aback. “The part that I expected — but always throws in a curve — is working with the county on licensing and permitting,” he said, adding that things have improved. “There’s been a lot of growth that I needed to make, but also very reassuringly, there has also been a lot of growth in terms of the department of licensing and permitting working better with farmers markets,” he said.