Montpelier Farmers’ Market Threatens Vendor Speech | Broadsides

Montpelier Farmers’ Market Threatens Vendor Speech

My friend, Boots Wardinski, got a reprimand and threat of expulsion from the Capital City Farmers’ Market (Montpelier, VT) last week after asking the board to address an apparent violation of its bylaws. Specifically, the market is supposed to have “at least” 60% of its vendors be classified as “agricultural producers.” Boots, a vendor of garlic, blueberries and perennial plants, did a survey of the existing vendors and found that the market was barely touching the 50% threshold for “agricultural producers.”

Frankly, the 60% threshold seems a bit low to me, but it provides an explanation of why so many vendors of crafts and dog-food biscuits are occupying spaces that should be for farmers. But, if you know anything about the back-biting history of farmers’ markets, you’ll know that once in, many leaders of such markets do their best to put a halt to competition by limiting vendors that may interfere with their commerce. That’s why the farmer vendors that usually occupy a majority of the decision-making positions will start letting spoon makers and pizza bakers in before they’ll let another farmer come and pinch their profits.

Boots took the information he collected to the board, asking them for an explanation for the apparent bylaws violation. Boots used the Google Groups listserve that was set up for just such market communication. The board responded swiftly with a letter to Boots that basically said sit down and shut up. Worse, they quickly adopted guidelines for how vendors should communicate with each other, guidelines that included a requirement that all communication should reflect the “greatness” of the market. If its nebulous-at-best communication guidelines weren’t followed, the board continued, warnings and then expulsions were the proscribed punishments.

That’s a long, long way from the groovy vibe markets like the Capital City Farmers’ Market tries to present to its customers.

If you know anything about Boots, you won’t be surprised to learn that he’s not turning the other cheek for another board smack down. Boots has reached out to the community to support his right to free speech as well as the ability to exercise that right AND remain a market vendor.

Below is the letter I sent to the Board of Directors of the Capital City Farmers’ Market in support of Boots. Stay tuned for developments.

June 20, 2014

To: Board of Directors, Capital City Farmers’ Market, Montpelier, VT
From: Michael Colby
Re: Boots Wardinski and market communication

I am writing to strongly oppose your recent correspondence and accompanying threats to Boots Wardinski regarding his inquiries about the market’s adherence to its bylaws. I found your words and actions to be both chilling and abhorrent.

But you already knew it was chilling toward his and others’ right to speech — that’s why you told him to edit himself into compliance or face expulsion. It’s also called censorship. And when it’s coupled with a threat it becomes abhorrent.

Your verbal reprimand to Boots is a disturbing mix of pomposity and paranoia. You demand, for example, that Boots comply with your nebulous-at-best rules of engagement within your Google Group listserve, complete with an insultingly condescending exhortation to always remember that the market is “great” and his communication should, apparently, always reflect that. Really? Is this a farmers’ market or a cheerleading camp?

But this market, like all the good — oops, make that: great – markets didn’t become great without one serious internal struggle or philosophical/procedural battle after another. The very genesis of the farmers’ market movement was steeped in a deep sense of – brace yourselves – discontent with the existing economic paradigm offered to farmers. While the public persona of the modern farmers’ market is that of one, big happy farm family, the truth is that it is and always has been a hell of a struggle to smoothly run what is essentially an organization for the deeply individual: the farmer.

And so the sparks have flown, as they always will.

As a former vendor at your market in the mid-1990s, I can remember board meetings when a discussion about the definition of “local” almost led to a fistfight. Just as I can remember the vehemence with which this board – your board – has reversed course and, as a result, created intense dissention over the market’s possible move to the Vermont College green.

It happens. Big deal. Because, as you say, the market today is still “great.”

Boots bringing up a completely germane point about the bylaws of your organization will not threaten the greatness of your market. Hardly. The real threat is in this board’s efforts to stifle the real and genuine concerns of its membership, all in some quixotic effort to codify speech and dictate a cheerleader-like code of conduct. Good luck with that.

Your not-so-veiled threats to Boots are only made worse by the board’s worry that the public might get a whiff of this membership/board dissention. But it was the board’s paranoia and heavy-handedness that led to this issue gaining the public’s attention. Attempts at censorship or a stifling of participation rarely go ignored. And so here you are: exposed.

This board should do the right thing and address Boots’ concerns about the bylaws – sooner rather than later. Moreover, it should retract its ill-begotten threat and vindictively written guidelines for communication within the organization.

Boots Wardinski enhances your market. He, more than almost anyone I know, embodies the spirit, struggle and commitment that are inherent in the farmers’ market movement. Instead of silencing him, try listening to him.