Blog | February 13, 2012

Are there too many farmers markets?

JenA few weeks ago, I attended the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Federation of Farmers Markets as a representative of the farmers market that I volunteer for here in Boston. Once the business of the organization was conducted, we had a roundtable discussion looking at whether or not there could such a thing as too many farmers markets.

Farmers markets have undergone explosive growth in the last decade. In 2000, there were just 2,863 farmers markets in the U.S. In 2011, there were 7,175, and that was an increase of 17% over the 2010 number of 6,132.

Year-round markets are growing too, even in cold climates like the one here in New England. This year saw a record 1,225 winter farmers markets, an increase of 38% over last year’s number of 886. With this kind of growth, it seems that the desire to access farm-fresh food is insatiable. In my neighborhood alone, we have three markets within walking distance of my house! I can shop locally for farm fresh produce on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday—and folks want to organize even more markets nearby.

This is great news for the local food movement, and for farmers who want to directly reach consumers and find new markets for the food they raise. Is it possible there could be such a thing as too many farmers markets?

We started the conversation with a story by the organizer of a farmers market in a Massachusetts suburb. They started two years ago, after seeing the success of a neighboring town’s farmers market and hearing a demand from the community for their own market. They found the perfect location, on a bike path, and with plenty of parking; they found farmers, bakers, local food companies, even local seafood. What they didn’t find was success. This year, there will be no market, as they assess what went wrong. Could it be that a neighboring town’s market (which opened their second year and on the same day) took their shoppers? Could it be that in a town with multiple grocery stores and farm stands a farmers market is superfluous? Did they just pick an inconvenient day for folks to get there? There are many questions to be explored, and the organizers of this market are doing just that as they take the season off and think about trying again.

Meanwhile, others in the room who come from more urban areas felt there is all the room in the world for more markets. A young woman who manages markets in the very toughest of Boston neighborhoods said those neighborhoods needed more markets. She explained that each neighborhood in her area of the city wants their own market because gang warfare makes it unsafe for many to even leave their neighborhood.

Many of us spoke up for the challenge that farmers have in attending farmers markets. The markets are a great opportunity, of course, but one that comes with its own unique obstacles. With so many markets out there, farmers have to make decisions about which markets they will be part of. With multiple markets to work at each week, farmers need to hire staff since a farmer can’t be in two places at the same time. Many farmers have commitments to ensuring their food is accessible to all, which is why many attend markets in urban neighborhoods that desperately need access to good food. And yet those markets do not tend to be very profitable. And farming, first and foremost, is a business; in order to be a sustainable one, farmers have to maximize their earnings. Some farmers have found that with an increased number of farmers markets, their earnings at each market are dropping, making the investment of their time in that market less profitable.

It’s understandable that every community would want their own market. The market that I’m part of serves each Saturday as a community gathering place. Folks come to shop, but they also come to socialize, to walk their dog, to listen to live music, to take part with their family in fun activities. Our market has become a center of community life. And yet, with a limited number of farmers, how can every community have that same opportunity?

Our conversation ended with no resolution, but agreement that we have a long way to go to solve these issues. In the process of the conversation, we also brought up additional topics for longer conversation, including one many of us are eager to tackle: how to ensure that farmers markets are equitable not just to the farmers and communities they serve, but also to their employees. Many farmers market managers are volunteers. Those that are paid, work odd hours for little pay. The farmers market I serve on, for instance, is almost all volunteer. I spent yesterday morning in a meeting with my fellow farmers market volunteers as we prepare for our 2012 market. I was just amazed at the generosity and commitment of the folks in the room–our market would not exist without them. We don’t have a market manager at the moment because the fabulous manager we were lucky to have for two seasons has moved on. And so part of our work before opening day is hiring a new manager–something farmers markets have to do constantly due to the odd hours of the job, the weekends and the salary.

What do you think? Are there too many markets in your neck of the woods? Or do you need more? Are you a farmer struggling to attend numerous markets? How do you prioritize what markets you’ll be part of? Are you part of a local market? How do you sustain your market?

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