Is the success of farmers markets hurting farmers?

Photo of a farmers market by Jen Maiser from her flickr collection[Updated on 9/22 to include positive sentiments from farmers about farmers markets]

Just as I was thinking that the Bay Area is enjoying a golden age of farmers markets, with a multitude of farmers markets bringing fresh, local food directly from the farm to the consumer, reality drops in: farmers markets can be an inefficient way for farmers to sell their goods. An article by Carol Ness in the San Francisco Chronicle explains what it takes to sell at the markets and why some farmers are giving up the markets:

[Terra Firma Farms Paul] Underhill's market day would go like this: Packing the truck, one hour; driving, one hour; hauling boxes off the truck, setting up the stand and cutting tastes, one hour; the market itself, five hours, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; breakdown, one hour; the drive back, one hour. A best-case scenario would have him getting up at 6 a.m. and arriving back at the farm by 4 p.m. - if there was no traffic on I-80.

Mariquita, near Watsonville, is a good 2- to 21/2-hour drive away, and Ferry Plaza keeps even longer hours - 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, with some customers showing up as much as an hour early. So Griffin or Wiley, or both, would get up at 3:15 a.m. and not land back home until 5 or 5:30 p.m.

"That's way too long," says Wiley. "We called Sunday our market hangover day."

Terra Firma Farms recently left the Berkeley farmers market because revenues were too low to justify the time and travel. The operators of Mariquita Farm made the same decision about the San Francisco Ferry Plaza market a few months ago. (One of the complaints about the Ferry Plaza market is that it is swarming with tourists who can't buy heads of lettuce, eggs, or other raw ingredients. A 2005 article by Kim Severson in the New York Times describes the situation, and thanks to the demise of Times Select can be read for free.)

Beyond the long hours away from the farm, the large number of markets makes each market less of a novelty, less of a "must visit" place. An example of that effect: I generally do most of my produce buying at the Saturday Berkeley market. If I miss it, however, I can go to the Sunday market in the Temescal district of Oakland or to the one at Jack London Square in Oakland. Or I can wait a few more days until the Tuesday market in another part of Berkeley.

Carol Ness also spoke with several farmers (like John Lagier of Lagier Ranches and Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm) who find that farmers markets are critical to their success.  Markets offer a way to keep in touch with their customers preferences and can also be financially worthwhile under the right circumstances.

Other paths

It is clear from Ness's article that one size does not fit all.

Farmers markets aren't the only way for farmers to sell their products, of course. Direct sales to restaurants, community supported agriculture (CSA), sales to local grocery stores, dedicated retail outlets (like the Capay stand in the Ferry Building) are practical and potentially even preferable alternatives. The above-mentioned Mariquita Farm has even started a "guerrilla vegetable delivery" program in San Francisco, in which customers pick up preordered produce from a truck outside of a restaurant. About the guerrilla deliveries, Ness writes, "[i]nstead of the 12- to 14-hour farmers' market day, [Mariquita's Julia] Wiley spends more like six or seven hours - and often pops into the restaurant for a bite before heading home. 'It's so relaxing not to be at the market,' she says."

Someday we might even see permanent farmers market structures. Back in April, L.A. Times writer Russ Parsons talked to Howell Tumlin, executive director of the Southland Farmers' Market Association, about the farmers markets now and in the future. Tumlin thinks that Southern California is bound to see a city set up a seven-days-a-week market specializing in local foods. (The article is behind the paywall at the newspaper, but available at the Project for Public Spaces.)

About those grocery store sales

I'll end this post with some suggestions about labeling, using Berkeley Bowl Marketplace, as an example. "The Bowl" is a grocery that specializes in produce and has many connections with small family-owned farms (I call it a "temple of produce."). They sell organically-grown table grapes from Smit Ranch, a small farm that specializes in apples and grapes. In Berkeley Bowl's grape section, their grapes are placed alongside conventionally-grown grapes from mega farms, with only an "from Smit Ranch" on the label to distinguish them from the Big Ag product. It's a nice try at informing the consumer, but how many people know what or where Smit Ranch is? There are certainly some in Berkeley who know their local farms like baseball fans know the teams' pitching rotations, but it's probably a very small fraction of the Bowl's customer base. A better approach would be to also list the location of the farm, how large it is, and other information that can help consumers who want to buy from small farms make that choice.

Photo credit: Persimmon and other fruit photo from jen_maiser's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

One Responseto “Is the success of farmers markets hurting farmers?”

  1. jame says:

    What a great idea on the signs describing the farms. I know Whole Paycheck is making a greater effort in that direction, but it would be nice if this was a fixture in all stores (and it would help point you to the best tasting stuff!)