What skills does it take to run a top-notch farmers market? A market manager needs to love local fruits and vegetables, of course, and have the ability to tolerate all those early — way early — mornings. Customer-service expertise is a must. But the X factor might be a background in cafeteria management.
"I know it seems a little strange, but both jobs are pretty similar," says Deb Connors, market manager of the City Market's farmers market.
Connors has held this job — her first as a farmers-market manager — for several years. But her enthusiasm for studying vendors and going on routine farm checks still sounds fresh. We asked her how she makes the City Market a standout.
The Pitch: How did you become the market master?
Connors: I actually have a food-service background managing cafeterias. I managed the cafeteria at the federal building in Kansas City and the GSA cafeteria on Bannister Road for many years. Both jobs are pretty similar in that I handle customers' issues, oversee the vendors, deal with the health department and government agencies. I have to be very organized at all times and keep very good records. I oversee the SNAP program at the market, which is similar to handling sales in a cafeteria.
Have you ever been on the growers' side and produced for a market?
No, but I grew up in Michigan, in the fruit belt, so I was always surrounded by farms and picked produce with my mom, who canned or froze everything we ate.
What goes on at a farm check?
I usually check farms every Thursday. The vendor typically does not know when I am coming. The visits last week went well. I mainly checked greenhouses who are bringing bedding plants to the market. I also checked on a contracted vendor who sells plants and produce, and a waiting-list vendor who grows produce. I must check all the new vendors' farms before they are allowed to rent a space at the market. I also check all the contracted vendors every year. I try to visit them at different times of the season, to make sure what they have at the market is what they are harvesting.
The vendors in the "Farmer with Local Supplement" category must grow 50 percent of the produce they sell, and can purchase 50 percent of their produce from a local farmer or one of the Amish auction houses in the area. The City Market has a 500-mile radius, May through September. I typically check to see if the farm has greenhouses, hoop houses or high tunnels; tractors; a way to cool their produce; a water source; and that the produce they sell matches up with the produce they are growing.
Did you discover anything new going on with the vendors you visited?
Nothing this week. Sometimes the vendors have added another high tunnel or have had issues with deer, raccoons or bugs. Farming is never predictable. Your success has a lot to do with Mother Nature.
What's your favorite type of produce sold at the market?
I love every kind of produce, but when I am checking farms, my favorite is cabbage. It is just beautiful — nothing like you see in the grocery store. I also think okra is very cool and has a beautiful flower.
The market carries flowers and plants that thrive in this region, too. Any suggestions on what new gardeners who want to self-landscape their houses should buy?
I would suggest they stick with native plants in their landscape and use annuals in pots and hanging baskets for a pop of color. The City Market vendors have a great selection of native plants and annuals and can give the customer tips on how to keep their plants thriving in the hot summer. This exchange of information is something you don't get when shopping at the big-box stores. Plus, the plants at the market are healthy and well-cared-for before they are purchased by the customers.
How does the City Market differ from other area markets?
Most farmers markets have a much smaller radius, usually 50 to 100 miles. The City Market is open year-round ... and, in order to include the entire state and ensure customers have produce to purchase, has a 500-mile radius. The definition of local varies with every farmers market.
The City Market, in addition to the farmers market, also has year-round shops, which makes it possible for the customer to purchase all their items in one stop. The market offers shipped-in produce — never under the farmers' sheds — so customers can purchase bananas, avocados or other produce that does not grow in Missouri or Kansas. We also have quite a few ethnic grocery stores on the property, which carry those hard-to-find items.
We currently have 88 contracted vendors on Saturday, 36 contracted vendors on Sunday, and 60 approved waiting-list vendors. So we offer a great selection and variety.
Any new vendors this year?
We have a new cheese vendor who has a dairy farm in David City, Nebraska, who has a great selection of cheeses, even cheese curds. A new vendor from Lawrence grows lavender and makes products from the lavender. We have a new, Sunday-contracted vendor who makes coffeecakes in a commercial kitchen.
Any new plans for the market this summer?
The market will continue to have monthly celebrations the first Saturday of each month through October. June 2 is "Get Your Sweet On," July 7 is "Groovalicious Fruit," August 4 is "Veg Out," September 1 is "For the Love of Meat," and October 6 is "Pumpkins, Gourds and Apples, Oh My."
There's also the Picnic Project, June 23, and the Glow Run on July 14 and the Broadway Bridge Run on September 9.
The City Market now has a commercial kitchen, which we will be using throughout the summer for cooking classes and food-preservation classes.
Every weekend feels like a festival, so I think the market itself stands out as interesting.