Blog: Kami Pothukuchi

Healthy bodies grow healthy minds. SEED Wayne Director Kami Pothukuchi, a WSU professor of urban planning and manager of one of the few university-run farmers markets in the nation, will discuss the campus market and why educators and urban planners should pay close attention to local, nutritious, and affordable food systems.

Post 3: Why is a Professor of Urban Planning Running a Farmers Market?

Farmers markets are coming back in a big way, after having declined steadily since the turn of the last century.  In 1994, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the US Department of Agriculture counted 1,755 markets nationwide.  In 2009, there were 5,274—a growth of more than 200 percent in 15 years!  Farmers markets are burgeoning because more and more people want to eat healthfully and also be connected to the sources of their food.  City planners are also discovering the positive contributions farmers markets make to the surrounding neighborhoods and regional economies. 

In 2009, in its first full season, the WSU Farmers Market put about $175,000—a conservative estimate—into the hands of local producers and businesses.  More and more farmers markets are also becoming equipped to accept SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the Food Stamp Program) benefits after a significant decline when the food stamp program changed from paper vouchers to electronic benefits.

Yet, many communities and organizations starting farmers markets are still quite new to the process of recruiting vendors, organizing market budgets and raising money, getting authorized to accept nutrition program benefits such as SNAP and Project Fresh (as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program in the state is called), and running the market week in and week out!  A small vendor may decide not to show up for a particular market because heavy rains the previous day prevented harvesting.  Tomatoes and peppers may be scarce because of a cool and wet summer.  Farmers market managers have to be sympathetic to hardships growers face, even as they try to satisfy the demands of customers who have yet to learn about the bounties and the sequence of local harvests.

Farmers markets also have to balance the rents they charge their vendors with the need to keep food affordable to low-income populations while also paying for the costs of running the market.  Revenues from stall rents, especially in smaller markets, rarely are enough to pay for the costs of operating the market.  Research shows that nearly half of all markets fail in their first five years, and a good portion of the rest are at risk of failure when the initial management team leaves.  In short, farmers markets rarely, if ever, present their host organizations with a predictably successful business and operational model.  They require passion, effort, a tolerance of uncertainty, and persistence on a weekly and yearly basis.

Besides having scarce resources, farmers market managers across the country also share other difficulties: they are pressured to heed conflicting ideas from different sources—administrators, co-workers, vendors, surrounding businesses, customers, and community leaders.  They tend to be blamed more often than appreciated for the decisions they make when confronted with crises, and they have to conduct transactions with customers and vendors with perpetual patience and good humor.  Successful farmers market managers invariably have a deep and intrinsic appreciation of what they do and why.  

Now, as the Wayne State University Farmers Market manager, my experience admittedly has been something of an exception to that of managers across the country.  I have received significant support and credit from administrators and units across campus, the generous donation of time by students and staff who volunteer at the market, and enthusiastic participation by customers and vendors alike.  Either we've been lucky or Wayne State has a lot of cred in the community, or both!

In general, however, the requirements for successful farmers markets suggest that they are less than amenable to the conventional ways in which universities conduct business.  They need to be approached as social experiments, much in the same way as other research projects that faculty members typically undertake, and need to be carefully tracked for what they take to exist and survive—week in and week out, year in and year out.  

As a faculty member with research interests in urban food systems generally and a particular interest in food retail as a tool for building sustainable food systems, as an employee with tenure at the university, and as someone who can afford to remain unpaid by the market as it gets established, I, more than most people, am in a good position to run the market.  Planning is a field that emphasizes practice; conducting research on farmers markets by actually running one is an approach that many planning researchers would appreciate.  Most importantly for me, the experience brings together in a seamless way, my roles in teaching, research, and community engagement in ways that also link to a core university operation—feeding campus community members.