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A Day in the Life of a Farmers' Market Manager - Mark Sheridan

David Visher, Small Farm Center

The first sound to break the before dawn silence of a lonely Santa Barbara parking lot is Mark Sheridan banging on the campers parked where the farmers' market is to be held to see if anyone is sleeping inside. The next sound is Mark calling the police and the tow company on his cell phone. The call is interrupted as he runs to help the portable toilet man push the toilets up onto the sidewalk. Then he grabs a sledgehammer and begins to install banners around the lot that announce to the still sleeping population that the market is TODAY!

This Saturday market is the flagship of five that Mark has supervised for the Santa Barbara Farmers' Market Association for the last nine years. It has grown to 120 farmers spaced along four long aisles in the downtown lot. It can be a lucrative location for the farmers, and the competition for a space can be intense. The fee is five percent of sales with an average sales per farmer of $450. They can expect to see 5,000 to 10,000 customers in the market during the four hours that it's open. This kind of opportunity for the farmers can put a lot of pressure on the manager. Mark has to be firm in his authority over the market and fair to the farmers.

"I have been very stubborn in my ideals of what the market should be and where the market's real work is. There is a lot of talk (by farmers) about commodity restrictions and quotas at the market. But I try to let the market run on competition. You won't see anything just once in this market unless it is a horned melon or something like that. Almost everything is sold by several farmers at a time.

"The process to become a member is to first fill out a pre-application, then an application , then there is a waiting list process, an inspection by me, approval by the board and then finally you are in. The board doesn't tell me which market to place farmers in, just that a farmer may join. The waiting list is now about three months long if you have a product in demand. There are 220 farmers who are association members.

"We organize the market on a quarterly basis. A farmer has to commit to sell in the market for a full quarter. At the end of the quarter, I reevaluate the farmer and the niche in the market that he fills.

By 8:00 a.m., the quite parking lot has become a small noisy village. Farmers are making the finishing touches on their displays and calling out to old friends who speculate about how big the market will be today. Early shoppers scout out the best product before the market opens. This is a very colorful scene. The benign climate coupled with a large population of customers with big incomes have made flower sellers successful. The brilliance of all the flowers is almost matched by the late summer colors of peppers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, and greens. Each commodity is represented by a number of varieties that would baffle an ordinary supermarket shopper.

At 8:30 a.m., Mark rings the big brass bell and the market is under way. He says, "That is the one thing I don't let anyone else do. I ring the bell!"

Near the managers' table a candidate for city council has set up a table and high chair from which he greets potential constituents. This kind of public access is important to Mark. "We are a public service. We try to give other organizations access to the market because this is where the community gathers. We have a policy that you can come in once a month and, depending on our space availability, passively promote your issue. We don't allow people to hand out leaflets or circulate petitions inside the market. Entertainers also come in on the same policy but they have to move every hour and not use amplification."

After nine years as general manager, Mark has mastered well the skills of developing markets and the logistics of operating them. He is struggling with the process of making more professional the paperwork, data, and office management aspects of the job. As these issues come under control he has begun to reach out more to the community around the markets.

"I have learned over time the importance of the leadership role I have in the community towards making people understand what the market is about. There are a lot of misconceptions and myths about what we are. I belong to merchant groups in the towns where we operate and I'm active in several other non-profits. I'm trying to cross-promote with other groups so they can have access to the markets. In order for them to be effective in the market setting I have to go to the meetings and become one of them so they can feel included in the market. It takes a lot of time, but I see big dividends in the results."

By 1:00 p.m., it is all over. The customers have left, the farmers have paid their stall fees, filled out their load lists, and gone home. The only thing left moving on the lot is Mark Sheridan and a few black crows cleaning up the details.