Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Farmers Market questions, answered

The San Luis Obispo Downtown Association board of directors recently voted to assume direct management of farmers at Thursday night Farmers Market. This decision has raised questions like:

Why did this happen? How did this happen? What now?

The answers to these questions make more sense if one understands the organizational framework of this important community activity. The Downtown Association established Thursday Night Promotions in 1983. It has continually operated the event which, although generally referred to as “Farmers Market,” is actually a street fair with a variety of participants including food and merchandise vendors, entertainment, barbecuers, nonprofit, educational and political booths, special events — and farmers.

The established arrangement was that the Farmers Market Association oversaw the management of the farmers, but was subsidiary to its host.

Perhaps a misunderstanding about this relationship by the participant has contributed to the debate about whether the Downtown Association was fair or justified in its action.

Why did this happen?

The assertion that this change occurred suddenly and with no notice is not accurate. Issues over the years have caused problems where the Downtown Association needed to make a call on a matter and was met with resistance, not from the farmers themselves, but from their representative to the Thursday Night Promotions committee. This culminated in the representative resigning from the committee and severing all communication between the Downtown Association and the people on the street for whom the Downtown Association is liable. The board, upon learning that issues were developing whereby it needed to communicate directly with the farmers about traffic and safety matters and had no means by which to do so, decided the solution was in the problem: Take over direct management of the farmers from the previous agent.

How did this happen?

Over a period of about two months, staff researched other communities’ markets, looked into what permits were required, talked to people in the farming community and developed a business plan and a mission statement. The board received the information, considered the options and consequences of not taking immediate action and made the choice it did, emphasizing that the number one concern was that the farmers be carefully considered and not negatively impacted in any way.

Once the decision was made, the farmers were informed individually that within two weeks they were to be grandfathered into the event at their same rate in their same space under our management. They were invited to join the Thursday Night Promotions committee and directly participate in decisions on their own behalf. This same notice was provided at the same time to the market manager and mailed to the Farmers Market Association board president.

Now what?

We have assured the farmers and the community that fees and space assignments will remain in place. We have obtained the necessary permit to hold a certified farmers market and hired a market manager to deal one on one with the farmers. It will be up to the committee and its farmer members to review any proposed changes as they come up. Decisions will be made by the farmers for the farmers.

Internally, we are excited about the possibilities this new era will bring: promotional opportunities and increased awareness that make the event more about the farmers now. A lot of good can come from the change!

At last Thursday’s market, it was “business as usual,” with farmers in their stalls and people happily shopping and filling their bags.

The Farmers Market Association will make a presentation to the Downtown Association board of directors on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 7:30 a.m. at City Hall. The public is welcome to attend the meeting, which will include a public comment period.

Deborah Cash is a Certified Main Street Manager and the executive director of the San Luis Obispo Downtown Association.