Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Original Santa Rosa Farmer's Market

The Original Santa Rosa Farmer's market needs your help. This is a farmer owned non-profit organization that has been operating a farmer's market at the same location for 41 years. 41 years. In flush times, the Santa Rosa Parks and Rec department was giving them a pretty sweetheart deal on rent, and the group of course rolled that into a market with one of the lowest booth fees around.

I am not there, I have been moving my product direct to consumer until now, mainly because I was so small I could and because I hated my one experience with the Certified Producer's Certificate with the Sonoma County Ag commissioner. No offense to those good people, I understand why they have to do it (to prevent people from just buying product from the central valley and selling it at a farmer's market as their own) but I truly dislike paperwork. Administrivia. gack. Anyway I point this out to show that I have no vested interest in this market yet. But I see an injustice being done here.

What I understand from Heather Irwin's article in the Press Democrat, the Parks and Rec department decided that the gig was up, times are no longer flush and its time for the local sustainable small farmers to cough up their rent in full starting July 1. They were not really informed in writing, they heard about it through rumors apparently and asked for a meeting. During this meeting they expressed shock and dismay, and as a farmer run co-op they had to go back to their membership and develop a process of deciding how to handle it. They developed a committee creatively named the "rent" committee and investigated other sites, informally polled the vendor-members, and were just basically wrapping that up and getting ready to vote to stay when suddenly they were informed the lease had been granted to a new group.

This group is formed by Dan Smith the owner of the French Garden restaurant. A pillar of our community and someone everyone in Sebastopol owes a great debt to for being involved in the turnaround of our local hospital which we absolutely adore and really should not be without. Medical attention is so important. I know for me I feel a lot better knowing that if an employee of mine is injured there's a hospital less than 10 minutes away. And that's just the farming angle. Nate has been to that ER 3 times already. If Dan Smith wants me to jump my answer will be "how high?" He appears to have a long standing feud with the manager of the market, an employee of the farmer-members who run the market. Well its time for that to stop. The changes he wants to make: (as I understand it, I have yet to meet with him in person which I hope to correct very soon) to grow the market, make the process of selection of new vendors more transparent, and give extra weight in the vendor selection process to farms that are more local, are goals that could be easily accepted by vendor/members of this non-profit that runs the market. The manager is simply their employee, to be hired/fired and managed by their elected board of directors; her personality or whatever has nothing to do with it. She is a hard worker by all accounts and her being as feisty as, well, I am, is no horrible mark against her in my book.

So is this the right way to handle the situation? Here you have a pure representative democracy, a non-profit run by an elected board of directors, with a manager hired by a recent vote of 52-12 of the general membership. Is it a clean process without acrimony? certainly not, you need a benevolent dictator for that. But its so American, and being in this meeting, where even total wing nuts with no affiliation with the market whatsoever (like me) got their 60 or 120 seconds to say whatever they wanted was inspirational, and I was just so inspired to be in a room full of farmers who were trying to cope with a threat to their method of obtaining income and by and large comporting themselves with fantastic aplomb. They've been a tenant here, built a history, and been successful for 41 years. Did the parks and rec department negotiate with them in good faith? It would appear not. I really have to wonder if the right solution here isn't for this new Redwood Empire group to just be allowed into the current market so they too can become voting members who can have their say in meetings and convince the other farmers to start doing things in a way that will benefit everybody including the market. This might force them to remove from their midst anyone who has pending litigation against the market and/or its individual members, but that's probably for the best. Can we all agree that there's too many frivolous lawsuits in this country?

Back to the action taken by the Park's and Rec department to just award the contract to a new entity with no board of directors, no bylaws, funded by one set of deep pockets, without warning to its current tenant. Let me make an analogy here. Lets say you own a house, and you are renting it to an old lady who's been there for 41 years. You were doing good, business was great, and you were giving this lady a break on the rent because you thought she was cool and you could. Well, the economy went south, you suddenly were scraping by, and you decide that you need that old lady's rent to go up. Not to mention, she's been a pain to deal with sometimes, she's got a bit of a surly personality and she never seems to answer your phone calls or respond to your requests. A slick young businessman arrives in a BMW and offers you the full value of rent for that apartment, pays first and last month's cash deposit right there on the spot. Do you accept this offer and chuck your current tenant out on the street? I say no way, you are obligated to go back to that old lady, tell her she has x number of days to respond to your request to meet the new price of rent, or leave your house. And frankly, when it comes to old ladies, many places (like SF) you definitely can't even do that.

So anyone reading this blog post, if you live in Sonoma County, please contact your supervisor and request that they require their parks and rec department employee to get back to the negotiating table with the current tenant of 41 years. In my opinion, the rent increase should be phased in over 5 years or something fair and not sudden just because revenues for the county or city are down. That's not the fault of the farmers in this county. Farming is good for the county! They harness the free power of the sun and soil microbes, and convert it into an export product, thus importing money into our economy and raising the standard of living in our county, to the extent that some of the product is sold to people from outside the county. It goes the other way, farmers from Mendo can produce there and sell to us here and take some of our money up there. But nothing stops us from selling at their farmer's markets. That's the free market. In any case, its my opinion that farmer's markets _should_ get a sweetheart rent deal. I have yet to meet a farmer selling at a farmer's market getting rich off of what they are doing. Those that are wealthy would do well to make darn sure they are acting as a force for the good of those good people...