Harvesting data to grow farmers markets

June 2, 2017

Less than a month into her job as director of special events for the Downtown Fond du Lac Partnership, Dusty Krikau was tasked with overhauling one of the organization’s signature projects, the city’s farmers market.

The mission was to move the market from a parking lot, where it had been held for more than a decade, to Main Street. There, traffic would shut down each Saturday from mid-May through October so patrons could shop and visit surrounding downtown businesses.

“Some people were very vocally not okay with the change,” says Krikau. “I knew data would verify that what we were doing would make sense. But we had nothing to stand on.”

Fortunately, in that spring of 2015, two UW-Madison researchers offered to help collect evidence of the market’s economic impact.

Alfonso Morales, a professor of Urban & Regional Planning and faculty affiliate of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and graduate student Lauren Suerth had already worked with nine farmers markets in three regions — including Williamson, West Virginia; Athens, Ohio; and Crossroads, Maryland — over the past year. Using a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, they sought to collect robust and reliable data that would aid organizers in make sound decisions to ensure their markets thrive and grow.

“As a scholar of markets, I always understood the need market managers had for data collection tools to support them in decision-making,” says Morales, who edited Cities of Farmers, a book about urban agriculture, with Julie Dawson, an assistant professor of horticulture.

Soon, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation learned of the project and asked Morales and Suerth to bring the approach to a handful of markets within the state — including the one in Fond du Lac. In doing so, they ultimately created Metrics + Indicators for Impact, or MIFI, an online toolkit that provides markets with proven strategies to collect data, interpret information and make customized reports.

A pair of UW-Madison researchers have created tools to help market managers around the country collect, interpret and utilize metrics to bolster their business model
A pair of UW-Madison researchers have created tools to help market managers around the country collect, interpret and utilize metrics to bolster their business model.

In working with markets, Morales and Suerth guided directors in collecting data on the number of visitors, where they came from and how they got to the market, as well as the types of products vendors sold, the amount of money they made each week and how shoppers paid for goods, among other metrics. Then they taught them how to interpret their findings and relay the information to their communities, vendors, sponsors and stakeholders and in grant applications.

“A lot of markets have to rely on grant funding just to exist,” says Suerth. “Grant applications want to see hard numbers. This information is needed on multiple fronts.”

And market managers quickly learned that digging into the data can offer incredible insights and identify new opportunities.

“The market in Monroe, Wisconsin, discovered a large number of visitors from the Chicago region,” Morales says. “The market in Hernando, Mississippi, used data to initiate a grant application process that won them $50,000 to support senior citizen transportation to the market.”

Morales hopes market managers across the country utilize the MIFI toolkit to help identify and meet goals. He’s also keeping in mind a broader aspect to all that information being collected nationwide. “Eventually scholars will have data that will be useful to advance new knowledge and subsequent policy in support of local food systems activities,” he says.

Back in Fond du Lac, Krikau is looking forward to another season of farmers market monitoring. She learned a lot over the past two years, and thanks to Morales and Suerth, she was able to create economic impact reports to show the positive effects of moving the market downtown.

Krikau reported that in 2016, the farmers market brought $1.1 million in additional economic activity and five new jobs downtown and generated more than $250,000 in estimated sales to roughly 80 vendors, a significant increase from years past.

“There are good numbers coming out of this market move,” she says. “We’re creating that sense of economic boon, of an upward spiral.”

This article was originally published by the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science.