Are farmers markets so irrevocably changed that local growers can no longer benefit from them?
By interviewing vegetable and fruit growers at the DuPont Circle FreshFarm Market, the reporter Tom Carman follows how fresh produce sellers are losing ground.. The opening profile of Zach Lester, co-owner of Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Va., highlights the issue. Just a few years ago, Lester could earn $200,000 from the DuPont Circle market annually. Now, his annual sales are just $150,000.
The culprit is a cultural one, The Washington Post posits. Farmers’ markets have become such a social venue, that customers are buying more prepared food than fresh produce. Those stalls who sell ready-to-eat meals and drinks are doing well, while sales for those with fresh produce are declining.
I recently sent out an email to several farm marketers, asking what they thought had changed most in the industry during the past year. Their answers reflect much of what is discussed in the article.
Their customers have very different expectations than the customers who bought from them even five years ago, the growers told me.
First, since most consumers no longer can and preserve their fruits and vegetables, they’re buying for a much shorter time frame. That means that the quantities purchased are much lower, a pattern seen not only at farmers markets, but in You-Pick operations, and on-farm markets. Few people buy by the bushel anymore, I’m told. The other side effect of short-term purchases is a positive one — customers come in more often to buy. They’ll visit weekly instead of once or twice a season.
The second big consumer trend growers mentioned ties directly back to what the growers at DuPont Circle FreshFarm Market were dealing with: customers want their food to be easy. That means they want chopped vegetables, premixed salad greens, and even food that can be popped into the oven with no preparation other than taking it out of the bag.
One farm marketer called it the “Wegman’s effect.” Customers have grown so accustomed to grocery stores doing everything for them, they expect everyone else to do likewise.
I’d argue that Wegman’s and other grocery stores are merely faster to respond to customers’ food habits changing.
Think about it. That Washington D.C. farmers’ market is still going strong. It’s just that those who are willing to give customers what they want are doing better.
So what does that mean for the industry, and for farmers’ market specifically? What can growers do now to create excitement among younger buyers? While the need for fresh produce at a farmers’ market will never go away, how the produce is sold and how much is undeniably changing.
I don’t have answers for these questions. I do know, though, that if you pay close attention to your customers, you’ll figure out what changes will work for you both.