Why Farmers Markets Keep Winning

//Why Farmers Markets Keep Winning

Why Farmers Markets Keep Winning

One sign you’ll never see at a farmers market: “Carrots… Now 50% CRUNCHIER!”

In an economy that is unhappily nicknamed “The Great Recession,” it’s refreshing to know that, despite scores of gloomy prognostications, at least one segment of our economy has actually been growing: America’s Farmers Markets. According to this recent article from Business Week, farmers markets grew nationwide by nearly 10% in the past year alone. Ten percent annual growth, my Slow Food and Locavore friends, is an incredibly encouraging number.

Yikes… we all know what this feels like. Fluorescent lights, squeaky shopping cart wheels: it’s the anti-Farmers Market.

With unprecedented access to emerging and established farmers markets, small farmers can finally envision an economically sustainable future for themselves. For decades, growers have had little other choice than to rely upon unpredictable commodity prices for their livelihoods. Farmers would start each season with the optimism of a strong, productive year, but never truly knew what they would be paid come harvest time. At the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, traders shout to one another across the crowded floor, bidding up corn or driving down the price of pork bellies with complete disregard for the farmers raising the crops. If the past sixty years have taught us anything, it’s that sustainable wages must go hand in hand with sustainable farming practices, or despite all good intentions, the enterprise will most likely fail.

This is a promotional poster for locally raised produce at a grocery store near my farm.  Unlike another nearby supermarket, they have the good grace not to brand their produce section “The Farmers Market.”  Ugh.

Can you imagine showing up for work each day for a year, logging countless hours across the course of twelve months, then when you finally receive your paycheck, you open the envelope to find nothing inside?  This is what happened to our farm, and many others, for an entire generation: commodity paychecks weren’t enough to offset our bills. Now, the enormous expansion of farmers markets is giving some of these farmers -small and organic producers, especially- a viable way to opt out, increasing the odds of earning a living wage for themselves.

(From a personal standpoint, our attendance at farmers markets for the past fifteen years probably saved our family farm. If you are a farmers market customer, thank you. The money you spend goes straight back to the farm where you bought your food, an investment that not only financially sustains your farmer, but helps ensure that you’ll be able to purchase your favorite tomatoes, free range eggs and zucchini bread year after year.)

A white board listing the names of local farms in the produce section. It might not be the same as talking to your local farmer at their market booth, but hey, for a box store, it’s an improvement.

Of course, corporate America is well aware of these burgeoning farmers market numbers. For many years, farmers markets were only a blip on the radar screens of national supermarkets, cultural anomalies that probably seemed like temporary trends. However, as stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s began to slowly gain traction—and farmers markets not only stuck around but actually began to expand—traditional supermarkets sat up and took notice. These days, even my local box store supermarkets have organic and local sections, something I never could have imagined five years ago.

Traditionally, supermarket products have begged for attention by being ‘New and Improved!’ or ‘Now… with 25% more Cheese!’ Aisles were stocked with flashy claims and bright packaging, food so anonymous and aseptic that they employed cartoon mascots as their spokesbunnies. Those days certainly aren’t over yet, as a trip to any supermarket will quickly demonstrate. However, organic—and increasingly local—foods are making strong inroads into chain stores nationwide. Be careful out there, folks: the next time you walk into a conventional grocery store, you might actually be able to smell a local peach.

Silly Rabbit, swirls are for heirloom tomatoes!

Times are undoubtedly changing. Grocery stores have recognized the appeal of food raised with transparency and identity, and are enacting change from within the confines of their cinderblock fortresses.  While the optimist in me wants to say, “Hey!  They’re finally getting it… good for them!” the businessman in me says, “This is a classic corporate response to eroding market share.” Like most things in life, though, the truth is probably located somewhere in the middle: grocery stores recognize the undeniable popularity of farmers markets, and are suddenly willing to tweak their protocols just enough to make sure they don’t get left behind.

Wait just a minute here… when did nature promise ever us ‘fully cooked chicken breast nuggets’?! Did I sleep through this memo?!

Farmers are often perceived as curmudgeons, resistant to change, suspicious of newfangled ways (who came up with the word ‘newfangled’ anyway, and why is this word always associated with curmudgeons?  At some point, the phrase ‘newfangled’ must have been newfangled itself, right? But I digress…), but I, for one, am delighted to see nationwide supermarkets adopting these changes. Not only does this open the door for even more farmers to have economically stable outlets for their produce, but this shifting policy further endorses the spirit of farmers markets themselves. It was Charles Colton who famously said “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” but I’ve always liked Oscar Wilde’s twist on fame a little better: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

There’s no denying it: we’re being imitated, and we’re being talked about. What does this mean for us die-hard, long time foodies who have known all along the many benefits of shopping at farmers markets? I think we should all take a moment—just a moment—to congratulate ourselves. Okay, moment over! Now, let’s start thinking about the future. We know that when our core values carry over into shopping habits, it turns the heads of national CEOs. Armed with this power to enact positive change, it makes a farmer wonder: what can we do next?

Like Smith Meadows on Facebook Please ‘like’ our family farm, and we’ll keep the stories coming!  Smith Meadows Facebook

By | 2013-01-07T21:53:30+00:00 August 16th, 2012|Farm|6 Comments

About the Author:

Forrest Pritchard is a full-time sustainable farmer and New York Times bestselling author, holding a BA in English and a BS in Geology from William & Mary. Smith Meadows, his farm, was one of the first “grass finished” operations in the country, and has sold at leading farmers’ markets in Washington DC for nearly two decades. Pritchard’s first two books received starred reviews from The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and NPR, and his latest book is set to debut in 2018.

6 Comments

  1. adri August 17, 2012 at 6:55 am - Reply

    Have you noticed that the same 3-5 farms appear on all those new white boards popping up in chain grocery stores across the state? I’m glad that farms like ‘Dodd’s Acres’ and ‘Kirby Farms’ (both in Mechanicsville) have been able to be so productive, and are making inroads into grocery stores. BUT, I would love to see more farms up on those white boards and for them to have closer ties to the folks they are feeding.

    • Forrest Pritchard August 21, 2012 at 11:44 am

      Hey Adri,

      I haven’t noticed that yet, but it’s probably a reflection of the fact that I don’t make it into supermarkets very often (I get to barter for most of my food at farmers market, but obviously head to the supermarket when I need beer!). I’ll try to pay attention each time I go in, though lately I’ve been working my way through a few neglected bottles of wine…

  2. Howard Prussack August 17, 2012 at 10:07 am - Reply

    Thanks Forrest,good piece! I have been farming since 1971, certified organic in 1978. One thing I would add is that it should be a law that you can not call a business a farm,unless it really is a farm. Does Pepperidge Farm grow there own wheat? Does Cumberland Farms milk there own cows? Could I call myself a Pharmacutical Co. unless I actually am? Anyways,thats my rant!

    • Forrest Pritchard August 21, 2012 at 11:33 am

      Hi Howard,

      First of all, my hat’s off to you for farming successfully for so long, and being so far ahead of the curve with organics. What do you raise/grow?

      And if I’ve learned anything thus far, it’s that nothing is quite as satisfying as a well-thoughtout rant! Very therapeutic on a personal level, and if you don’t get too carried away, they can be entertaining/educational for others, as well :^)

  3. Julie Abel August 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    Forrest, I am truly embarrassed to admit that even with all of the clean eating that our family has been doing since Jeff started his quest to loose weight (http://jeffscrazyidea.com), I have NEVER actually been to a farmer’s market. This weekend hopefully that will change. I am so excited! And we are going to make it a whole family affair. Thank you for the the art and awareness that you bring to farming. Your blog is beautiful, and I can’t wait to get your book.

    • Forrest Pritchard August 21, 2012 at 11:28 am

      Ha, don’t be embarrassed… clearly the vast majority of America doesn’t shop at farmers markets, or places like Costco and Walmart wouldn’t be so profitable! And don’t expect to be a farmers market convert over night, either… farmers markets are each uniquely different, seasonal, and eccentric. My best advice is to spend a good deal of time walking around and taking in the entire scene before deciding what or even if to buy anything… prices, offerings and personalities will differ vastly within a single market, and you don’t want to feel buyers remorse on your very first trip!

      Most of all, enjoy the experience! It’s a genuine circus to get all that food to market, set it all up on display, and interact with customers. I hope you have fun, and please give me your feed back :^)

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