New structure symbolized success of Lexington Farmers Market
The Lexington (Kentucky) Farmers Market has long provided its member/owners with a place to direct-market a wide variety of fresh, froze and prepared food products to a large and growing customer base.
From April through November, the signs, sounds and smalls of a vibrant farmers market can be experienced at three different outdoor locations on four days each week. The Saturday market continues indoors from December through March, extending the season and providing continuous supply of seasonal products to the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky.
The Lexington Farmers Market was legally incorporated in 1975 as a cooperative of less than a dozen members under the name: Farm and Garden Market cooperative Association Inc. These area farmers had been selling local produce in Lexington for many years at a semi-organized farmers market prior to the legal incorporation.
The decision to organize under a cooperative business structure was a logical step in the evolution of what has become one of Kentucky’s most successful farmers markets. The cooperative structure was chosen because the founding members wanted an organized that could help the expand the direct-to-consumer market channel more effectively as a group, rather than individuals. The cooperative structure has served its members well over its 36-year history.
Obstacles faced by the co-op
As the market grew slowly during the 1980s and 1990s, issues arose that caused internal problems within the co-op. The market had been operating with volunteers to manage the daily operations, such as collecting daily gate fees, performing marketing tasks and other necessary activities.
As more members joined the cooperative, the use of volunteers because cumbersome and a lack of member and board policies led to confusion and operational inefficiencies.
It was evident by the early 2000s that the market was in need of an overhaul for cooperative policies, governance and staffing.
The Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (KCARD) was called to assist the co-op with development of member policies, governance issues and to address the need for staffing. KCARD’s mission is to promote rural economic development in Kentucky and provides hands-on technical business services. Over several years, KCARD helped the co-op develop new membership agreements, board and member policies, hold training for all board members, revise the bylaws and implement a staffing plan.
KCARD helped draft a job description for the manager and assisted with interviewing candidates. The result was a functioning cooperative that came back to its roots with member/owners who better understood how a cooperative operates.
Members now have confidence in their board of directors, while relying on a capable manager to carry out day-to-day operations.
Growing the market
With smooth internal workings in place, the market responded to the growing demand for locally produced and value-added foods. The co-op has expanded to currently include 75 member/owners.
Customer traffic has soared in recent years and members have benefitted with higher sales at their booths. Staff has tirelessly developed and maintained relationships with the city and makes sure the market is clearly visible in the community.
These efforts have paid off, as the market recently realized one of its most sought after goals: a new covered structure for the Cheapside Park location in downtown Lexington. It serves as a permanent marketing fixture and as a great venue for an annual fundraising dinner.
Event with recent success, the Lexington Farmers Market still sees many opportunities to grow and improve the market for its members and customers, who will rely heavily on the strengths of their cooperative structure in the years ahead.
For more information about KCARD’s efforts, visit: www.kcard.info.
Article first published in October 2011.