Back in 1976, when the Union Square Greenmarket opened in New York City, the notion of a greenmarket in the center of one of Manhattan’s most blighted public spaces seemed odd, if not foolish. At the time, there were individual drug dealers doing more of a brisk business than the entire farmer’s market itself. Fast forward a few decades and the park is considerably cleaner and safer and the Union Square Greenmarket is booming with a 4 days a week of bustling sales of everything from wild-caught fish to local organic blackberries. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to look upon this little quadrant of urban renewal and scoff or find fault, as urbanites are given access to farm fresh food and farmers are given access to a new, and enthusiastic, customer base. What is not to love?
Since those early days where farmers markets were in their nascent stages, the proliferation of green, or farmers, markets has been staggering. Presently more than 100,000 farmers in the U.S. sell food directly to local consumers, and back in 2007 the USDA estimated that direct agricultural product sales grossed $1.2 billion. There are about 7,175 farmers markets currently in operation, with over 1,000 of those being established just this year, which amounts to a lot of apples, artisan cheese, and spelt loafs being sold. The mark of a farmers market opening up in a neighborhood or town signals a certain amount of prosperity, as well as civic refinement. It signifies both a sense of community as well as a collective investment in local farming and local economics. But as it is with all progress, there are growing pains.
As The New York Times reported last week, the overabundance of farmers markets has “outstripped demand” and in many communities, made it less profitable and more challenging for farmers to squeeze value out of participating in the farmers market system. As the Times reported, some farmers say small new markets have lured away loyal customers and cut into profits. Other farmers say they must add markets to their weekly rotation to earn the same money they did a few years ago, reducing their time in the field and adding employee hours. Add to this general competition, inflated fuel prices, and the sizable commitment of time and energy required to run a successful farmers market stand, and the whole endeavor becomes an exercise in diminishing returns for some farmers. I have personally spoken to a number of farmers who have elected to opt out of the whole enterprise, claiming that the investment is just not worth the meager profits (these farmers mostly opt to sell directly to restaurants or distributors – leaving little direct connection to the average consumer).
To be sure the upswing in farmers markets have been largely a positive thing for most farmers and virtually all communities lucky enough to have local markets. Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers’ Market Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports farmers’ markets, said that the growth had been a boon to most communities and that many places still lacked markets that connect residents with fresh, healthful food. Still, with competition and the general excess of farmers markets (especially in upscale urban and suburban areas) it becomes a tricky balance to maintain the benefit for consumers and sellers alike.
Do you support your local farmers market? Have you found any downside to having a local farmers market in your neighborhood? Do you feel there is room for everyone in the farmers market game, or do you feel that having a surplus of these markets presents a problem?