Words from our friend, inspiration and interim President, Richard McCarthy
‘Tis the Season, right? This is the call-to-action that reverberates – in a variety of languages – for everyone to prepare and embrace for the annual celebration of family, faith, and a generosity in spirit and community. Meanwhile, business cycles demand so much more from us consumers. It is difficult not to get swept up into the rush to purchase more and more stuff for loved ones, friends, and neighbors.
Meanwhile, farmers markets historically experience a lull during a season that is marked by Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, and New Year’s. Shoppers are preoccupied with larger gift purchases, cascading parties and lot’s of eating out. These elements run counter to farmers market trade in December. After all, cooking nourishing meals at home is not generally on the agenda.
Other community markets live for this period. Christmas Markets throughout Europe are something truly wonderful to behold. Hand-crafted gifts, ornaments, grog and mulled wine (heated with spices) are important public market offerings that place more emphasis on community engagement than they do consumerism. While Chanukah gives cause for markets too, its dates do not match up predictably with Christmas dates each year. Moreover, it, like Kwanzaa, offers more in rituals than in retail trade in public markets.
Farmers markets are in the business of riding and reflecting the waves of seasons, albeit usually growing seasons. During the pandemic, farmers markets have responded with the kind of responsive leadership that gives cause for celebration. When operations were curtailed due to local ordinances and lock-downs, many pivoted to online sales, delivery, and reworking of public spaces in order to ensure safe social distancing.
In some regards, these emergency measures help farmers markets to reevaluate their Christmas strategies. As shoppers find themselves canceling holiday travel, avoiding big indoor crowds, and the lure of consumerism, farmers markets from global North to South are responding in kind. Here are some of the innovative responses we have noticed. What are you doing in your market or noticing in others?
Holiday hours: If Christmas lands on a market day, there are reasons to be cheerful. Farmers can finally spend time with family on the farm. However, this also accompanies strategic shifts in hours: Open on additional or different days of the week, extend hours into the evenings to accommodate the last minute shoppers, and offer shoppers complimentary mulled wine as a recognition for loyalty during the year.
Online sales: Farmers market electronic newsletters promote the items that are suited for shipping and delivery. These include pears, citrus, nuts, jams, baked goods, and holiday greens for decorations. If handled with care, these sales can greatly increase seasonal sales for farmers (during a time when business slows down). Moreover, the online advance purchase greatly assists farmers who do their best to anticipate sales.
Market currency: In The USA, the advent of wooden market tokens to accommodate credit, debit and benefit card sales has created an unexpected opportunity for shoppers to purchase what amounts to gift certificates that make ideal holidays gifts. This is one way for market shoppers to share their love for the market with others: Elsewhere, markets have invented other creative ways to trade on the commerce of experience: Gift certificates for market tours with chefs, etc.
Special holiday market rules: In the past decade in cold climates, farmers markets have demonstrated remarkable versatility to extend seasons long enough to catch some of the holiday commerce and to extend the community of vendors and shoppers throughout the winter. These “indoor winter markets” do wonders for rural cash-flow during the lean months of the year. Building on this development, and in response to the pandemic’s recalibration of consumer loyalty for local products, some farmers markets with the strictest of rules are introducing special December market rules to allow for the sale of farm-based crafts in order to meet consumer demand for gift purchases that reflect the “buy local for Christmas” values. This ability to respond creatively with reasonable innovation is one of the great indicators of farmers market ingenuity and resilience.
The push to get back to basics and stay home with family: And finally, during this period of COVID-19 variants and general financial uncertainty, farmers markets have the unique position to promote that less is more. Spend less on frivolous gifts. Devote more time to preparing that special holiday meal for loved ones by featuring ingredients that express love, solidarity, and the dignity of labor for farmers and farm workers. After all, these values help to reinforce the sentiments expressed on many billboards and signs that spring up this time of year, insisting that we remember the reason for the season. Regardless of your religious faith, the farmers markets can restore faith in farmers. Heaven knows, they need all the friends they can find.