The number of farmers' markets has grown dramatically in the US over the past few years. The number increased by seven percent from 2005-2006 on top of the incredible 79 percent increase from 1994 to 2002. People love the festive atmosphere, the ability to meet the people who grow their food and the connection to the earth this experience provides, and the quality and freshness of the produce. Many patrons value local farmers' markets as a means of lessening their impact on the earth by allowing them to eat more locally.
Yet in some places, farmers are abandoning the markets. They cite a number of reasons, including:
- The expansion in the number of markets. As the number of markets has increased, the per-market profitability for farmers has decreased as shoppers shift to new markets that are nearer their homes. The amount of work required to "do" a market and the stall fees are essentially fixed per-market costs, so working more markets – even if the farm has the staff to do so, which is not always the case – doesn't recapture these profits.
- Reduction in crop differentiation. Often, a farmer that was the only one selling heirloom tomatoes or rare apple varietals will find other farmers expanding their crop lines to meet existing customers' demands, increase the number of months they can sell at the market, and attract new customers. In addition, farmers find that agribusiness is attempting to recapture some of this lost market share by selling supermarket-stable versions of these products (Emeril-branded "heirloom" tomatoes, anyone?) Increased crop-based competition can further reduce profits, especially when a farmer who sells a relatively high-profit crop augments sales with lower-profit crops that are primary crops for other farmers, creating pressure on the latter.
- Markets are hard work. To sell at a market the farmer must pick and pack the produce, load a truck, drive to the market, set up a stand, sell for 4-8 hours, then break down the stall, reload the truck, and drive home. These 12+ hour days may supplant whatever limited leisure time the small-scale farmer had.
- Are you certified? Certified markets require that the farmer sell food s/he has grown. This eliminates the problem some markets experience of vendors going to big-box stores, buying flats of produce, and selling them at farmers' markets. Actual farmers, with higher overhead, cannot compete effectively with these vendors; market patrons grow to distrust vendors, not knowing whether they are really farmers or not.
- The gregarious farmer. Successful market farmers are often gregarious personalities; someone who has chosen a life in amidst rows of sweet corn and squash is likely to be just the opposite. The extroverted requirements of the market can be exhausting for natural introverts.
- The souvenir peach. In some cities, farmers' markets have become major tourist draws. Think Pike Place Market in Seattle, New York's Union Square Greenmarket, or San Francisco's Ferry Building Market. At the Ferry Building, which appears in Fodor's and other travel guides, farmers are finding that customers who used to come and do their week's shopping have been replaced by tourists who hope to rub shoulders with celebrity chefs. They taste at every stall, but buy only a peach or a few apples.
The question becomes how to balance the desires of shoppers for convenience, freshness, and the farmers' market "experience" with that of farmers, for whom the markets must be profitable if they are to participate. A few ideas:
- Limit the number of permitted markets in a city.
- Locate markets in places that do not draw tourists; let the draw of the market be the beets and lettuces, not the tourist-friendly accoutrements.
- Require certified markets.
- Ensure that the market management organization carefully balances crop offerings so there are opportunities for a diversity of farmers to participate throughout the growing season.
- Consider doing outreach to farmers (and patrons) who have not historically been part of the local farmers' market presence. For example, the West Oakland Farmers' Market sells produce from black farmers.
Farmers' Markets are community assets on many levels. They offer farmers a means by which they can keep more of the profits of their labors, support the preservation of diverse food crop varietals, provide urban patrons with a connection to local agriculture, lessen the distance that food travels from farm to consumer, educate consumers, and create a heightened sense of community. To ensure they remain sustainable and viable in the long term, cities must manage their presence in a way that meets the needs of the farmers as well as the patrons.