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G-Sync: Is The Farmers Market a Healing Garden?

One of the results of today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world is that we are being delivered and forced to process information at an alarming rate. Sometimes, we forget the time-honored tradition of allowing space to grow.

It is exactly this topic of space and growth that seemed to dominate many conversations over the past few weeks. Lady Floyd, a 17-year vendor of handmade jewelry at the Fulton Street Farmers Market (FSFM), sought to secure a much desired extra booth space when one of these very rare spaces finally opened.

There have been facts at the core of this argument, but these have often been clouded by emotional arguments and responses to and from conversations, Facebook commentary and comments in the press.

As of this writing, I have learned that Floyd’s meeting with the FSFM did not result in a second stall. It was determined by the FSFM board, citing the newly revamped rules for the market in 2006 that the awarding of booth space on food market days should be devoted to food/farm-focused booths, as many of our area farmers are having to wait many years to secure a seasonal lease that guarantees their regular and weekly placement in the market. Currently, many farmers have had to rely upon the luck of the FSFM lottery system to bring their bounty to the people of our city.

It was a tough call, no doubt, by the FSFM board and staff because Lady Floyd has many people in our community who not only enjoy seeing her there, but who also appreciate what she represents as a long-term vendor in the space.

My hope is that I can suggest a potential solution to help move us forward as a community and perhaps shed a bit of light not on what just happened, but also promote discussion as to how we can avoid these kinds of missteps in the future. And yes, I deliberately use the word misstep as I feel this could have been handled better from the meetings and documents I have reviewed on this matter.

 "You're unhappy. I'm unhappy, too. Have you heard of Henry Clay? He was The Great Compromiser. A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied and I think that's what we have here."

It may seem odd to quote a comic, but the line above is from Larry David. While he is the writer of hit programs like "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm," I find that comedy can often shed a bit of light on truth and in doing so, can provide just the right medicine for healing to begin.

No doubt both parties are unhappy. You only need to read or listen to the statements being produced to realize this fact. It spills over from the circle created at the market between all the vendors, including Lady Floyd, and into our community.

I will admit it is very difficult when one begins to talk about race to make sure one is not displaying insensitivity on this topic. So, for the sake of those who may not know me, I am a white male. And unlike most white males, my privilege is limited for a variety of reasons. But no doubt, my race and gender have played their part in helping me along the path to where I am today, so I recognize its role in my life.

However, I have spent the better part of the last two decades championing solutions in our community to make sure I do not unfairly advance my own agenda. I’ve always sought to lift all of us up when the opportunities present themselves. This is one of those occasions I ask that we all think about what we can do to begin to move beyond the decision rendered by the FSFM.

In all fairness, I will admit I sat on a committee to help secure funding for the remodel of the market. I will also admit what a failure I was in this area since my recommendations did not bear fruit. I lent my name as a supporter and had moved away from the committee many months before this incident was brought to my attention on Facebook.

I was the weakest link in a long chain of community members that came together to make this new market a reality for the people of this region. I am proud of what has been created for our city as this new market boasts many advances including better farm access and environmental improvements. We have much to celebrate here.

And while the market has changed over the years, especially since the new 2006 guidelines were created and implemented, these advances have resulted in big steps forward for the market as the demand for fresh produce is rising. You just have to visit on any Saturday over the summer season to see the truth in that statement.

For many in our region, the market is the dream of food justice realized. There's the diverse array of food choices, but also the recent Michigan Double Up Food Bucks program that allows one's public assistance funds for food to stretch even further. For others, it is where they can be seen and socialize in a hip, urban environment. The market is a diverse place indeed, and that why one shops at this open-air facility.

When we move away from the industrial food market where our crops are produced and imported from places all over the world and instead shop for at a local farmers market, we have a real chance to connect with our food in a direct way that supports and celebrates the small farmers of our region. We create a direct line from the very hands that gleaned the food to our table. Many of these farmers and food artisans have been a part of the market for decades and have shared space alongside Lady Floyd. And while they are both offer a handmade product, Lady Floyd represents a powerful symbol to those who line the aisles each week at the market.

The acknowledgement of her powerful presence is why she has been granted booth space #1 at the entry of the market. It is not only the first booth shoppers encounter as they enter the market, but one of the only spaces that has enough extra room to place an additional table in this space. That extra room is something of a bonus and in terms of retail, a desirable location offering higher visibility and a nearly guaranteed increase of sales as a result of the extra space to display her product.

And this is where I want to revisit the compromise being hammered out with West Michigan as a whole, since many have not only written me, but have petitioned others in our community to contribute their voice to the matter.

Keeping in mind Henry Clay's statement about a good compromise being when both parties aren't happy, I think we can agree the solution has produced much discomfort for all the parties associated by proxy to the FSFM. But, we don’t have to settle for unhappiness in this case. There is a chance to emerge with something that all of us can feel good about, especially all those vendors and patrons connected to the market.

To me, the placement of Lady Floyd’s booth space at the mouth of the market is a key part of the solution, but it is not the end of it.

Our city prides itself as being one of the most charitable in our country as well as one of the most innovative. This situation, which dragged in outside voices of praise and condemnation, can allow us the same chance to harness outsiders' willingness to contribute to create something fantastic for Lady Floyd. The solution can be symbolic for all who come to the market, and a part of the story we share into the future of what we were able to craft together.

If I've learned anything in my life, it is not to always think horizontally, but to rise vertically as well.

I want to use my editorial space here to challenge someone to help engineer a display for her retail that addresses Lady Floyd’s space issues -- all within the confines of the contract.

In short, if we cannot move left and right, what can we engineer up and down?

In a region full of people who travel the world to showcase our industry from furniture to even pillows, I know that there is one person here who has the power to transform this space into something beautiful as well as functional.

All of us can agree that record temps are being broken on a daily basis, so our farmers market will only become more important with time as the world continues to suffer from droughts.

Many of us also learned from the FSFM that there is a 10-year waiting period for farmers looking to secure space at this location. We even know from study after study that the role of farms -- and thus farmers markets -- will continue to grow as more and more people seek the refuge of cities.

Opening up more space or, for that matter, any space for our area farmers is going to create a healthy and better Grand Rapids.

In the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly, they tackled this topic adding, “In 2010, of all the farms in the United States with at least $1 million in revenues, 88 percent were family farms, and they accounted for 79 percent of production.” (“The Triumph of the Family Farm” by Chystia Freeland, Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2012)

If there ever was a time to begin advocating for the importance of farmers markets in a food justice arena, now is the time. But in making time for change, we have to be sensitive to those who have invested in our journey and to do right by those who, like Lady Floyd, brought us there with what they have contributed over the years. It is more than just food that makes our market unique and vibrant.  

Henry Clay also said, “There's nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right in America.” How true this seems when I look around at what West Michigan has been able to accomplish over the years.

And this is where I inject my wish with a quote from Aristotle who said, “Hope is a waking dream,” as we seek to find a path forward in doing the right thing with the decision.  

Nothing is ever perfect. In fact, we all are going to make mistakes along the way. It is a fact that during conflict, we often come apart. But today, I am yearning for a way for us to come back together towards a solution that might seem uncomfortable today, but with a little time and right-size thinking, perfect the market of tomorrow and for those who will follow in our shoes.

We are Grand Rapids, and we grow solutions here…together in community. So who's in?

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen, Lifestyle Editor
Email:  RapidGSync@gmail.com

Click here to continue to this week’s G-Sync events.

Editor’s note: The best way to connect with Lady Floyd is via the market where she can be found four days a week. She does not use Facebook.
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