Introduction: Farmers’ Markets

Farmers’ markets are exploding in popularity all around the country


Since the 1970s, farmers markets have once again been serving a role of town square for many communities, as well for the food movement more broadly. Markets are a place where anyone with a shopping list, a regional product or a civic project can have a place, along with those interested in addressing food insecurity. The number of farmers markets have multiplied dramatically in recent decades, from 340 in 1970 to over 7,864 in 2012, according to self-reported numbers collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Unfortunately, with the increase in popularity, markets also face challenges, including charges of high prices from outside activists unfamiliar with the economies of local food production, and infighting among neighboring markets.

As market numbers have grown, they have become more varied and diverse. Market organizers have been at the forefront of piloting technology to accept government benefit programs and coupled that by creating partnerships to incentivize more benefits to be spent at markets. Those organizers also raise funds to subsidize vendor sales in markets that lack adequate shopping traffic in order to maintain a fresh food presence in those communities and build innovative outreach programs with schools, community centers and social service agencies to encourage all citizens to use markets.

Markets have carved out spaces in every type of community including food deserts, on hospital campuses and in bus stations, or even on floating barges. Markets are founded by farmers, neighborhood activists, public health organizations or sometimes even a coalition of interested groups. In all cases, farmers markets are places where multiple vendors create direct marketing relationships with shoppers and citizens can reconnect to their region’s producers and regain their civic arena.

Most markets are organized by those within the host community that want to anchor their place with healthy civic activities. Those dedicated organizers learn by doing and expand their goals and focus as they grow in skills and partners.

To begin, often these neighborhood activists will contact food or farming organizations that can help them set up a market and partner on outreach or management work. Advocacy or resource organizations may be available to work with neighborhoods that desire markets; in New York, Just Food and Harvest Home are two examples. Across the U.S., state farmers market associations offer free trainings to new organizers and sites such as Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP) and Market Umbrella’s Marketshare project have many free resources designed to assist in the planning and organizing of new markets.  

Markets for Farmers

For farmers, markets can be the key to survival. In an era in which an average of only twenty cents of every food dollar goes to the grower and pressure from large agribusiness and development are driving many small and mid-sized farmers out of business, markets that sell direct to the consumer provide the farmer with a chance to negotiate a fair price and connect to caring neighbors.

Despite the challenges of running a small farm, many family farmers continue to farm because they love farming and are committed to the work. As stewards of the land, they often use organic or other sustainable growing practices to care for the land, and they value the opportunity for connection with the people who eat their food. In fact, many of the earliest markets reborn in the 1970s were set up by farmers (such as Carrboro, North Carolina and Athens, Ohio) and most markets have farmers and other producers that offer volunteer time to help govern the market.

Farmers use markets as an introduction to marketing their goods directly to shoppers and, once experienced at selling, may also branch out into community supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements, where the shoppers preorders a share of the farm’s crops for a season or a year. Market farming businesses also manage roadside stands, send family or staff to multiple markets on the same day, and others may begin to sell their goods to grocers and restaurants. These arrangements allow farmers to have a diversified stream of income from many types of shoppers. Diversification allows that farmer to then try new products and reach new audiences. In five years (1997-2002) the value of direct-to-consumer food sales in the United States grew 37 percent — from $592 to $812 million (USDA 2008).

Fresh Kale for All: Making Good Food Accessible

Many food organizers have used farmers market as a strategy to get healthy produce into neighborhoods that lack fresh foods. In those situations, markets work best as part of a comprehensive community food access initiative, since a weekly market cannot hope to alleviate a food desert on its own. One of the most important ways that market organizers have helped food access initiatives is through piloting and incentivizing the use of government benefits to buy healthy foods. Coupons offered to low-income shoppers to buy locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables started with a pilot in 1986 by the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture with women participating in the WIC program (Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program). In 1989, Massachusetts added a pilot to offer coupons to low-income senior citizens to also buy directly from farmers. In 1992, Massachusetts Senators Atkins and Kerry introduced legislation to create a federally mandated WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) program, which was followed in 2000 with a similar program for seniors: Senior FMNP. Each year, states receive 100% of the food funds and up to 70% of the administration costs from the federal funds, although First Nations only need to provide 10% of the administrative cost match.

Before 1994, farmers markets redeemed over $9 million in food stamps annually. However, between 1994 and 2004, Food and Nutrition Services (the arm of the USDA that manages nutrition assistance programs) converted the paper currency into an electronic benefit card (EBT) to reduce fraud and to speed up payments to clients. The move effectively ended most markets’ ability to work with low-income shoppers, as electricity and phone lines were not found in the parking lots that most markets were using at that time.

Since 2005, there has been a corresponding explosion in technology to allow vendors of all stripes to accept these cards. The wireless technology that is the most used at farmers markets looks (in 2013) like this:

This machine and others like it have allowed markets to process cards, including the SNAP (formerly food stamps) funds of the EBT card. Markets often operate these systems on behalf of their vendors, using wooden tokens as the market currency. Farmers operating roadside stands or CSAs as well as attending farmers markets also offer the technology. Unfortunately, the costs for these systems are still more than most markets and farmers can handle: in 2012, there were only 3,214 direct marketing markets and farmers registered as FNS retailers.

Community Benefits

Farmers’ markets are good for shoppers, farmers, and for the community. By keeping local farms viable, markets sustain regional green space. Markets in town and city centers create new gathering places to bring customers downtown, where they shop at local businesses as well as at the market. While the market’s primary, advertised purpose is to facilitate trade, the face-to-face connections are also important. In a study done at New Orleans’ Crescent City Farmers Markets (CCFM), 91.1% of respondents said they like the market for reasons beyond shopping, such as supporting locals (58.6%), meeting people (8.9%) and soaking up atmosphere (14.3%). And 23%, almost a quarter of respondents, report “hanging out” at the market even after they have finished shopping. Market Umbrella (CCFM’s organization) interpreted these figures as “indicating that the market is an important institution for facilitating both social transactions and market transactions with social components.”

Furthermore, buying from local producers and businesses keeps dollars re-circulating throughout the region, which is good for the community’s economic health. Markets can also provide extra income for community gardeners and employment for local youth, as seen in programs such as GrowNYC’s Youthmarkets.

Arizona Tepary Beans and Maine Black Oxford Apples

Farmers’ markets can be a way to preserve and create a market for traditional foods and crops. Farmers can respond directly to their shoppers’ wants, and are able to provide the community with culturally appropriate foods that may not be available anywhere else. This is a particularly important benefit for many new farmers’ markets being established on Native American reservations. In these communities, the process to develop a new market includes discussion of the preservation of cultural identity and the viability of the traditional land-based society.

Market specialties are as diverse as the regions they grow in — ranging from satsumas and shrimp along the Gulf Coast to traditional dried beans in Arizona to apples in Maine, depending on the season and the weather.

Farmers Markets and Healthy Cities

Deeply rooted in American history and reemerging strongly in the 21st century, farmers’ markets are an important response to the urban crisis facing the U.S. In addition, they help to create what the World Health Organization calls “healthy cities and communities,” as they link urban and rural food producers and consumers within a more sustainable food system. Many cities are creating a participatory planning stage for food system activities. Some are done through a citywide or regional Food Policy Task Force like Baltimore or through a partnership like Rev Birmingham.

Farmers markets, along with other local and regional food initiatives, point the way toward an alternative food system that allows everyone to participate in civic activities and increase the democratic future of healthy food.

Updated 11/2013