How farmers markets are evolving to be less about the farmers

carrots at a farmers' market
CC BY 2.0 Gemma Billings

Fruit and vegetable growers are facing significant declines in sales as customers gravitate more toward prepared foods, rather than raw ingredients. What's going on?

In the old days, people went to farmers markets out of necessity. It was where they sourced food to eat, as grocery stores were small and poorly stocked by comparison. Farmers markets offered a wide range of delicious, fresh produce that could be purchased more cheaply in bulk quantities for summer canning and preserving.

Now things have changed. Farmers markets have evolved to become more than just a retail outlet for raw ingredients; they’re a trendy destination. A farmers market is an experience to make one feel closer to the source of one’s food. While there’s nothing wrong with seeking that connection, the lack of interest in fruit and vegetable stands is actually hurting farmers.

The Washington Post delves into this problem in an article called "For some growers, farmers' markets just aren't what they used to be," explaining how many fruit and vegetable vendors have seen their sales drop as much as 30 to 50 percent over the past several years.

Zach Lester, who owns Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Virginia, sells weekly at the DuPont Circle FreshFarm Market in Washington, D.C. His annual market sales have gone from $200,000 in the late 2000s and early 2010s to $150,000 currently. Lester is just one of several produce growers cited in the article, all of whom report declines in sales. Despite these declines, overall sales for many markets are up, thanks to the sale of prepared foods. FreshFarm has seen a 25 percent increase in gross reported sales so far in 2016.

So what's going on? Why do farmers face these financial challenges?

For one, it comes down to the fact that markets have become a social experience. People are shopping with their eyes and do not care about the season. Young people, in particular, love the idea of a farmers market, which is why they go – not necessarily to stock their fridge.

“The decline in sales is, arguably, one result of the contemporary farmers market, which has evolved to meet the needs of a new generation of shoppers who view these outdoor markets as more a lifestyle choice than an opportunity to support local agriculture.” (Washington Post)

Fewer people cook these days. Everyone wants prepared, pre-packaged food, which is why many vendors have moved in that direction. Buying vegetables from a farmer inevitably requires more work than lining up for wood-fired pizza and smoothies from a food stand – and why wash, peel, chop, and roast if you don’t have to?

Hardly anyone cans or preserves their own fruits and vegetables anymore. Farmers don’t see the same volume of food moving from their hands to customers in the form of bushels and other large amounts. One farmer shared his thoughts in a comment on Growing Produce:

“Bulk buyers are older and more price-conscious and are only reached through print media. Small volume buyers are younger, more easily reached through social media marketing and are less price conscious and more interested in the experience of the farm or market and in the relationship with the grower. Therefore, we hardly even use the term ‘bushel’ none of our target customers really even know what it means!”

For seasonal food purists, it is immensely frustrating to see imported and greenhouse-grown produce sold at farmers’ markets. All too often I encounter plastic clamshell containers of California-grown Driscoll strawberries on one table, while the next vendor over has smaller Ontario berries for sale. That’s why I tend to go directly to the farm to buy larger amounts of fruit when I need it for preserving, or even for feeding my hungry family of five.

Supermarkets offer better products now, too. They have wide selections of niche products, including organic, often at lower prices than farmers can compete with, which makes shoppers less inclined to purchase at the market. When someone knows they can get local asparagus or cherries anytime they want, they will shop with less urgency at the market.

Another reason could be that more people are supporting local agriculture in alternative ways, such as CSA (community supported agriculture) shares. For example, I don’t shop at my local farmers market because, on the same day each week, I pick up a gigantic box of mixed organic produce that’s sufficient to feed my family for the whole week.

It will be interesting to watch the evolution of farmers markets over the next few decades, but I suspect that our recently restored appreciation for locally grown and seasonal food is here to stay for a long time. We’ve dabbled in the world of out-of-season food long enough and many of us have returned to our roots. So even if farmers markets were not the most viable options for retail, both farmers and season-conscious buyers will find a way to connect.

How farmers markets are evolving to be less about the farmers
Fruit and vegetable growers are facing significant declines in sales as customers gravitate more toward prepared foods, rather than raw ingredients. What's going on?

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