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Cut to the chase

Growth in the number of farmers’ markets continued last year, and the markets are adapting to new locations and innovative formats to meet consumer needs.

According to the Agriculture Department, there were 8,144 farmers’ markets in 2013, an increase of 3.6 percent from 2012.  The rapid growth can be attributed to several factors, including consumer perceptions about superior freshness and quality; the ability to learn about farming practices; and a desire to support local businesses and farmers.  An analysis released in 2013 by A.T. Kearney, Buying Into the Local Food Movement, showed that consumers trusted farmers’ markets more than any other types of grocery venues to deliver local food.

Growth in the number of farmers’ markets is slowing, compared with the explosive increases of 10 percent in 2011 and 17 percent in 2012.  In some areas, the number of farmers’ markets has reached a saturation point.  In others, there were too few vendors to sustain the market. 

Yet, an increasing array of farmers’ market concepts are bringing farmers and consumers together in new ways.

Popular in many countries with hot climates, night-time farmers’ markets are gaining a foothold in many large urban areas.  In 2012, a “Pop-Up Greenmarket” in an empty lot in Harlem became the first night-time farmers’ market in New York City. In other cities, night-time farmers’ markets allow consumers to buy farm-fresh products after a busy day at work. They have become popular gathering places for food, socializing, entertainment and even romance.

Farmers’ markets are also serving both corporate and factory workers. Smaller-scale, roving markets are set up for short periods of time in office building lobbies and factory parking lots, so busy, time-stressed workers can take shop during breaks, lunch periods and work hours.

Farmers’ markets are now being featured, rated and evaluated as tourist destinations, with “top 10” lists and travel recommendations in numerous national magazines, newspapers and travel sites.  In 1994, USDA began publishing the National Directory of Farmers’ Markets, with up-to-date information about locations, dates and hours of operation, websites and methods of payment accepted. 

Farmers’ markets are now also reaching some of the nation’s most distressed consumers. Once criticized for catering largely to more lucrative consumers, farmers’ markets are now being established in “food deserts”—areas where affordable, nutritious food is difficult to obtain. 

And thousands of markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps. By providing the point-of-sale equipment needed to process payments from the Electronic Benefits Transfer Cards used by SNAP recipients and beneficiaries of other programs—like the Women, Infants and Children program—USDA is fostering access to fresher foods. Early studies indicate that the ability to use EBT cards and other incentives are starting to improve healthy eating habits of SNAP recipients.

Adapting to meet diverse consumer needs and to serve those who previously lacked access to farmers’ markets is starting to pay off, and not just for farmers. 

USDA estimated that farmers’ market sales exceeded $1 billion in 2005, and some industry experts believe sales approached $7 billion last year.  In a report issued in 2012, The Economic Impact of Farmers Markets: A Study of 9 Markets in 3 Major U.S. Cities, Market Umbrella—a nonprofit organization devoted to cultivating public markets, showed that famers’ markets generate significant economic benefits for vendors, host neighborhoods and surrounding communities. In the studied cities, impact on vendors ranged from $52,000 to $40.5 million per market; impact on nearby businesses was $19,900 to $15.7 million; and on communities, $72,000 to $56.3 million. 

Along with the economic impact, farmers’ markets offer a rare opportunity for agriculture and consumers to connect in-person. It’s a chance to entice and educate consumers about where their food comes from and how it is raised or grown. Almost no other shopping experience brings consumers and agriculture together to build trust by meeting face to face.

Robert Giblin consults, writes and speaks about agriculture and food industry issues and trends

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