Vendors questioning Farmers Market rejections

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Saturday, May 8, 2010
— Why would the Janesville Farmers Market turn away vendors eager to sell their wares?

The market board and manager say they are following a market plan that encourages diversity while protecting existing vendors.

Others—including some current Janesville vendors—believe more booths would attract more customers and lead to more growth.

The free market philosophy is followed at the nearby Dane and Beloit farmers markets.

The current board’s direction in Janesville is different, too, from the philosophy of those who founded the farmers market six year ago, and it appears to differ from the board’s written polices, as well.

Sheila Killion, who owns Cakes by Sheila, has appealed a decision by the board and market manager Teri Huber to turn down Killion’s application for the second year. Killion charges a conflict of interest because Huber’s family also runs a bakery booth at the market.

Huber said she turned Killion down because the “baker’s quota” is filled. The market typically has four bakers.

Merry Evans, a former farmers market board member, said there is no baker’s quota. She recently resigned from the board because her growing vending business is taking more time and because she does not believe in the board’s direction. She is now a board member for Dane County’s farmers market.

Huber said she manages the mix at the market to protect the farmers market and existing vendors, especially in these tough economic times. At its peak last year, Huber estimated the market had about 50 booths. She could not give more specific numbers.

Two board members who met with the Gazette—Bryan Meyer and Renee Dommershausen—support the quota policy. Chairwoman Dommershausen said the board wants “controlled growth,” and members rely on Huber to decide what vendors should be admitted.

They said they didn’t believe Huber’s decision reflected a conflict of interest and they stand behind their market manager.

“The market manager is positioned at the market every Saturday … which affords her valuable insight and knowledge concerning the overall health and economics of the market as a whole,” Dommershausen wrote in a letter to Killion.

The board is made up of five vendors and four community members.

A UW-Extension specialist on farmers markets shares Huber’s market philosophy. Huber referred the Gazette to Kristin Krokowski, a commercial horticultural educator in Waukesha County. She is also a vendor at farmers markets.

Krokowski recommends that markets manage their product mixes, especially in mid-sized markets. Vendors become unhappy at markets with too much competition, she said.

“I’m always concerned about my vendors, making sure they do well at the market and giving them the best venue,” Huber said. “That’s so important to me, the success of the vendors.”

If a seller takes home too much of a product, “we’ve glutted the market. People stop making money,” she said.

While “survival of the fittest” is a good concept, a market gets a bad name if vendors leave because they don’t make money, Huber said. Consumers are disappointed if their favorite vendors don’t return, and the market can begin a downward spiral, she added.

That’s not what Kathleen Braatz, executive director of the Downtown Beloit Association, has seen happen in Beloit. The association runs Beloit’s market and has not limited the number of farm vendors.

As the market grew and wrapped around a corner, she acknowledged some jitters about whether the increasing number of vendors could be sustained.

“But we had that many more people coming, and the word got out,” Braatz said. “We let the market drive the produce. We wanted to make sure to encourage local growers and producers to be at our market.”

Evans, the former board member, said she didn’t know Huber was turning away vendors until recently.

“The more the merrier,” Evans said of her philosophy.

More vendors draw more people and create a bigger event, she said. Evans does support a policy that limits crafters to 25 percent of the vendors.

Dave Heider, a vendor in Janesville and several other markets, said the market would grow with more vendors. People with the best produce will sell out quickly, and then people will move on to the other vendors, he said.

People who helped establish the farmers market six years ago said that refusing vendors was not their original vision.

They were surprised and puzzled when they heard about people being turned away.

Bonnie Davis, recreation director for the city, recently asked the council to waive $2,100 in city fees for the market.

If the market is turning away people, however, “that’s a problem,” said Davis, who was a member of a steering committee that helped create the market.

According to the minutes of a recent board meeting, board member Randy Thompson noted that spaces at the market are not being filled.

He asked if it was appropriate to have a waiting list if the market had open spots.

It is unclear how many vendors have been turned away. In the minutes, Huber reported turning away “several” vendors last year in the categories of sweet corn, soap and tomatoes.

Vendor Darlene Schnebbe of Sashay Acres said it’s great to let more vendors in the market but only if they offer different products.

“If you flood it, it’s going to hurt the vendors, especially with the economic times,” she said. “I’m worried that they’re just going to get too many of one thing.”

Janesville’s policies list products allowed in the market, and vendor-produced baked goods are one of them. When she read the policy, Killion believed she simply needed to fill out the application and send in her money.

“I just feel like I’ve been wronged,” she said of her two-month fight and decision to appeal. “The farmers market has rules, and I don’t think they’re following them.”

Meanwhile, Killion said it took two phone calls to Beloit to be accepted as a vendor.

If you go

What: Janesville Farmers Market

When: 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays starting today

Where: 100 and 200 blocks of Main Street

Last updated: 1:54 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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