Debunking the Myth of “Peak Farmers Market”

Brie Mazurek, CUESA Staff
February 27, 2015

Following the release of a new USDA report titled “Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems,” food blogs erupted earlier this month with provocative headlines like “Are Farmers Market Sales Peaking?” and “Has the Farmers Market Movement Peaked?”

Following a decade of dramatic growth, with direct farm-to-consumer sales increasing nationwide by 36% from 1997 to 2002 and 32% from 2002 to 2007, the report found that sales decreased 1% from 2007 to 2012. The expansion in the number of farmers markets had also slowed down.

In the Bay Area, market managers are still trying to make sense of the USDA’s findings. “I have no idea how they came up with those numbers because nobody tracks the farmers’ numbers,” says Brigitte Moran, executive director of the Agricultural Institute of Marin. “My perception from doing seven markets in the Bay Area is that they’re doing really well.”

Ben Feldman, program director at the Ecology Center, says shopper numbers at Berkeley farmers markets have remained steady, but through his work at the California Alliance of Farmers Markets, he has heard a range of stories from around the state.

“My sense in talking with different market organizations is it’s been a real mixed bag,” he says. “There are places where there’s a feeling that there are not enough customers to support the number of markets that exist, yet there are a lot places that are still hungry for a market and don’t have access.”

For CUESA’s Executive Director Marcy Coburn, the report’s findings do not suggest the end of an era, but instead a time to regroup and strategize. “When I read the report, I realized that the news isn’t as bad as the headlines made it sound,” she says. “Local food sales are still increasing, and the number of farmers markets is also increasing, but both at a slower rate than they were 10 years ago. Several of our CUESA farmers have expressed concern that their sales of fruits and vegetables are not as high today as they were a few years ago, and that concerns me deeply.”

“This isn’t a sit-back-and-relax situation,” she says. “We all have to constantly stay engaged in the work of recruiting new farmers market shoppers, fruit and vegetable eaters, and home cooks.”

An Evolving Ecosystem

Farmer Bill Crepps of Everything Under the Sun began selling at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in its early days, when there were only two other farmers markets in San Francisco. Over the last two decades he’s witnessed an explosion of farmers markets throughout the city, which is now home to upwards of 20.

“My sales started going down at the time of the big economic downturn in 2008, and around that time there was also a rise in the number of markets,” he says. “Sales have improved since then, but they haven’t jumped back to where they were. We still know in the back of our heads what sales used to be like, but I don’t think we can use that as a benchmark anymore.”

As more neighborhood farmers markets have popped up, he’s noticed a shift in shopping patterns at the Ferry Plaza, with fewer locals shopping regularly and more tourists in the mix. To grow his sales, Crepps has developed strong relationships with local chefs and expanded his line of dried fruits and vegetables, which helps to differentiate his offerings from other farms’.

“Restaurant sales are steady,” he says. “That’s what makes the weekday markets worth it for sure, and even on Saturday that’s what sellers are depending on. I think that’s what the older, established markets have going for them.”

Reaching a Natural Plateau

For farmer Joe Schirmer of Dirty Girl Produce, the USDA’s findings suggest an inevitable stabilization after the farmers market boom. “When farmers markets first starting popping up, they were such a rarity,” he says. “Now there are more to choose from.”

Dirty Girl currently does eight farmers markets in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area, and he says he has seen his profits increase or at least remain steady. He attributes that economic stability to the farm’s investment in marketing, as well as diversifying his business by selling direct to restaurants and through the online market Good Eggs.

“There are very few farmers who do 100% of their sales at farmers markets anymore,” says Schirmer.

As the USDA report notes, other local food distribution channels, such as food hubs (enterprises that aggregate and distribute local food), direct-to-restaurant sales, and farm-to-institution efforts, have also increased, taking a share of the market.

While that may mean that farmers markets are no longer growing as rapidly as they once did, Feldman at the Ecology Center sees this evolution as a testament to the success of the local food movement. “Farmers markets are, to a great extent, what have allowed those models to develop,” he says. “We can look at farmers markets and see that it’s a tried-and-true model.”

A Return to Quality, Not Quantity

The rapid growth of the local food movement has unfortunately also led to a saturation and dilution of farmers market values. “I do not feel that farmers markets have peaked,” says Coburn. “I believe that badly managed and poor-quality farmers markets have peaked, and farmers markets with questionable, unregulated sourcing have peaked.”

“CUESA is a farmers market made up of actual farmers,” she continues. “Our sellers are here every week selling what they make and grow, and we work with them very closely to make that happen.” CUESA has a community commitment to ensure the integrity of its farmers markets, and the organization will soon unveil a seller pledge outlining 15 commitments related to sustainability and transparency.

This year the California Department of Agriculture begins enforcing new direct marketing laws to root out farmers market sellers who are cheating the system by selling products they did not grow, helping to ensure legitimacy in farmers markets throughout the state.

The newly formed California Alliance of Farmers Markets will offer trainings to educate market managers in regulatory compliance, vendor relations, and market promotion. “To date we haven’t really had an organization that was looking at how to promote farmers markets and educate consumers about farmers markets statewide,” says Feldman. “For me, that’s a very exciting development to help lift up our industry and continue to make it better.”

Ripe for Growth

While access to local food expands online, in grocery stores, and in schools, farmers markets continue to provide a unique opportunity for eaters to meet farmers and producers face to face, support them directly, and learn about choosing, preparing, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I think that farmers themselves are teachers, and our markets are classrooms,” says Moran.

A “coming of age” in farmers markets depends on market managers and sellers strengthening that connection and commitment to educating shoppers about the values of a sustainable food system. As Schirmer puts it, “We need to continue to educate consumers not just to help farmers earn money, but because we believe in the cause of local, organic, and sustainable food and we want to continue to evolve our food system in a positive way.”

This evolution will be driven by a community of informed shoppers who care about supporting local food. To that end, CUESA offers cooking demonstrations, farm and market tours, and other programs to empower eaters and deepen their experience with growers and producers. Later this year, CUESA will make farmers market produce accessible to more people by introducing Market Match, a nutrition incentive program that doubles the dollars of low-income shoppers, at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

Despite the headlines, Feldman at the Ecology Center remains boldly optimistic about the future of farmers markets.

“On the question of ‘Have farmers markets peaked?’ the immediate answer is a resounding ‘no,’” he says. “I look at this as a very exciting time in the world of farmers markets and food and agriculture. I know that there are some challenging questions and there’s some competition out there, but to me that’s just indicative of the successes we’ve had.”