Could there be too many farmers’ markets now? The past decades have certainly seen significant growth. In 2005, there were 4,093 markets across the country according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). But as of August 5, there are 7,175, with 1,043 established this year, for a growth of 17 percent. The USDA charts the growth of farmers’ markets on its website. Farmers interviewed in a New York Times article note that profits are down by a third or more as they find themselves competing in an increasingly saturated market of purveyors of fresh basil, chard and heirloom tomatoes.
Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers’ Market Coalition, a nonprofit organization supporting farmers’ markets, notes that the growth has mostly been a boon to most communities. In the warmer months on Wednesdays, I’m always glad to walk through a farmers’ market in Journal Square right outside the PATH station in traffic-clogged, gritty Jersey City. Without the market, residents are limited to the less-than-pristine — and not very health-looking — produce in bodegas and small neighborhood stores.
But other communities, such as the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts, have more markets than the population seems able to support. There were 23 farmers’ markets in the Pioneer Valley this summer. Rick Wysk, who farms eight acres at River Bend Farm in Hadley, says his profits are down by a half:
“You have a certain amount of demand, and the more you spread out the demand, you’re making less,” said Mr. Wysk, who has been selling at markets for 13 years. He believes his business is further hurt by additional markets that opened this year in Northampton and Springfield.
But the glut is actually most acute in more densely-populated areas. Brigitte Moran, the executive director of the Marin Markets in San Rafael, California, says that (not surprisingly) San Francisco just has too many farmers’ markets:
“We have this mentality of, oh, we have a Starbucks on every corner. So why can’t we have a farmers’ market? The difference is these farmers actually have to grow it and drive it to the market.”
Diane Eggert, the executive director of the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York, notes that, in some parts of New York state, farmers’ markets are beginning to ““cannibalize each other’s customer base.”
Better study of an area and planning before opening a new market would prevent over-saturation. But more communities want to open farmers’ markets without fully doing such, says Miller. Farmers will often sign onto a new market out of concerns of staying profitable, without knowing if the new market will make it. A study by Oregon State University found that, of the 62 farmers’ markets that opened in Oregon from 1998 to 2005, 32 failed.
United States Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack proclaimed last week, August 7-13, 2011, as National Farmers Market Week. The number of farmers markets has grown 150 percent, from 2,863 in 2000 to 7,175 in 2011. Even as the movement for more farmers’ markets has clearly been successful, has it started to experience growing pains? At the very end of the New York Times article, a particularly compelling question gets raised, namely, what exactly constitutes a farmers’ market. Should they only sell vegetables and produce? What about home-baked breads and goods? What about crafts and antiques? That is, if farmers’ markets only sold what farmers produce, would that make a difference?
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