What's next after the flagging farmers market?

Juniper Hill's farm stand in Saranac Lake. What comes next for farms to continue to grow? Photo: David Sommerstein.

Juniper Hill's farm stand in Saranac Lake. What comes next for farms to continue to grow? Photo: David Sommerstein.

Here's a good read to start your week.

The vast growth and expansion of farmers markets over the last decade is a huge feel-good story for local agriculture. Since 2003, the number of farmers markets in the USDA registry has doubled to 8,144 nationwide. That's a lot more opportunity for small farmers to reach out to consumers looking for local meat, fruits and vegetables.

Problem is, those markets haven't attracted a commensurate growth in the number of people shopping at those markets. The result: farmers are earning less than they used to, and some markets are actually seeing declining sales.

According to Orion magazine:

“Farmers’ markets aren’t sexy anymore,” is how Jean Hamilton, the longtime market development coordinator for the Vermont chapter of the National Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), puts it. “The problem is that we were really good at launching farmers’ markets, and we launched a whole bunch of them, and we gave them just enough rope to hang themselves. So now there’s all these farmers’ markets that have really low capacity.”

Rowan Jacobsen's article argues the next step for the locavore movement is food hubs, filling the distribution middle between farm and plate. As the article indicates, Vermont is up and running with food hubs.

So are some parts of New York, and last winter, Governor Cuomo invested $3.6 million in food hub projects:

“These four new food distribution hubs are an important investment in our state’s agricultural sector and economy,” Governor Cuomo said. “Not only will more than 150 jobs be created through these new projects, the hubs will also be essential resources for local farmers by providing services like branding, processing and storage. Above all, they will help distribute products, expanding consumer markets for New York farmers while improving access to healthy, fresh and locally-produced food for our families – a real win-win for the state.”

I know the North Country/St. Lawrence County food hub project is stalled because the grant covered less than a third of the project plan. I haven't checking in with the others.

What's happening food hub-wise in your community? Do you feel farmers markets are stalling out? Or is yours just fine, thank you very much?

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  1. From the Orion article:
    Cutting out the middleman to get more of the customer’s money into the hands of the farmer may sound great in a TED talk, but the reality is that there is no way to challenge the economies of scale of industrial food production, which is propped up by subsidies, kickbacks, and money-saving environmental shortcuts.

    I think one of the questions a food hub plan needs to answer is whom does it serve? Is the main client the farmer, the institution, the inspector, the customer? For instance, farmers' markets serve farmers, supermarkets serve customers, commercial kitchens serve institutions. If we don't know which segment is the focus of the effort someone is bound to feel shorted along the way.

    Maybe having a self-financing local food distribution hub is the wrong goal. Or maybe it is only part of the solution, and we need different hubs for different purposes. Or maybe I'm just not getting the concept. :)

  2. I think one of the problems, maybe the main problem, with farmers markets is the fact that you still need to shop at a supermarket.
    If you need to shop at a supermarket, shopping at a farmers market is just one more shopping trip and the odds are you are going to pay more at the farmers market.
    Is the food (mostly veggies) at the farmers market better? Not necessarily.

  3. I would interpret Pete's logic in exactly the opposite way. If our farmers markets were just a tad more diverse, I wouldn't need to go to the supermarket at all. Beer and laundry detergent have become the principal purchases at the supermarket, and if we shop at CJ's for beer, then the list for the supermarket gets really, really short.
    Since we never shop the middle isles at the supermarket anyway, indeed the farmers market produce is far better than stuff shipped in from California, Israel, or Brazil.

  4. Ellen B's comment makes me think about income distribution in this country. The money, the economy, and all of commercial agriculture, are controlled by a smaller and smaller group of un-imaginably wealthy folks. They seem to want it all, and are well on their way to getting it all. I say, if they won't share, then let's go home and entertain ourselves. Plant a garden, create a job from your hobby or other interest, interact with your local community to fulfill your needs, and stop working to make the rich richer.

  5. We found the same to be true in the north country. Although farmer's markets still appear very popular in our area, our sales haven't been growing significantly from being there. We're finding a more diverse farm store with not only the veggies we grow, but also the converted foods we grow turned into soups, breads, etc. have become even more beneficial to our business sales growth. Not everyone has the opportunity to have a stand like us. Most depend on farmer's markets for their sales. The localvore movement still remains strong, but I agree – a one stop shop seems to attract more sales, and if a market can be structured to have vendors that provide that diversity, all will reap the benefits.

  6. Forgot to mention another problem with some, not all, farmers markets.
    Some only take cash. Not all take food stamps, credit or debt cards. This can be a big problem for many people.
    Few if any carry meat. No can goods or dry goods.
    If you want any fruits or veggies only grown in warm climates, you won't find them at a farmers market unless they purchased them from the same places the supermarkets purchase them.

  7. The success of any farmer's markets depends very much on what the farmers and board members put into it. I've seen the full range here in the North Country. Some are bustling. They have great set-ups full of info and food. Others not too inviting. Mainly white plastic tables, few veggies and vendors sitting in chairs that don't look too friendly.

    Marketing the farmer's market however takes a little more effort these days than just posting signs around town. I would say treat farmer's markets like each one is an event onto itself. Music, seasonal themes, recipes, chefs and cooks grilling, etc… This would make the day special for customers and might just bring in some new faces (new converts) as well.

    Of course this takes time and effort on the part of the already over-worked FM manager. But if all the vendors band together and cooperate, it would surely help everyone's bottom line.

    RE: Food Hubs
    Are food hubs the answer? For some, probably. But you don't need govt to get started. Just look at Deep Root Organics, a grass-roots organic veggie co-op in Johnson, VT. They did it all themselves and 25+ years later still going. 15 Farmers: they organized, leased a truck, rented 1st then eventually bought an old decaying building that had a delivery bay (seen a few of these around the North Country?) and did their own branding. They have Whole Foods as a buyer in the Northeast.