Know thy farmer… farmers’ markets, integrity, and consumer choice…

val/ April 9, 2009/ Farmers' Markets, Food/

Mother Jones has an interesting article about farmers markets in its March/April edition. The article’s thesis is that farmers markets may not be all they are cracked up to be, and that the food that customers are buying at farmers markets may be overpriced versions of exactly the same produce (even grown by the same farmer) that could be bought at the grocery store.

I agree that as farmers markets have grown in number, size and popularity over the past 10 years, the likelihood has increased that some vendors may not be from the idyllic small family farms that customers may have in their minds as they make their purchases.

But I think the implication that markets are trying to pull one over on customers (such as leading them to think that all the vendors are small-scale or organic) is false. Customers can and should talk with individual farmers to find out their stories and practices. And they can choose not to buy from the large-scale, non-organic vendors if they wish.

I think the article’s leading question misses the mark about markets. I don’t think that most farmers’ markets truly are just a “grocery store with a taco stand” – they are essentially different from grocery stores in that customers can go up to the farmer and talk with them directly about their philosophy and practices. When’s the last time you were able to do that at Safeway or Fred Meyer?

Another implication of the article is that some farms are losing revenue at the markets, at least partly because of the processed and value-added food sellers who may be using items from far off places.

There are several aspects to this issue. One is the question of whether markets should allow non-farmers at all. That is an issue addressed either at the state-level, such as in California where farmers’ markets must be state certified, or at the individual market level in Oregon, where each market has its own vendor rules. Does a farmers’ market lose its integrity by allowing in non-farm vendors? I would argue that it doesn’t, as long as it keeps its focus on locally-produced foods or crafts. I do cringe when I see an Avon lady at a farmers’ market, but I don’t have a problem with the local bakery selling scones.

Assuming that markets do allow processed foods (or crafts/art), another question is whether markets should have rules about where the ingredients in those processed foods come from. In Oregon, many markets require value-added foods to have ingredients that are local, or come from some specified radius of the market. (I’ll have a follow-up post on the question of what is “local”). I think that this is a good idea, and I’m personally disappointed when I hear about markets that allow in products from far away.

Something that the article doesn’t address is the reality of a market’s location, timing and customer base. Some markets are geared more toward tourists, business people out on lunch break, etc. These markets may not be places where customers are really going to buy the bulk of their weekly vegetables, but probably will purchase flowers, fruit, snacks, etc. If farmers are not making money at these markets, it’s probably because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, many markets do have customers who attend weekly specifically to purchase their food from vendors who they know and trust. I doubt that many farmers at these markets lose revenue because of the processed food or craft vendors, or even because of the larger, “commercial” vendors.

In general, my experience has been that vendors sometimes lose sales when their market has too many vendors selling the same product. This doesn’t mean that the markets have lost their integrity, but that market management needs to do more to understand and balance the desires of the customers (for variety and choice) against the needs of the vendors (for sustainable sales). I think that managers need to (and most do) keep a close watch on their market’s product mix.

Another reason why farmers may have poor sales is when their farmers’ market is a poor fit with their community. A grower raising organic vegetables and selling them at urban market prices is unlikely to have sales levels that meet their needs and expectations if they are selling at a small rural market. This is another area where management is key. Farmers’ market managers (and boards) cannot afford to wear rose-colored glasses when planning their markets. They need to look closely at local demographics and buying trends, and make sure that their markets align with the customer base.

Despite the fact that some farms may have seen their revenue decrease at farmers’ markets, I think there is a much stronger argument to be made that many farmers (like us) have been able to build their business by selling at markets.

And while it might be nice to have all your eggs in one basket by only selling at farmers’ markets, most savvy farmers understand that having only one sales outlet leaves you vulnerable. It’s a much more sage strategy to have multiple outlets (restaurants, CSA, etc.) so that if there is a downturn in one, your business can still survive.

I think the Mother Jones article does have it right when it suggests that informed customers…

…actually have to find out exactly who’s behind every folding table, how their business is really doing…

As farmers’ markets have grown and changed, contact with the farmer remains critical to understanding how our food is produced. And the opportunity for that contact is beauty of farmers’ markets.

1 Comment

Comments are closed.