Future management of Greensboro farmers market remains in question

by Jordan Green

Vendor Lisa Andrews (back to camera) makes change for Eve Key and her husband, Doug, at the Greensboro Farmers Curb Market on a recent Saturday.

Greensboro City Councilman Zack Matheny called the city’s efforts to decide the future management of the farmers market a “quagmire.” Or, less politely, a “mess.”

Matheny, who represents District 3, worried that the council would be “punting the whole 12-month process” by not taking action on a recommendation by a council-appointed review committee to award a contract to manage the market to a nonprofit set up by two longtime customers.

That’s exactly what the council did by a vote of 7 to 1 at its June 7 meeting when it asked City Manager Rashad Young to come back with a recommendation on whether to assign management responsibilities to an outside group or have the city retain control. The city manager is expected to present information to the council at a work session on June 28.

The origins of the dispute at the farmers market, which is currently operated by the parks and recreation commission, center on efforts by city staff to tighten up rules prohibiting vendors from reselling produce grown by others. The regulations have been resisted by some but not all farmers who sell at the market.

In the past two years, the market coordinator intent on streamlining enforcement has been transferred out of her position. A farmer has been suspended for selling produce he did not grow and has set up an independent downtown market. A new policy has been established to prevent the market manager from doubling as a vendor to eliminate a conflict of interest. Twice, the parks and recreation commission passed resolutions reinforcing the staff’s efforts to tighten up enforcement. Then, at the urging of some in the farmer faction, a support group aligned with the pro-enforcement faction was audited and asked to hand over fundraising money to the city. Throughout her two terms in office, Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, who represents District 4, has asked staff to respond to the concerns of some of the farmers and to scrutinize the fundraising activities of market supporters.

No wonder the city manager arrived at the conclusion about a year ago that managing a farmers market should not be a core function of city government. On a practical level, privatizing the market would also relieve staff from mediating a politically polarizing and sensitive matter that was bound to make one or another faction unhappy.

“If we were to contract with an outside entity, the responsibility of drafting those rules would be with that entity,” Young told council on June 7. “The enforcement of those rules would be with that entity, in part, to get the city out of the disagreement about approach in management and style. Given where we are today, there isn’t a harmonious or even working relationship among the two major groups that are at the market. There, then, does exist the option for us not to proceed down and finalize this path and for us to find some other third party that isn’t connected in any way to the two groups that were vying for this responsibility, or that we just continue to maintain the operation and management oversight of the market through the city of Greensboro.”

Back to square one. The two groups that members of the review committee agreed were most qualified to run the market were Greensboro Farmers Market Inc., a nonprofit established by longtime customers David Craft and Charlie Brummitt, and the Farmer Community Collaborative, an initiative of McLeansville farmer Rodney Gann that gives farmers control over allocating table space.

The review committee recommended that the city negotiate and execute a contract with Greensboro Farmers Market Inc., although the legitimacy of the vote has been called into question.

At the June 7 council meeting, the motion to send the matter back to the city manager was made by Councilman Jim Kee and seconded by Rakestraw.

“I know this has been a pretty hot, contested issue on who’s going to manage the farmers market,” said Kee, whose district includes the market. “And there’s no question about the asset of the farmers market to District 2, as well as to the city of Greensboro. And we want to make sure that we preserve the flavor and features of the farmers market for long term.

“I’m just wondering how we’re going to resolve the conflict by awarding this contract,” he added. “I understand it was a very close vote on the group that actually won the recommendation.”

Rakestraw said in a recent interview that she has long heard concerns about older farmers being pushed out of the market.

“This should be a no-brainer,” she said.

“This should be a farmers market. But then if the crafters want to come in one weekend that would be fine.

“I am concerned about what may happen to the farmers,” she added.

Opponents of the Greensboro Farmers Market Inc. proposal have drawn a hard distinction between what they call the “real” farmers and other vendors, and have expressed concerns about a growing presence of small producers, prepared food vendors and crafters in the market.

“I am an advocate for the farmers,” said Ruth Ann Foster, who prepared the Farmer Community Collaborative proposal, in remarks to council. “First of all, I want to classify the farmers that I’m talking about, which are — most of them have been at the market for a long time. They have substantial amounts of land. Their families have been there. That’s who are the real farmers. The people who I guess we are in opposition with are a newer group of farmers that are coming in with and farm on smaller amounts of land.”

The proposal developed by Foster defines a “farmer” as someone who farms more than 10 acres, with those farming lesser amounts of acreage being designated as “associate farmers” and “gardeners.” “As our goal is to rebalance the market by increasing the farmers’ presence,” the proposal reads, “we propose the market be governed by a board of directors consisting of seven farmers as previously defined.”

Foster dismissed the efforts of staff to tighten up enforcement as a ruse to help crafters eliminate competition, and argued in a recent interview that the parks and recreation commission usurped the council’s policymaking authority by ratifying the new rules.

“We have watched a little elitist group trying to take over the market and make it the way they want it,” she said.

Craft said he sees the diversity of offerings at the market as a strength.

‘I would suggest to you that you find someone, whether it’s a preacher or a priest or God, and mediate this thing so we can get out of the middle of it.’ — Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small

“There’s a generational thing going on,” he said. “Folks who have been involved a long time are seeing a lot of changes and growth. You have more ethnic food vendors. You have organic farmers. You have meat products from ranchers. People appreciate that choice, I think.”

Greensboro Farmers Market Inc.’s proposal calls for maintaining “a strong emphasis on local farm-raised food, while maintaining a presence of prepared food and craft vendors,” and offering “locally prepared foods with priority to vendors using local ingredients.”

Craft expressed astonishment at the notion that his group would push out large-scale farmers.

“There has never been any statement about pushing anyone out,” he said. “It’s not going to be David Craft making decisions. We’re going to have open board meetings. If there’s a complaint, it can be aired in our meeting.”

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, who is a regular customer at the market, said she appreciates the variety of products.

“There is a kind of philosophical difference,” she said. “I heard one woman who said they felt the farmers market should be for big farmers. Then there are the smaller farms. I’ve heard them referred to as ‘hippie farms.’ I, for one, would not want to see it be exclusively big farms. If I wanted that, I’d go to the one out on [US Highway] 68. I think the people who bring in baked goods and crafts add to the atmosphere.”

Some members, including Kee, said they want the two groups to come together to work out their differences.

Craft told council he would recommend that Rodney Gann serve on the board of Greensboro Farmers Market Inc. should it be chosen to manage the market. He said he received a response from the Gann camp last week indicating they were not interested in working together.

Foster concurred with that sentiment. “It’s too little, too late,” she said. “Their philosophy and the farmers are two different ones. The city needs to decide: Do they want a farmers market or do they want a market? A lot of what I’m hearing is that they want the farmers market. They want the farmers to be in charge.”

The decision will ultimately revert back to council, but by the time the dust settles will the market have sustained lasting damage?

“Y’all ever heard of mediation?” District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small asked. “I think if you would get these two supposedly warring groups and find a good mediator, because if, in fact, they are about the same thing, which is to have a market there, because sometimes in the pursuit of disagreement, what could happen is no one wins. Meaning that we decide, you know what, this is not working. I would suggest to you that you find someone, whether it’s a preacher or a priest or God, and mediate this thing so we can get out of the middle of it.”