Are Farmers’ Markets Losing Their Appeal To Growers?

Brick oven pizza at Four Seasons Winter Farmers MarketAre farmers markets so irrevocably changed that local growers can no longer benefit from them?

That’s the central question in a probing article in one of the country’s leading newspapers, The Washington Post, published this past week.

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.

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9 comments on “Are Farmers’ Markets Losing Their Appeal To Growers?

  1. These towns that hold farmers market think that farmers are making g lots of money then the following year they will charge you for each tent that will be setting up and then new people come in to run the market your told your no longer welcome there after you have been doing there town market for 8 years it’s called greed

  2. Here are some not fully developed thoughts about this:

    1. we sell at 3 farmers markets in Wichita, KS. We make decent money at those markets but also use that time with customers to strongly promote our you pick orchard/pumpkin patch 30 minutes away.

    2. We try to stagger both orchard crops and vegetable crops so we dont need to sell to people who want to purchase bushels of fruit. Though we offer volume discounts.

    3. Bulk buyers are older and more price conscious and are only reached through print media. Small volume buyers are younger, more easily reached through social media marketing and are less price conscious and more interested in the experience of the farm or market and in the relationship with the grower. Therefore, we hardly even use the term ‘bushel’ none of our target customers really even know what it means!

  3. Our family started the farmers markets in Chicago over 40 years ago and they have certainly changed. Volume was key back in the day until almost every suburban town had a market during the week and on weekends. That changed the amount sold and the containers. No one cans or freezes today, a lost art. We still offer the freshest produce they can find but quantities are down.

    1. I just got certified for the Master Preserver’s class along with about 25 other women this past May. however we were all older women and one older man. We buy by the bushel or grow are own. Even here in the small state of NH we can find a market almost every day somewhere. Myself, I prefer to go right to the farmstand. But they have also added whine tasting etc in my town. It is different than just a few years ago. Also only “certain” farms are allowed to sell. I was surprised how clicky it is

  4. I think this piece missed the mark. This is an issue I’ve researched and understand well. It’s not about farmers responding to customers or not. It’s about culture. Fewer people cook!

    1. Totally agree with your statement. They don’t cook from scratch, they buy produce already peeled cleaned and chopped for them, add an already prepared dressing in a bottle and call it a salad.

  5. Too many farmers’ markets are on Saturday, the busiest day at our farmstand/pick your own operation. As a small family the added cost of manning a booth in addition to transportation and packing up time makes it a lot simpler and stress free to stay home. Oour customers know where they can find the best fruit in trhe area and come to us.

  6. The reality of the growth of farmer markets is much more complex than this article describes. We are in our 15th year as a market in Kenosha, Wisconsin with the volume of fresh, raw produces growing each year. It is not an level playing. Winners and losers change regularly; it’s called competition. We have been socialized by media and the processed food industry to not cook fresh but the trend is in reversal. But this trend also means more fresh products are moving to the restaurants and now the grocer. The trend is based upon health and will continue to grow with time.

    1. Hello Ray : Nice to read your comment about how people want to eat healthier. Some are willing to change their eating habits because it’s trendy,others because they have changed their diet and they feel better because of it and finally the people whom have had Serious Health Issues } Cancer , Diabetes ect. Hope all is well with my friends in Wisconsin. Regards

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