Over the past decade, the United States has seen new farmers markets springing up around the country. The total number of these markets grew by 180 percent from 2006 to 2014, but a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests this growth is slowing down. In 2014, the USDA’s directory of famers had 8,268 market listings, with a growth rate of just 1.5 percent from the prior year.
On one hand, this could mean there’s been stagnation in the consumer demand for local food. The 2008 recession may be a contributing factor, as local food can be perceived as more expensive. From 2007 to 2012, the number of dollars spent at farmers markets, farm stands and community supported agriculture dropped by 0.9 percent.
But this drop in direct-to-consumer sales also coincides with the growth of intermediate markets, such as regional food hubs, restaurants, grocery stores and farm-to-school programs. The report suggests that growing consumer demand for local may now be met by retailers, rather than direct sales.
That’s not a bad thing for farmers, because setting up a farmer’s market stand can be time-consuming and less profitable than selling produce through an intermediary.
"It's just not as cost-effective for producers to be face-to-face with consumers," Sarah Low, a USDA economist and lead author on the report, told NPR. "A lot of farmers like to spend their time farming, not necessarily marketing food."
It also worth noting that while direct-to-consumer sales decreased in regions like the West Coast and Northeast that have a high concentration of farmers markets, sales continue to grow in parts of the Midwest and Southwest. So, while parts of the U.S. may now have as many farmers markets as the local demand can support, there’s still opportunity in other regions (see map below).
A sustainable food system should be supported by a backbone of local food. So, while the growth of more indirect markets for local food is very encouraging, hopefully a decline in direct-to-consumer sales isn’t a precursor to a decline in farmers markets themselves.
Farmers markets still do a lot of good. Having a stand at the local farmers market can be a good networking and marketing tool for farmers. Research has suggested that farmers markets also support other businesses adjacent to markets, thus contributing to job creation. Finally, having a direct human connection to food producers also helps increase the transparency of the food system and the customer’s connection to where and how our food is grown.