This interview was conducted for the purpose of better understanding the changes that the Nashville Farmers Market (NFM) has endured over the past three decades. The information from this interview and other research was analyzed in a policy analysis, A Review of the “Producers-Only” Policy at the Nashville Farmer’s Market: The struggle to Refine the Mission of the Market, written by Marian Rubin. The article was published by the PolicyMatters Journal, Volume II.
Marian Rubin met the with Executive Director of the NFM, Tasha Kennard, to learn more about the fundamental issues facing the NFM. According to Kennard, it has been an ongoing challenge for the market to refine its identity as a producer-only market and, in doing so, meet the true mission of a farmers’ market. In general, a producer-only farmers’ market requires farmers to sell only their own crops or restrict farmers who are selling both their own and other farmers’ locally grown crops. Over the past generation, many farmers’ markets have resorted to buying from resellers of large food corporations. These commercialized farmers’ markets have failed to support the sustainable agriculture movement supported by the local food movement community that they were originally intended for. For the NFM, the only way to make this happen is to implement a producer-only policy.
Marian: What is your background?
Tasha: I’m Tasha Kennard, Executive Director at Nashville Farmers’ Market. I have a broad background in food, government relations, marketing, and communications. I’ll give you a quick synopsis. I went to MTSU and studied political science and communications. While I was getting that degree, I had an opportunity to do a really great internship working in the Tennessee state legislature. I worked for a company called the Ingram Group and it was a government relations and public relations agency still in existence today but in a little different format. The agency had been originally founded by key staff members of Lamar Alexanders Governatore Term. When he was wrapping his governorship, his staff left the office and started this firm, the Ingram Group. They were all very well connected lobbyist and public relations professionals. I got work for them my junior and into my senior year of college. I worked on everything from children’s services, non-profits, Marlboro, Miller Brewing Company. I worked for environmental causes and healthcare. Both the good the bad and the ugly causes. It was very interesting to see the spectrum of how private businesses and associations try to influence legislative policy. I really enjoyed being on capitol hill and during the offseason we did a lot of special events so I got to engage with local government through that because the agency did things like Southern Festival of Books and Mayors First Day Festival, Cities of Service, all sorts of different types of activities on behalf of metropolitan government. I got to learn how to write RP’s and respond from a communications standpoint and ended up, when I graduated college, working for that agency. I worked for them for about 3 years. Right after I got there they handed me the most fun account, the Krispy Kreme (KK) account. I was tasked with helping them with store openings and community relations. It wasn’t really where I thought my focus was gonna go but I enjoyed it and it really helped me broaden my media relationships because Krispy Kreme is a media darling. I would go around to radio stations and TV stations and drop off the donuts. I got to know a lot of people through that. So fast forward a couple years, about 3 years after doing that, by that time I was managing the account statewide. Anything they did in Tennessee I was overseeing. They ended up hiring me to come work for their national corporate headquarter to do what I was doing in Tennessee at a national level. So I did that for about 5 years and then I opened up stores all over the country and Puerto Rico, Turkey, Mexico and it was fun. I got a lot of unique corporate experience working for an organization that went through a tremendous amount of change while I was there. While I was there, I decided I wanted to focus my skill set on giving back. One of the things that I did at KK was manage their community outreach programs. When we would go into a new community or a heritage community that KK had always been in they would give back in products or funds, or helping an organization fundraiser, and I got to help make those decisions. And in doing that, I thought I wanted to go try the non-profit thing and really use my talent for good instead of gain. My husband and I relocated here (Nashville) and I went to work at Second Harvest Food Bank. I worked with your dad for a little over 5 years and helped start the market and communications and volunteer programs there. That was an awesome time both personally and professionally. I was really passionate about food security but really learned a lot about the reasons for food security and how it takes a village, the non-profit community, the for-profit community, and the government to really make a difference in that area. Poverty is not just because you don’t have a job, its because you don’t have transportation, you don’t have affordable housing, it’s because you don’t have an education or skills set that you need to get the job, to get this, to get that. And then there’s food security. And so all those symptoms of food security I became more and more passionate about that, and access to healthy food was one of the things I became very personally and professionally concerned about. And working at the food bank I got to see a lot of things about how there was real lack of connectivity between hunger relief organizations in our local community, hunger relief organizations, and local farms. And even in the for-profit community and hunger relief organizations. There were lots of gaps. I just really began getting involved in different outreach organizations, different nonprofits, different events, trying to bridge those gaps. Which leads me here (Nashville Farmers Market). It’s not at all where I thought I was intending to go. I thought I was going to stay at the food bank until I quit working. It was very much my intention. I don’t know how much you know about the market so I’ll talk about the market and how I got here at the same time.
Marian: How did you get involved with the Nashville Farmers Market?
Tasha: In 2014 I started in January as a replacement for the interim management group. So the NFM had been going through all those issues in 2013. I came in and I got this brand spanking new strategic plan. Let’s go do it! (The strategic plan is discussed more in depth in the next section)
Marian: What is the history of the Nashville Farmers Market?
Tasha: The market was originally called the City Market back in the 1900’s but it was established in the 1800’s when the settlement happened right at the courthouse. Most cities, as you know from an agriculture policy background, are started around access to land, water, food. The market was building number 3 for downtown Nashville in 1801, right where the courthouse sits. Over time, as the settlement became more civilized, the city began to build up and building number 3 turned into a row of buildings that are no longer in existence. None of those buildings are in existence. But a row of buildings where judges, an aldermen, the market master, and weights and measures were all housed in this building. The trading would take place on the lawn. Eventually, that became indoor and outdoor trading area. Those buildings burned down in the late 1800’s and Nashville decided as they were reconstructing those buildings to create a courthouse. They created the courthouse where Mayor Barry’s office is. When they did that, the built what we know as traffic court, the Ben Wess building which sits right across James Robertson Parkway from the courthouse. If you look at the Ben Wess building you will actually see etched in stone “City Market”. It was designed, I think, in 1837. It was designed based on the Boston market. It was a state of the art, sophisticated, public market. It had an indoor space with counters where you could go to the City Market to gain access to government programs. They also had a WIC office that worked out of there. They also had a butcher, a candy shop, a bakery, a produce area. But most of the produce trading occurred outside of the building on what we know as James Robertson Parkway. But James Robertson Parkway did not exist when this building was built. That whole roadway was access between the courthouse and the building as an area where people would bring the produce from all over the southeast. So it was a transit market, like what we have in Atlanta now. So produce was coming from Florida, Georgia, Michigan and it would come here and because of the access we have to Chicago and New York, it was traded here and then taken north.
You can go on and do some research but you’ll find that during that time frame, when it was there until 1955, during that time frame there were lots of changes in Nashville. There was an urban renewal campaign. I hate talking about it because it seems to be a rather dark period. There was a lot of government-funded change. Roadways were built, areas of town were revitalized, there was a lot of federal funds that were filtering into cities all over the country and it had a big impact on neighborhoods. Big impact. In fact, the land around the Ben Wess building, what we know now as Rosa Parks Blvd. all the way passed the ball park, was kind of a shanty town. In part of Phase 1 of urban renewal, this land was taken by the government and the shanty town was closed. Various different things happened with different plots of this land over a 50 year period. Which has some residual perception issues in the community about how it happened.
But not to diminish the importance of what happened, to make a long story short, the state became the property owner of this land. The market that resided in the City Market building during the 1930s-40s, at the time the Ben Wess building, was somewhat struggling with an identity crisis. What is the market? Who does it serve? How does it do that? Is it supporting local agriculture? Keep in mind that this was part of the city government’s responsibility at this point. The city government was trying to figure out how to help our city when most of the agricultural trading is happening from farmers from Michigan, and Florida, etc. What were local farmers gaining with this? Some of the feedback was that it didn’t really have the facility to support the local community being there. At the same time, there was again, federal funding coming through to build road ways, specifically the James Robinson Parkway to connect the city to the surrounding county. In making that decision, the state then funded the development of a new market.
In 1955, the City Market left the Ben Wess building, which is what it’s called now, it wasn’t called that then. The City Market moved to a location on Jefferson Street, a stone’s throw away from where we are right now. It operated there from 1955 to 1994. In the transition from what I’m gonna call the Taj Mahal, to the Jefferson Street market, it became known as the Nashville Farmers Market (NFM) where it underwent rebranding from city market to NFM. That was in conjunction with the city and the county government becoming one municipality. There was also no indoor facility there. Some of the things that the City Market had always had were eliminated immediately. There was no WIC office, which caused the market to lose a lot of community outreach. There was also a lack of indoor facilities so that the bakery and candy shops and butcher shops were all eliminated. But it answered the call to giving the local farmers, although at the time there was no definition of local, a home. It was a shed structure rather than a parking lot, so not quite like the shed we have now, but similar. You could drive through the market so most customers never even got out of their car, they would drive in and holler to the vendors who would put their goods right in the customer’s car. But it became a homestead versus a transient market like the City Market used to be. It was more of a homestead where people settled in and they stayed. Well, in order to stay, with the seasonality of produce growing here in Nashville, they began purchasing and reselling in the off periods so that there was always a market.
However, the market represented products from various different places. And the market began transitioning again away from the local producer and more towards resold produce. And that was just the nature of the beast. The community was coming year round and people didn’t know what the seasons were and therefore they didn’t really know that these things weren’t grown in the region. And I’m not sure that it mattered at the time I don’t know, I’m not that consumer. So that’s about all I know from 1955 to 1994 because there aren’t a lot of really good records. I had to do a lot of research just to find that out. And there are people who are still at this market, like Smiley’s and Howells, that traded at the market on Jefferson Street. That market also started the birth of the flea component to the NFM because there were multiple sheds and in order to keep them full, vendors started a flea market.
So, Mr. Wolverton, a vendor who has been with the NFM since the old market on Jefferson Street, and many of our flea market vendors that have been with us for more than 20 years, traded at the old farmers market. And it was deeply rooted in the North Nashville community. You have to realize that during the time frame you’re talking about, from 1955-1994, there was a lot of stuff going on in North Nashville. It really became the North Nashville market. The few things I know about that market is that it was a very wild, chaotic, dangerous place. That is why people didn’t get out of their cars to shop. There was a lot of crime at the market, there were deaths at the market, and it was seen as a place that really you really didn’t want to take your family.
So, fast forward a little bit to the 1990’s. Governor Ned McWherter set out on an initiative with the state legislature to redevelop this corridor, known as the Capitol View Project. It included the original 16 acres that the market sat on and another 20 acres that bicentennial is on and I believe another 20 acres beyond that which is currently some parking facilities and the data center for the state. The idea was the state already owned the land and they were gonna redevelop it into public spaces for city dwellers or employees of the state, for tourists to really connect with the roots of the Nashville and also Tennessee. Part of the land that the market sat on at Jefferson street was part of the Capitol View redevelopment project. The primary goal of that project was the development of Bicentennial Mall, not the NFM. A lot of people think that the NFM, because of the size of the facility, was the primary project. We were kind of an afterthought to the project to be honest. They had the design of the park and originally the park was going all the way to Rosa Parks Blvd. But there was this question of what do we do with the farmers market? Where do we move it. You have to understand that the farmers market was not a beloved program in both city government or state government at that time due to, again the things I described to you, a lot of crime and another identity crisis of the NFM.
One of the architects that worked on the Bicentennial Mall Project, part of the Capitol View Project, had a passion for local food. He had a passion for what he had seen in other cities through his travels for public markets. He worked with Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) and the city government and state government to commission a project, “The Public Market Project”, that allowed him to go out and study public markets all across the country. The architect formed a group of people who visited 12 markets total, then developed a plan that was presented to MDHA. That plan then became the plan for the new NFM. The plan influenced the design of the facility, it influenced the types of merchants that were going to be allowed to lease space or work in the facility. There’s a huge book that was written that talks about even so far as to how the organization was going to be marketed, staffed and types of events that would be hosted here. It was a very comprehensive report. And it was approved. And they built the NFM facility that opened here in 1995.
The opening was rocky. In their discovery of what they wanted a public market to be, a gathering place for the community, a homestead for local farmers, and an incubator for small business, they had the vision right but they didn’t staff the market right. They chose to hire a market manager from a market they had visited in Montreal. There were transition issues between choosing the person hiring the person, and getting them started. The person was not a resident of Tennessee, and not a resident in Nashville, and therefore could not take the job. Now I have never seen anything documented to show me that that is the way the story goes. Due to Montreal market manager not having resident status, she could not work for the city government. And so there was a scramble last minute to figure out how to staff the market. They got it staffed but let’s just say the first couple of years were pretty rocky.
The land the NFM sits on is zoned by the state and the program is managed by the city. So there’s a lot of political influence involved with an entity like that. Regardless of what was built on that land, it just happened to be the NFM. And there was angst amongst the staff which meant there was very little storytelling going on. People didn’t really know what to expect of the new market. They didn’t understand how the market was going to pay for itself. There was this wonderful design and a wonderful concept but there wasn’t necessarily a financial plan for how to cover the utilities associated with moving from an outdoor market that had very little utilities to an indoor market that faced a lot of value engineering while it was being built. Ultimately, this meant they had to eliminate a lot of things from the utility side of the building. It became a very expensive operation. For instance, the ceiling was supposed to be capped which would have helped us on our utility expenses. But it was left open so that it would have this beautiful structural look, but it’s very expensive to heat and cool this building.
So, all that being said, from the very beginning in 1995 there were discussions about how the market was not going to be financially sustainable in its current location. We opened in 1995 and in 1995 these discussions were happening. What are we gonna do about the NFM? It’s never gonna be able to pay for itself. What is the NFM? What purposes does it need to serve our community? Does it need to be a part of the Nashville government or should we privatize it? As early as 1996, the city council began having the discussion about privatizing the market. We are still having those discussions today. They continue because there aren’t a lot of examples of city and state governments operating in public markets. And those that do, none of them are the same. There all charted for different reasons. All that being said, there was lots of angst for many years. And in 2007 into 2008, about the time I came back to Nashville to work for Second Harvest Food Bank, the market was kind of going through a rebirth. Local farming was becoming a word that people were using.
When I moved to Nashville, I actually talked to your dad, Mark Rubin, which is funny that we are talking about this. I wanted to know where I could get the best local eggs and if there were grass-fed beef farms in town. I was a hundred and fifty mile-er, so I wanted to eat as much within 150 miles as I could. I did a little bit of writing about it as well. And your father introduced me to Walnut Hills Farm. They were the only beef provider here at the NFM at that time. They were one of the first local farmers to kind of make this location their homesteads. They didn’t just fly in and out of the market on Saturdays, but they really invested their farm here at the NFM. Walnut Hills Farm struggled between building a customer base here and just reacting to whoever showed up. As a response, they created a newsletter. They were really trying to build a company. I came back to the market for that very reason. I meet Doug and Sue and got really reintroduced to this market.
At that time, the former Executive Director was really trying to bring in a lot more regional and local producers because it was becoming a conversation the community was having. And there were some really good attempts to do that but there was always this defining resistance of the folks that were here 7 days a week selling products from anywhere and the folks that were local that couldn’t be here 7 days a week. Resistance from vendors transpired from where the farmers should be placed on the market. Resistance from vendors was experienced in what should be marketed at the NFM? Who should the market talk about? Should they talk about the folks who are here 7 days a week helping pay the really expensive bills or should they talk about the local farmers and new urban farmers? So there was a lot of angst. Because of that angst, there were several failed attempts at bringing more local farmers to the NFM. And as each one of the attempts failed, new markets would pop up throughout Nashville because farmers would get frustrated at their lack of success or access and even placement here at the NFM. They would come, but they would be placed in the back sheds because the front sheds were full of folks who would be here 7 days a week because they didn’t have to be on a farm. And there were also a lot of political issues because it’s a political organization: its on state land and is operated by the city. As the city would try to manage and make adjustments to things, the board would also try to make adjustments, and there could be a political backlash. Trying to reallocate space or create new opportunities for new folks might move a vendor who had been here for a long period of time. Upset, these older vendors would begin working the legislative process by lobbying their state legislatures and their council members and it would ultimately shut down the change. You might see a pattern. This was a very difficult situation.
All this is all happening between 2007 and up to 2010. There were multiple plans and surveys conducted that reflected the community saying ‘why aren’t there any real farmers at the farmers market’? Consumers stopped coming and so did the people who really wanted the access to vending stalls. The local farmers stopped coming here altogether. It became a more of a tourist destination and a place where you could access anything. Any kind of food at any time. And there were a few farmers that held on and those were the farmers that had really been with the NFM for generations. Like the Smileys and Howell’s. They held on. And they said ‘Okay… we are not gonna give up”. These were also really big farms at the same time. They have staff and family that can support a multi-day operation. The market hinged back and said we’ll have a couple local farmers and we’ll allow them to supplement when they need to. The market also had a resale area of the market. Saturdays and Sundays, the local farmers can continue to come in and sell, but if they wanted to get in the front row stalls, they had to be at the NFM multiple days. So to get into the front sheds, you had to commit to multiple days. If you were single day vendor, which many of the local farmers are single day vendors, they got placed in whatever space was left available.
This was in about 2010 when the artisan movement was starting to take hold. There was a new group of individuals that were making things, both handmade craft and food, that were looking for a place to sell their products as well. If they were single day, they could be in the single day area. If they were multi-day, they could be in the multi-day area. And that created addition conflict at the NFM. the artisan the restaurant community had some conflict because now there was prepared food outside and inside. The handmade craft and the flea vendors had conflict, too. So, then we began, what I call, market segregation. Big mistakes. Your community gets this shed and your community gets this shed. The NFM is going to have four sheds, resale and handmade crafts and plants were in the front sheds, local farmers and flea vendors were in the back sheds. These micro-communities were created and they were all in conflict with one another. They wouldn’t converse, the didn’t meet, they didn’t have the same meanings for being here, they even had different customer bases. So it was a very disjointed operation.
Of course, then we had the flood of 2010 that flooded the entire market. There were about 3 feet of water inside the NFM market house. It was a Friday, which meant the flea market was set up. Their products literally floated down Rosa Parks Blvd. in the flood water. You could see everything from artwork to rugs to home goods to fruits and vegetables floating down Rosa Parks Blvd. And a lot of the businesses in the market house weren’t able to recover. There was the Shaved Ice business, Sweet Stash, Sweats (where Bella Nashville is now), and The Nashville Coffee Company to name a few. Those businesses weren’t able to recover after the flood. And so again, not only did the flood shut down the market house, the flood had a negative impact on the markets ability to recoup revenue once again. So the market started dipping into any and all reserves that it had to cover its bills.
From 2009 through 2012, the market ran out of money. The flood recovery efforts also, while not intentionally, created more angst the micro-communities about who got support and what support they were given and those types of things. So again, things continued to break down. The former director ended up retiring in 2012 and is still very active with the NFM and in the local food security community. But when he retired, the market had been reviewed by metro and cited on a lot of unfortunate but legitimate financial control concerns. There was a lack of a revenue plan and there was a real call to the board to fix to fix these issues. And the recovery efforts after the flood, many of the things that needed to happen here, were unfunded and so there were lots of facility things that also had to be done. And there was no money to do it because the market was using its reserves to cover its everyday expenses. And so, things, like repairing the foundation and structural issues, maintaining landscaping, maintaining the public space in a safe way, were forfeited. As the former executive Director left, the city appointed an interim management group that was apart of metro government, Metro General Services. What they do as a government entity is they build and maintain facilities for metro government. And they are very good at their jobs. And they came in here and did a facility assessment and said, ‘oh me oh my, this is terrible’. The codes could have completely shut the market down. They began spending an enormous amount of money on the repairing things at the NFM. Of course, they didn’t have all the money that they needed, we are actually about to begin another phase of that which we will talk about. But it was in really bad condition. They spent 2 years working on the facility. Everything from fire suppression, lighting, elevator maintenance, safety and security, to ADA compliance. All those types of things.
At the same time, the market itself, and the market is the merchant community, had really been going through a lot of conflicts. The group that was the interim manager was tasked with maintaining and constructing buildings all over Nashville, they were not programmatic folks, they weren’t looking at community outreach, they weren’t looking at how to connect the consumer with the local farmer. They were really looking at how do we fix the facility and is there a way for the market to ever actually pay for itself. That’s what they were looking at. And the board was very focused on the market surviving.
Meanwhile, everyone was marching towards 2015. In 2015 was the year the 20-year lease that the state land would be up for renewal for the next 20 years. The market was going through a lot of really difficult, not necessarily change, but just a difficult time yet again. The board, in 2013, set out on a mission to develop a strategic plan and try to break the long-term identity crisis the NFM was going through. What are we? What are we gonna become? How are we gonna get there? They developed that plan in 2013 and presented it to Karl Dean’s administration, to the metro council, to the state, and to the community. Both the merchant community and the public. Thumbs up all around. Everybody that was engaged in that process in 2013 liked the plan, believed in the plan and began to offer resources towards the plan. Some of those resources were capital funds and programming funds were used to adapt and serve the community in new ways and aid the implementation of hiring an Executive Director versus having an interim management group overseeing the market. And also some budgetary improvements. Also, to be able to cover the expenses through supplemental funds provided by metro government versus the market continuing to run at this very large deficit.
Marian: What were some of the components of this new strategic plan?
Tasha: Part of that plan was to evaluate the market house itself because this can be a revenue driver but it’s also the most expensive part of our property. So what do we need to do to be able to recoup more revenue in the market house that can increase our profitability? And also add components to the market house that are in alignment with the new plans. We were looking for a business that would be willing to offer the local artisans a home, hence Batch Nashville. We were looking at extending business hours in the future, and meeting the thirsty need, hence Picnic Tap. We also needed more dessert categories. And then we wanted some healthy and more international food options and some additional farmers market style merchants. That whole back wall was empty. It was used for seeding, as space for temporary pop up merchants, and for food artisans who would come and sell their products Thursday through Sunday. They got great traffic because they were inside the market house. But it was originally designed to be retail, restaurant, and shop space. The International Market used to be along that wall and then they moved over there in 2009 (points in another direction). After the International Market moved, they simply painted the wall and left it bare. We had the facility assessed for plumping and electrical load and determined that we could, we had the capacity within the facility, to do additional build-outs there. We began a process for identifying the types of businesses we were looking for that were in alignment with the plan and we made a call to applicants. That’s how we went from the Picnic Tap to The Bowl and Roll. Music City Crepes and Bowl and Roll actually graduated from the incubation program here in the local kitchen into those spaces. Sloco was the first one we brought on before any of those, we were trying to find someone that both sourced locally and regionally and could also demonstrate a more sustainable approach to food-related businesses. They and a recycling program, a composting program and a great sourcing program. And they were a local business. We tried to be very intentional with the businesses we were adding here to be in alignment with the plan but there was a lot of oversight by the board, it wasn’t cherry picked from staff. When I got here, we actually had a fish market “Wild and Local’ but they chose not to renew their lease, their business actually completely went under after they left here. I think they were just at a point where they were changing their minds about what they really wanted to do. And that was the last place we filled. And quite frankly, what we put there didn’t work out. That space is going back on the market this week. There was a bakery there for a little over a year. So phase 1 was plus up revenue inside the market house and also add the components that were in the plan that the community had been asking for. There were a couple things that we weren’t able to achieve simply because we didn’t have enough space for it. The was a community asking for a butcher and a community asking for a juice shop. Right now we have a mini pop up juicery that is over by international market. They are open 3 days a week. It’s a start-up company but that’s a way to get juice to the market. We are now going after the butcher because we have that open space. Now, in here we have also done a lot of programmatic things where we have been using our local kitchen as an incubator space and also an educational outreach space, that is the meeting I was in before yours. We do a lot of community education now where 2 years ago we weren’t doing any.
Marian: What led to the producer-only policy change at the NFM?
Tasha: Now that decision was not something that happened overnight, it was a decision that was more than 20 years in the making. It was what the facility was designed to be but had never become because the facility was cash-strapped and management teams made decisions that allowed people to do business here that didn’t fall into the mission of the NFM. And there is nothing wrong with those businesses, they serve a great need. But it wasn’t in alignment with where the market was going. There was also a huge surge in local and regional farmers that were looking for a platform to do direct sales. And that surge had never really been there before. In all the other attempts, there had only been a handful of folks that had been interested. Now there was a massive group of folks that were interested. One of the things I had to did when I got here was really evaluate the viability of becoming a producer-only market.
Marian: What steps were taken to assess the feasibility of this policy?
Tasha: We did a lot of survey work. A lot of community work. We met with over 20 farmers. We met with the vendors that were reselling here. We got everybody’s input and talked about it for over a year at the board level, at almost every single board meeting about the transition and what we needed to do. The first thing was the evaluate merchant standards. There were no merchant standards at the market. Whether you wanted to be inside the market house, the first adaptation of merchant standards was when we built out these 7 businesses. This is what we are looking for: type of business, do you fit this category, and if so you’ll be considered. This was our process as opposed to who’s next in line. The second set of merchant standards that were put in place in 2015 were for all the exterior merchants. Those were based on research that was done with the farmers market coalition and what we call sister markets throughout the country. We were looking at other public markets and how they recruit, how they manage, what type of policies they have, what type of application process they have, and what their fee structures are. The NFM did not have any of that. It was just willy nilly. Send in your piece of paper, pay your rent, and you’re good to go. A lot of information came from the Eastern Market in Michigan. They have different policies than us but they were very generous. There is a group of 27 markets in Portland that sent me their policies. Seattle’s Pike Place Market was the most generous. They managed to have conference calls and share documents with us, and the farmers market coalition gave me a ton of information. There’s also a market in Dallas that was going through the same thing along side us, but it had been a city market that was privatized and is now undergoing redevelopment by the private sector. We did a lot of peer to peer sharing. All that being said, there was a lot of research put in. I think from the communities perception if you only read what the Tennessean prints, you’ll think the board was making a willy nilly decision, and it wasn’t. It was very thoughtful, very strategic, and very concerning decision because it was a fundamental shift for the NFM. It was a bold move.
Marian: How does implementing a producer-only policy change the farmers market?
Tasha: As we made that decision, there was one thing that changed right before we implemented the policy. So originally, the policy was gonna exclude the flea market from the farmers’ market. Because of the nature of the flea market and the services it provides, what we got the board to agree to was that there would just be some standards around the flea market. The flea market would still be able to operate here on a weekend basis. That was quite frankly the toughest part of what we had to go through, to be able to retain the flea market. On the producer’s side, if you were producing food or if you were producing a handmade craft, producing food meaning packaged or grown, then you had to be able to prove that to us. So you couldn’t be going to restaurant depot and buying pies and putting your sticker on them and bringing them here to sell. And you couldn’t go to Mid-South Produce and buy all the produce and put it in bushel baskets and bring it here to sell.
Marian: What is the exact text of the producer-only policy at the NFM?
Tasha: Nashville farmers market is a producer-only market, we have categories standards for each merchant type:
- Farmer: has to be 90% of what you retail comes from your farm and you can supplement 10% from another farmer
- Collective: up to 8 farmers apply to retail and represent themselves collective at the NFM. they have to be applications from the farms.
- Both farmers and collectives, we allow them to hire people to work their booths for them (some market don’t allow that, but we are a 7 day a week market and we want our farmers farming so some of them have their family represent them, some of them hire seasonal help, whatever gets them through it)
- Food artisans: they have to demonstrate that they make their products. There is a lot of fraud in the artisan food products and the market was beginning to see that people were simply putting their sticker on someone else’s product. They have to apply and demonstrate how they make their product, we require them to have the proper permits from the department of agriculture. If they don’t have that permit, they’re not making that product. We visit their kitchen and farms. We visit as many farms as we can, and with the artisan, we visit as many artisan kitchens as we can (this is how we enforce policy)
- Hand made craft products: they have to demonstrate how their making their jewelry, how they are doing their art work, how they are making their soap or their candles, whatever it may be. Often times, they are making those things in their homes, we do not visit their homes but we do have a product review meeting where they have to come in and they have to show us their products and demonstrate to use verbally or through photography how they are making their product
- Flea: there is a list of prohibited items. As long as your items aren’t on that list, you’re fine. (this has probably been the hardest one to enforce because flea market vendors want to have a variety of products and they want to tell that if they don’t have this one thing they are not going to be successful)
Marian: What are the specific elements of the producer-only policy?
Tasha: And in order to that we had to create an application process, we had to institute a farm visit program, and we didn’t have a lot of resources to do those things so we did it on a shoestring budget. But we did it. From our internal perspective, i would say that it has paid off tremendously. It has changed things eternally, greatly. Internally, we went from having 10 farmers here to over 60 farmers here. Externally, the space is utilized differently. So while we have more vendors than we have ever had participating here, they’re not participating at the same daily frequency that the 4 resellers that were occupying the majority of the front shed were participating because they were here 7 days a week year round. And they also sold everything. And now, because it’s a producer-only policy, the farmers are coming with what they sell and they are allowed to supplement up to 10% of what is in their food. And that was a compromise that we made because the Franklin Farmer’s Market has a certificate program that allows farmers to bring a neighboring farms honey to the FFM and retail that product. Their neighbors bees do the job for farmers A farm. As we were looking at that, we were like, okay they are a producer-only market yet they are allowing the farmer to resale someone else’s product. So that’s what we did. We said, if you’re a farmer, 90% of what you sell at the market needs to come from your farm or farms and you need to be able to demonstrate that you either borrow, own, or lease, or have some attachment to the land and we are going to come visit it. Then you can supplement what you sell up to 10%. But that also needs to come from a farm.
Then we had another standard that we got from some of the other markets that were also seeing a surge in urban and millennial farmers where they didn’t necessarily have the land capacity or the funds to do it alone. So we created what we a collective. Its called a coop in most other states, but the state of tennessee doesn’t like the word coop. It means something legislatively that it doesn’t really mean from a business standpoint. So we created a collective. In the first year, we allowed up to 4 farms to come together and they could retail their goods together. This was designed for folks like Old School, Six Boots, and Bells Bend who were small operations in the same community and they could retail together. But it’s also designed to be able to keep some of those products that had been here forever, but were from out of state. Fishers Peach Orchid is a great example of this. Their peaches had been sold on this market through resale for 20 years. And then they were coming in through distribution networks, brokers, and then getting through the farm stalls here. When we made the policy change, Mr. Fischer called me very mad, ‘I cant believe you’ve done this, I’ve been selling my peaches at your market for 20 years, this is part of our livelihood”. And I told him, “Sir, you can still sell your peaches here, I need an application from your farm and you can hire someone locally to represent you.” And however you get your peaches to the states of tennessee is up to you. I’m not gonna dictate that you have to drive them down here on your own truck. If you already have a distribution network and your resources can pick it up from that redistribution network and retail it here we are okay with that. And a lot of people don’t understand that. They think the policy changes require it to be either in Davidson county or a Tennessee farmer. Nope! We have farms from Michigan, Vermont, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, you name it! They are participating here. And we do allow our farmers to supplement. The collective model had its own set of challenges because a lot of folks that were reselling could have technically transitioned their businesses to collective models, only one chose to do so. So Howell’s produce is still with us with 4 resellers. They’re both the farmer and the reseller. The first year it was Howell’s farm raised products + 3 other farms. This year, based on Johnny and his family’s feedback, we changed the collective model to allow them to represent up to 8 farms. Their own and 7 more. It’s really helped with the seasonality, again, those farms can be from anywhere, they don’t have to be from just here. And that has helped fill some of the gaps in product availability. We have adapted.
Marian: How did vendors and the public respond the the producer-only policy?
Tasha: Year 1, I think was sticker shock for a lot of people. And a lot of people thought this is never gonna work. But the board was committed, staff was committed to it, and sometimes you have to do really hard things to change something. I firmly believe, and I believe at this point our board firmly believes in it as well, had we not made the changes that we made, we would not be a farmers market. And we wouldn’t be meeting our mission of supporting local and regional farmers. And we wouldn’t be incubating them. As the largest retail platform in the state of Tennessee that was designed and dedicated to supporting agriculture, we wouldn’t be meeting our mission and we would not have gotten our lease renewed.
Marian: How did you deal with backlash from this policy change?
Tasha: So in an effort to stabilize, to sustain, and to also recreate the farmers market and the farm community in Nashville, we did what we had to do. And we’ll continue to learn, and continue to adapt. We have quarterly merchant meetings and I meet with farmers on a daily basis. Is this working for you? What’s not working?
Marian: What are some positive outcomes of this policy?
Tasha: I told you earlier about they growth, we have gone from 10 to 60 farmers. A great example of what this policy has done is you can go right out there right now into what I call ‘mumpkinville’ that’s the mums and the pumpkins September through October. When we made this policy change we were really nervous because of the size of farms we have in Tennessee and we knew they didn’t have the capacity to be here all the time. And we knew the first couple of years were gonna be tough, people were gonna hate us, it’s gonna be okay, we’re gonna get through it, it’s the right thing to do. We made the announcement in January and in late April I got a phone call from a farmer out of Elkton, KY. He said I saw a news story on channel 5 about these big controversial changes at the NFM and I want to come down there to talk to you about it tomorrow. Now, keep in mind that from January to April, I had been battered and bruised left and right, every turn I took someone was taking a shot at the market because we were gonna ruin this place. And I was fully prepared for this guy to come in and rip me a new one. And he came in, very humble man, in his early-mid 30s, named Simon, and he said “I want to be a part of this, I’ve been waiting for this to happen. I come from an agricultural family I’ve got a big tobacco farm in Elkton, Kentucky and I’m getting into row crops because my daughter has found a passion in having a farm stand on our farm. We live on a two-lane highway. She grows tomatoes, strawberries, mums and things like that. So I have been growing a little more for her. I’m GAP certified and I have the ability to really dig in and get into this. Right now I ship about 51 tractor trailers of watermelon all across the country. I can bring watermelon and sweet corn to the market this year. If it goes, I’ll add some more crops in the future.” I thought this is way too good to be true. So I did a little research, figured out he was legitimate. I asked him how much space he would need and he said ‘a lot’. He said he needed 9 stalls. I said, okay that’s expensive, you’re sure? And he said yes I’m sure. He said he grew a lot of pumpkins and by the time we get to pumpkins you’re gonna understand. So they show up in mid-June, which was a big learning curve for us because a lot of the farmers that got so excited about our policy change, they applied in January, February, and March and some of them told us they were coming in May, but they didn’t really have crops until June. So at the start, of the market was a little shaky. Whereas you used to be able to come down here as soon as it got warm you could get strawberries from Florida.
That first year, April was painful and May got a little bit better. But by the time we got to June, we were seeing progress. But the community was still waiting for the shed to be full. That was the success measurement for the community, that if the sheds were full, then what we did was the right thing. They weren’t concerned about the product, it was a matter how full the sheds were. Then Simon’s showed up in mid-June and they brought a lot of product. By September, they completely amazed us. When they wrapped up in the first week of November, Jerry’s parents, Janice and Jerry who work the booth here, said ‘Well we just wanted to let you know, we put down about 4000 strawberry plants.” They had done 5000 mums and acres and acres of pumpkins. They introduced ryes and watermelon to this market. They were old heritage varieties that this market had never had. We have always had the ‘Publix’ watermelon. o that first year they were introducing all these new products and said we’ve done so well we want to come back earlier next year, and we are gonna do all strawberries and we are gonna try to be there in April.
More and more farmers were starting to communicate that to us at the end of that first season that they were going come back earlier and we are going try new things. We have seen gaps of products that aren’t here and customers are asking for asparagus and snap peas that we didn’t have last year and we are gonna try to get them to you this year. We survived the winter, we dialed back, and the first year we are gonna have a winter market on Saturday and Sunday. We got some of our greenhouse and hydroponic growers to support us throughout the winter and we really focused on what was in season. Every cheap shot someone could take about what was going down here during winter they took, and that’s okay. Every cheap shot someone could take about our budget they took and that’s okay. We stayed very focused. We streamlined our application process during the winter so that when we came back out of the gate in 2016 it was a little less paperwork. The first year there as a lot of paperwork. 2016 there was a little less paperwork. There was a lot more trust in the process for all of us. And again we saw a tremendous amount of growth in the number of applications we were getting and people coming back earlier. It has been a lot less bumpy in 2016.
Marian: What are some negative outcomes of this policy?
Tasha: There also still continued community outreach issues. There’s an urban community that is in the middle of one of the largest gentrification initiatives, if you want to call it that, it’s going through gentrification in this area (North Nashville). Germantown is very different today than it was 4 years ago. The NFM is very different today than it was 4 years ago. Jefferson Street is very different today than it was four years ago. It’s not just NFM. It’s this whole area, this whole part of the community. The need for transportation, the need for jobs, the need for housing. All of that is changing. We changed in the middle of that which somewhat attaches us to the gentrification. We did not change to find a new customer, we changed because we wanted to support farmers because that’s our mission. I think some people think that we changed to find a new customer. So, right now one of the things we are doing is trying to do is increase our community outreach to re-engage our base customer and get them here and make sure that they know that we are still their market. But there are some different offerings here now. There’s actually more than what they’re coming here to buy and more than there used to be. We are trying to work with the International Market to build some of the product gaps. The grapes, the bananas, the tropical fruits. We are getting somewhere with them. They have got some sourcing things that they are going to be overcoming in the next year and some redesign of their store that will help them be a place where, regardless of what’s grown, you can still get it here at the market but through the International Market because it is a grocery store and not a farm stand.
We have seen the flea market participation shrink, some of that has been because of space limitations and some of it has been because there are restrictions now and people simply didn’t like the restrictions. But you might have noticed half the market is gone outside. The state amended our lease while they are building the TN State Museum next door, which in the future will be wonderful. In the interim, it’s a bit painful. We lost half our parking for a 2 year period, we’re gonna get it back. We lost 50% of our outdoor space. Instead of eliminating the merchant types that participated over there, we created an 80/20 rule for the existing shed that we still have. 80% of the products of the vendors that are approved have to be food based and 20% can be craft and flea. That keeps it balanced but it also helped reduce shed segregation. And while it has been painful to lose 50% of parking and we have had to retool our financial plan because we lost 50% of our outdoor space, it’s brought our communities together and they’re operating in shared space now. They have had to learn how to do that respectfully and openly. And that’s what we all have to do. We all have to learn how to work with, live with, play with people that aren’t like us. It’s human nature. And if that’s what this has done, amen to that.
Marian: What do you expect the new producer-only policy to do for the greater community of Nashville?
Tasha:This is going to make our food system stronger. A couple other things that we are doing, just so you know, which Mayor Barry necessarily has a position on things she believes that everyone should have access to. She has funded a project that we are working in collaboration with the health department on. We’re convening a project for a local food systems development research project (RFP). RFP hits the streets today, actually. It’s basically a research project to look at the local food system and that ranges from the food brokers to the farmers to the schools to the institutions to the hunger relief programs to the restaurants and the chefs. If you are touching food, you’re gonna be engaged in this process. We’ve already had the kick off launch meeting and what we are gonna do, you can look at what Denver has done, they probably have the greatest example, where we are gonna use $30,000 of government sponsored funds to do a research project that will then provide a report of recommendations and insights to metro government of how metro can begin to influence and build capacity within the local food system. It doesn’t mean that metro should be offsetting all of the expenses for building that capacity because we might find out that in order to get more local and regional food into school, we need a processing facility. It’s not saying that metro is going to pay for a processing facility, but metro is committed to paying for the research to help us understand what we need, where are the gaps and what can we make stronger. I think Mayor Barry’s commitment to funding that is exceptional, we are one of 14 that she funded in her first budget. It is the first time a mayor has done anything like this in Nashville. I think she’s placed a good bet on food without coming out with a policy. We are hoping that our research will inform the future of food policy for Nashville.