By Allison Kaika, NFU Intern
Fresh produce lining the street, neighbors mingling, the smell of baked goods wafting in the breeze. This is a scene many of us have come to know and love: a weekend morning at your local farmers market. In addition to the aesthetic appeal and community atmosphere, farmers markets stimulate the local economy, offer farmers a larger share of the retail food dollar, increase access to nutritious food, and creates opportunities for farmers and consumers to meet face-to-face.
In 2015, more than 41,000 farms sold $711 million worth of goods at farmers markets, making up nearly a quarter of all farmer direct-to-consumer sales. The number of farmers markets in the United States has grown rapidly in recent decades, from fewer than 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,700 today.
During National Farmers Market Week from August 4-10, Farmers Union members are celebrating across the country. We spoke to a few of our members who sell at farmers markets to learn more about why these markets are important to them.
John Ellis of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is one of the founding members of the Boulder Farmers Market in Colorado, which is now in its thirty-third year of business. Part of the reason they decided to start farmers market in Boulder was the changing landscape. With rapid urbanization, he said, “We were losing our normal outlets for commodity crops, such as wheat and corn, as the last dairy in the county closed and the local co-op moved 20 miles beyond the county line.”
Ellis appreciates that “the consumer can actually talk to the person who grew the produce.” He feels that through their farmers market, they have been able to explain “how the prices we charge are necessary to keep in business.” He says that if it were not for the farmers market, he might not be in business today.
Kansas Farmers Union member Donna Pearson McClish started the Common Ground Producers and Growers Mobile Market in 2014. At the time, she and her brothers were trying to find an alternative market for produce they were growing in excess of what conventional outlets were buying from them. McClish also saw a need in her community for residents to access fresh produce in areas not serviced by a grocery store, such as senior centers whose community members may struggle to travel long distances to shop. Today, Donna works with a network of local producers to provide fruits and vegetables to her community, including to more than 30 senior centers.
Tommy Enright, Wisconsin Farmers Union member and co-owner and co-operator of Black Rabbit Farm, sells at two summer farmers markets and one winter farmers market. He appreciates that selling his product locally does not put him “at the mercy of market forces,” which can be so unpredictable.
Farmers markets fill an important gap in evolving agricultural markets that have moved the producer further from the consumer. In contrast to commodity markets, more than 80 percent of farms selling food directly sold their products within a 100-mile radius of the farm.
Enright also mentions how rewarding it is “to have people come back to you week after week because they think you produce the best chicken.” When there is a face and a story behind the product, consumers get excited about supporting their community.
For Noreen Thomas, who belongs to Minnesota Farmers Union and is the fourth-generation operator of Doubting Thomas Farms, farmers markets serve as a site of mutual education between producer and consumer. She says she appreciates the direct feedback she receives from the farmers market. She takes the reactions from and discussions with customers and makes adjustments in order to connect with more stores that could sell her product. Customers, on the other hand, learn more about where their food comes from and develop an appreciation for the work that farmers do.
Thomas underlines the impact of farmers markets on the community, explaining how it is a place for the local kids to gather for fun events and consumers to participate in activities. “It is critical for rural kids to have farmers markets,” she says, not just because of the social aspects but also because there is often a lack of job opportunities for young people in rural areas. Farmers markets provide entrepreneurial opportunities for teenagers and young adults to practice business skills and exchange conversations with adults.
All the producers interviewed emphasized the significance of farmers markets keeping money in their local community. When people shop at their local farmers market, they are investing in their neighbors. Direct-market farmers also tend to buy many of their inputs and supplies from local businesses, returning the favor.
As we celebrate National Farmers Market Week, consider the significant economic and social impact shopping at your local farmers market could bring to your community.
To find a farmers market near you, check out the USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory.