The local food movement got embroiled in a food fight right before the start of the busy summer season 

Market Fluctuations

Market Fluctuations

Allegations of price fixing. Of mislabeled products. Of hidden agendas. Of friendships turned bad. No, this is not the gossip coming out of the state legislature or Music Row. This is a story of local produce.

For years, area farmers, producers of small-batch foods such as jams, cheeses and honey, and market operators have collaborated with a somewhat unified goal: to get more locally grown and made foods into the hands of Nashvillians. But while bushels of kale and corn have been purchased, there's been some behind-the-scenes throwing of rotten tomatoes.

At its most basic, the divide has been between two camps. There are those who advocate for producers-only farmers markets, where booths are manned by the same folks who grew the vegetables, pulled them from the ground, loaded them in the truck and drove them to town. The second camp are those who bring produce to market for farmers who can't get there themselves, whether it's an Amish farmer without a truck or electricity for cold storage or another grower who simply has to limit the number of days he is at market.

Sean Siple is one of these "resellers." The founder of Good Food for Good People, Siple believes by helping farmers get their products to market, he's getting affordable, nutritious food to communities that might not otherwise have access to such foods.

The East Nashville Farmers Market is run by Delvin Farms, a certified organic family farm in College Grove. According to Hank Delvin Jr., its owner-operator, the East Nashville market has always been intended to be a producers-only venue. However, several years ago, Delvin hired Siple to manage the market, and Siple sold some of the Good Food for Good People produce there as well. Siple says that was part of their agreement. But the farmers complained, so much so that Delvin ended Siple's employment as market manager when the season ended.

It was when Good Food for Good People's vendor application to sell at East Nashville was denied that Siple got mad. Good Food for Good People's applications at the 12South Farmers Market and the Hip Donelson Farmers Markets were denied as well. As Siple had been involved in helping to start those markets, this frustrated him. Delvin says neither he nor anyone from his family was involved in the decisions at the two other markets. But the Delvins have been instrumental in getting the city's network of small, neighborhood farmers markets established over the years. Even when they are not directly involved in starting a producer-only market, others look to them for their expertise.

"I took it personally that they wouldn't let our low-cost produce into those markets," Siple says. For months, he says, he tried to negotiate with his old friend and former employer Delvin. When Siple couldn't get them to reconsider, he says he "took a page from the community-organizing handbook and knocked over the podium." In this case, that meant announcing on social media on Good Friday that Delvin Farms would no longer be included at the West Nashville Farmers Market that Siple runs in Richland Park.

Delvin says he was "blindsided." Allegations followed on both sides, fast and furious, with some of the most incendiary Facebook and blog posts getting deleted after the shots were fired.

Delvin and his sister, Amy Delvin Tavalin, jumped in the car and started driving west-side streets. They needed a new pickup spot for their CSA shares (a prepaid season-long subscription of produce deliveries to more than 140 families per pickup location). Deliveries were scheduled to start the next week, and customers had been counting on the West Nashville Farmers Market as somewhere to pick up their shares and shop.

Delvin and his sister pulled into the Vine Street Christian Church parking lot, thinking it might work. After talking to the church's minister, they opted to establish the West End Farmers Market, a new producers-only market just 1.5 miles from the West Nashville Farmers Market, open, like the other, on Saturday mornings. (Good Food for Good People already had plans to open a market of its own in East Nashville, on Saturdays. The original is on Wednesdays.)

Delvin says the West End market had the most successful opening day in his farm's history, although he concedes that some of that may have been due to the buzz as much as the demand for produce.

While the gossip will likely linger for months, like that forgotten cabbage in the back of the fridge, many say what happens next is the real concern for the Nashville food community. Megan Morton, executive director of Community Food Advocates, an organization working toward a sustainable food system, says oversaturation of markets is a real risk: At least seven small farmers markets have closed in Music City in the past four years.

"I don't know if Nashville will be able to sustain all these markets," Morton says.

Morton and others see this high-profile falling-out as a chance for Nashville to take a step back and define what it wants, or doesn't want, its farmers markets to be, and decide whether or not there should be certain ground rules at markets. For example, should markets held in public spaces be managed by private entities? Should markets have boards of directors rather than one manager who can make unilateral decisions about who can and cannot be a vendor? Should there be limits on the number of farmers who can cooperatively share one booth? Some markets ask farmers to pay a flat booth fee; others take a percentage of sales. Should these details be uniform from market to market? These are questions that other communities have been forced to ask, Morton says.

"I think we have a good opportunity to reassess who we are as a quote 'food movement,' unquote," says Andrea Cloninger Wilson, a professor of sustainable food systems at Lipscomb University.

Urged by his West Nashville customers who were sorry to lose vendors who followed Delvin Farms to the new market, Siple offered an apology and invited Delvin Farms back.

"I pushed the podium over and no one cared. The community said that two markets are inconvenient," he says.

But Delvin is not interested. "We had to move forward when Sean kicked us out," he says, and now it would be hard to reverse course. "As they say," he adds, "you can't un-ring a bell."

Wilson cautions both sides to look at the big picture. "I think you need both [producers and resellers]," she says. "I do not think either side can accomplish their goals without the other."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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