By Mike Dunphy
Devon Byers would like to ask for your patience. Just three weeks into her new role as marketing manager of the Capital City Farmers Market—and with the first outdoor session only weeks away—she’s got a tremendous amount on her farm-to-plate.
“I am getting my bearings,” she explains. “Between now and May 4, it’s literally walking into every store and letting people see my face, know my name, and how to be in touch with me, and I will check in every week until everyone is good.” Luckily, she’s got a supportive and involved six-person board of directors behind her doing much of the heavy lifting. “I feel blessed by this board because they did all the hardest part to get ready for the summer outdoor market for me.”
Also fortunate for Byers is that she arrives with a tremendous amount of energy, eagerness, and passion to address this complex orchestration of 60 vendors, two dozen or so downtown storefronts, wandering minstrels, street closures, traffic reroutes, and on and on.
That’s just the sort of person the board was looking for in their rigorous search for a new marketing manager after Ashton Kirol stepped down after three years at the helm. “We were looking for someone who had the right understanding of what farmers markets are,” explains Hannah Blackmer, the new president of the board, “and who has a passion for local food, but also local community building.” The board was also attracted to Byers’ background in graphics and design, small business management—as a craniosacral therapist—and “socially engaged art,” which she studies at Goddard. Plus, Blackmer notes, “She has been shopping at the farmers market for 15 years and seen things change from a customer’s perspective…so it felt like a great fit.”
For Byers, the attraction to the position went beyond her altruistic passion for community to the practicality of connecting with that community. “I was looking for part-time work outside in the community, because everything is very home-based for me. My business is even based out of my home, so it was a way to get out and connect in a really beautiful way.”
Getting the job was no easy feat as well, as candidates were put through both interviews and multiple personality tests—the Jung Typology Test and the Plus-32 Personality Profile—in part instituted by new board member Peter Burmeister of Burelli Farm, who was a manager and company owner in various industries, including graphic arts, commercial printing, construction, and agriculture for more than 30 years, has written the Human Resources Guidebook (2002) on the subject. “He was able to draw on his many, many years of experience in hiring and employee management to help us facilitate this process,” explains Blackmer.
“What we learned from the personality tests,” she continues, “is how a person operates beyond what they are saying to you in answering the questions. A lot of it echoed what we had picked up on in the interview, what we were able to determine on how a person deals with conflict, or enjoys interaction with other humans, beyond what someone might tell you in an interview.” According to Burmeister, Byers is a “type E” personality, which means she’s extremely well-rounded, something he considers rare—and ideal for the position.
Certainly Byers is going to need all her negotiating and interactive skills to manage the “new” home of the market, stretching this year from its usual place in the Heney lot on to State Street and down to the intersection of Main Street. Locals may recall a similar move to State Street was attempted last year, and even piloted, only to collapse at the last moment after store owners registered significant disapproval with the final layout, which seemed to block access, light, and lines of sight to their stores, not to mention increasing clutter on the sidewalks.
The difference with the new layout is that the market has a lot more space to work with, using both the lot and the street. Also, vendors will be positioned in the center of State Street on the Main Street end, facing out toward the street and sidewalks, channeling customers between them.
“The stores won’t be blocked in any way, and there won’t be clutter of the vendors’ stand visible,” explains Dan Groberg, director of Montpelier Alive, which played a significant role in the negotiations with downtown merchants. That also means there won’t be competing vendors located near similar retailers. “There won’t be someone selling flowers in front of the flower shop, for example.”
Further up State Street, toward the Heney lot, vendors will face inward along the north side of the Rialto bridge, leaving the required access space for fire, police, and medical services. “What enables the changes is really the mix between using the Heney lot and State Street instead of trying to have all of the vendors on State Street,” Groberg notes. “That opens things up a lot.”
The additional space allows for more vendors, too, raising the number from 50 to 60, although not all are full-time. Bathrooms, however, will remain a sticky issue, with no ideal solution yet discovered. Traditionally, people have used the bathrooms at Capitol Grounds, but that’s created an understandable tension with the business, as long lines on Saturdays cause those coming in for food and coffee to look elsewhere. In the past, Christ Church has been used, but a bad apple vandal shut that down. Portable toilets are also not possible because of scheduling, cost, and other logistical issues. That leaves City Hall as the only possibility, and signage will attempt to direct people there.
Byers and the Farmers Market board hope the new layout, increased size, and activities will raise both attendance and revenue for the market, as growth has somewhat plateaued in the past few years. “A lot of farmers markets across the state are in a holding pattern,” explains Blackmer, “not seeing a lot of growth or decline, and we’re the same as everybody else in that.” What’s inhibiting growth? “It’s basically a lot of competition within food retail,” she continues, noting new pressure from delivery services like HelloFresh and CSAs. “Some people might call farmers markets an antiquated method for shopping, but I don’t,” Blackmer notes.
Furthermore, for all the talk of local sourcing in Vermont, it still only constitutes 12.9 percent of total food and beverage sales in the state according to the 2018 Farm to Plate Annual Report, which while significantly more than 2010, still leaves the vast majority of Vermonters shopping at chains and such.
Byers hopes to hurdle some of these issues with greater accessibility and presentation, particularly to lower income families, a goal based in part on her own experiences at the market. “Coming from a lower income family I was daunted by the farmers market because often things aren’t labeled clearly how much things cost, and it can be a pretty big shame trigger for folks already needing support,” she points out. “I really want to make the farmers market more accessible for low income families so they can come in and not have to ask, ‘Hey, do you accept this?’
She would also love to see the market go zero waste, but acknowledges the logistical challenge of that, considering there is yet to be an easy and effective alternative to bagging produce in plastic or disposable, compostable plastics. Perhaps using paper bags is a step forward, she considers. “It’s not zero waste, but better.”
But this is all in due time, as she’s busy enough getting the ball smoothly rolling for 2019. “My main focus right now,” Byers explains, “is being the liaison between the storefronts and vendors on the street and cultivating a lovely sidewalk culture hopefully. I know it’s so ideal, possibly naive, but I really want everyone to be happy and have their needs addressed quickly.”
So attendees of the market should expect to see her running hither and thither on the opening day, weaving the entire enterprise together. If she doesn’t come to you, you should be able to find her easily. “I’ve been advised to get a funny hat, so people can find me in the market.”