Santa Monica Farmers Market Q & A: Laura Avery Talks 30 Years of SMFM
LA: I don't think anyone foresaw what a money-making opportunity it would be. The City of Santa Monica, being a city, was not in it for the profit. The motive was community service. And we had a very successful market model. The market was paid for entirely by fees on the farmers' revenue after the first two years. We're not grant funded. I know big markets like Hollywood are run by larger non-profits that run several markets and use grants and fundraisers like the Vibiana's Roots of Change event. I'm just glad I don't have to answer to a board of directors. And were really proud of the fact that we established our participation fees on a percent basis.
SI: Can you explain that a little?
LA: The vendors pay a percent of their gross sales every week to the city. It's based on what they say they make.
SI: And what's the percentage?
LA: 4.5 percent per farmer per day. I'm really proud to say they are the lowest fees of any market anywhere. And we can keep them low because the growth of markets and revenues have increased 5 percent a year. We've never had to change our base rate since 1986.
La Citta Vita The Weiser Farms booth at the Santa Monica market.
SI: So it's a one size that really fits all?
LA: It's a progressive rate. Farmers who make thousand dollars a day pay the same 4.5 percent that farmers who make $150 do. It's a nice tidy number. And they're happy because it's fair for everyone. In Northern California there's a flat fee on all the markets up there which, sure, gives them a guaranteed income. But then the smaller farmers get excluded. Some of those fees are too much. And go figure -- most of the Southern California markets operate on a percentage.
SI: So with all the work you had to make sure that the products were credible, how do you then make sure that the farmers are paying you a true fee or one they just made up?
LA: We initialized a system to do farm booth audits. We would hire an auditor to stand in the booth and record every transaction and compare for accuracy. And we did find that there was some serious under-reporting going on. That was corrected.
SI: And by that you mean...?
LA: We told them, look, we know you're cheating and you better report accurately or you will be kicked out. We were shocked at some of the instances of under-reporting. We ended up rewriting the market rules, with a whole section for penalties for under-reporting. It eliminated a lot of what we would call fraud. We had drop-outs. But we also had some great people stay and keep to the rules. Overall revenue increased. Accountability is better across the board.
SI: So who does the auditing?
LA: We hire an an employment service for people who are returning to the workforce. They send us their people and we give them a simple sheaf of columns and they record transactions. Accountability aside, the audits reveal some really interesting data. A great example was this big plant vendor. Took up over 40 feet of market space, but he was reporting only $180 in sales. So we did an audit and it came back that he was only making around 18 sales all day long. But his product was taking up 40 feet of space. They were high maintenance annual plants and they had been around since the market opened. So we looked at the space and the demand and told him, look, you only have 18 customers. You can stay, but we're taking you down to 10 feet of space. They decided that wasn't going to work for them so they left and we ended up putting two other vendors in his place who generate $2000 a week. Not that we're going to kick out under-performers. Some small farmers provide really hard to find quality products that we want in the market for diversity. But in this case it was something that clearly had its day.
SI: So the audits are generally well received?
LA: We always say it's on an honor system. But once in a while things just don't add up. Once we put a few teeth into it, the bottom line is the farmer doesn't want to lose their spot. They all want to be here and it's a source of pride for them when they do well. Their success is our success and everybody is happy.
SI: So that's a lot for the nearly 30 years you've been here. What's the biggest change you've noticed in that time?
LA: [Laughs.] You know, I never thought about it before. A lot of it has been, "Wow! Look at all this great food I get to bring home!" It's been so incredibly fun and interesting even with all the challenges. And the years have just flown by. One of the big changes I notice comes from looking at old pictures. Not everyone had grey hair back then! And then it's, wow, we've come a long way. But really the bigger question is what the markets will be like 30 years from now. And you know, we're not the only market celebrating a milestone anniversary this year. There's Fullerton. And I think Pasadena is a little over 30 now. And Hollywood and Torrance are close behind. It's been great to have the Santa Monica market be such a stable and supportive environment. And we wanted to do something deserving of the market. We didn't want to just a commemorative coffee cup. We wanted to go out of the box. And the Good Food Festival goes way way out of it. Let the party begin!
Check back later for part 2 of this interview: How much "way" is "way way" out of the box, a farm in Compton, and Avery's favorite fall vegetable.