Farmers' Markets are Growing in Popularity The Buzz


Vendors across North America are finding that more and more people are drawn to farmers' markets as a source of fresh fruits and vegetables, craft items and even companionship.

"There are farmers who are moving increasingly into direct marketing -- such as farmers' markets -- as they find there are higher returns in direct marketing," says Claire Klotz. She is an economist with the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Klotz says there's evidence that the number of vendors and customers at these markets is also increasing. That hasn't been documented, however. "We are currently investigating this very question at the national level," she says.

Klotz says there are many reasons for the popularity of farmers' markets. "Many argue that the produce is fresher and better quality than what is at the grocery stores. There is sometimes a better offering of organic produce. People are increasingly interested in helping the environment and the local economy. There are also more people living in urban areas who are looking to reconnect with farmers and agriculture."

Evelyn Fillmore is the coordinator of a farmers' market. She agrees. "I don't think anyone else can offer foods as fresh as we can," she says.

"A farm market establishes a very personal relationship between producer and consumer," says Fillmore.

"The customer usually has access to the very person who made the item -- or a member of their family -- and can ask very specific questions and get immediate answers."

Greg Coley manages a farmers' market in Elgin, Texas. "It's a way for consumers to get a fresh product from someone they can talk to and trust," he says.

Fillmore says it's also a social place for the community. People can gather to talk, shop, eat and sit down together in a relaxed, family-type atmosphere.

Over 65 percent of the vendors surveyed in an Alberta Department of Agriculture poll said one of their main reasons for selling at a farmers' market is that they enjoy direct contact with consumers.

William McKemie is a Texas farm operator. He says farmers' markets allow a farmer to sell products at higher prices than they might otherwise get. They also provide the opportunity to sell products that cannot be sold in other ways. McKemie says it's a way to introduce and promote unusual or rare products, as well.

In fact, the Alberta vendors' survey suggests that 30 percent use a farmers' market to test and promote new products.

For farmers like McKemie, farmers' market sales average between 20 and 40 percent of total product sales.

Coley says people rarely get rich at farming, but you can make a living with a lot of hard work. "There is a lot of job satisfaction in farming that can't be added into your bank account,...seeing a display of your produce ready to sell and having the satisfaction of knowing that you did it," he says.

But you can't simply generate a product and set up a sales stand at a farmers' market. Most vendors are members of a market association. The vendors pay a fee to sell their wares. They must follow the rules of their individual market.

"Our market association only allows growers to sell what they grow. We do this by inspecting new farmers and re-inspecting if there is a question raised about someone's produce," says Coley.

Fillmore says that her farmers' market, which recently celebrated its 50th year in the same location, has rules and regulations that govern the market. "When an application is received, it is reviewed. If accepted, then the applicant is issued a [yearly] vendor's permit," she says.

Wayne Senior is president of a farmers' market. He says that his farmers' market association also limits sales to homegrown produce and crafts. "Our ratio of agricultural to crafts is maintained at 65-30 percent on a vendor basis. We encourage crafts to have an agricultural component as much as possible. But we allow other local craftspeople in."

Klotz says the USDA works to support farmers' markets and does not run or regulate them. She says about 75 percent of U.S. farmers' markets are "producer only," 45 percent allow crops from outside the local area and 40 percent allow crops for resale.

"But development of these rules and their implementation is totally up to the markets themselves," says Klotz. "This allows them to develop a market that meets their needs. Certainly, no two farmers' markets are alike."

Klotz does note that there are federal and state regulations that govern specific products such as dairy and eggs. These regulations generally pertain to food safety issues.

Klotz says being a farmers' market vendor takes more than adherence to rules and food safety. "It takes a certain personality to sell at farmers' markets. You also need to have the labor available. If the transition to direct marketing was easy and extremely profitable, everyone would be doing it."

USDA figures indicate just 31 percent of farmers who sell at farmers' markets only sell at farmers' markets. "But we have no idea how important this is to their family income," says Klotz.

While farmers' markets may only be a small percentage of income to some, they are a way of life for others.

"Yes, for some people this is their bread and butter," says Fillmore. "It is the only opportunity they have all week to sell their goods. I would think that most vendors would say that being part of the market is lucrative. We have many thousands of people through our doors each Saturday morning."

Links

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Offers facts about U.S. farmers' markets

LocalHarvest
Check out the list and links to community farms and farmers nationwide

North American Farmers' Direct Marketing Association
PCheck out romotes the growth of farm direct marketing through member networking and education