September 1, 2011

How Many Farmers’ Markets?

Filed under: Food and Farms, Land Reform, Mainstream Media, Relocalization — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 3:26 am


The proliferation of farmers’ markets in recent years is one of the most exuberant demonstrations of the rising vitality of the relocalization movement. These markets are a boon to small farmers, are a key part of food relocalization, provide healthy food, arouse an interest in local food and farmers among the public, help educate the public on the very nature of food production and distribution, and at their best provide a public space where people can come together as communities for socializing and recreation, for learning and fun. The expansion of these markets is a primary first-stage goal for the movement.
But the rapid success of this expansion is causing some growing pains. For a few years now people have wondered if there are getting to be too many farmers’ markets. Small farmers complain about having to spread themselves out among more competing markets, incurring worse logistical costs, in order to bring in the same revenue they used to achieve at one or two markets.
The latest to push this theme is the corporate NYT. The basic line is the same – too many markets cutting up a finite cake.

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…

Rick Wysk, who spent the morning pulling beets out of the eight acres he tills at River Bend Farm in nearby Hadley, says his business at farmers’ markets is half what it was five years ago.

“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.

“We’re Western Mass. We’re not New York City. We’re not Boston,” Mr. Wysk said. “We’ve got people, but not the population in the bigger markets.”

More densely populated areas, however, seem to be where the problem is most acute. In Seattle, farmers have spent the last few years jumping from new market to new market. In San Francisco, there are simply “too many farmers’ markets,” said Brigitte Moran, the executive director of the Marin Markets in San Rafael, Calif.

“We have this mentality of, oh, we have a Starbucks on every corner,” Ms. Moran said. “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.”

Of course this allegedly finite market exists amid the hostile environment of corporate patterns in everything including food production. It’s this which relentlessly tries to beat down what’s clearly a democratic movement toward healthier, higher quality, and more localized food. That’s the corporate NYT for you. It’s not the fault of Walmartization, land distribution patterns, food commodification as such. It’s those who are trying to break the pattern and relocalize who are making things hard on farmers.
Meanwhile, the piece itself mentions the alternative explanation: There’s not enough small farmers. This follows immediately after an indication that in some places there aren’t enough markets, and/or that existing markets aren’t big enough.

In some places, new or small-scale farmers who cannot get into existing markets create their own and siphon off customers. Other communities do not have enough farmers to keep up with all the new markets that are opening, Ms. Miller said.

The piece tries to juxtapose quotes in such a way as to make it look like it’s benighted farmers and communities who don’t know what they’re doing. But in fact such citizens are doing the best they can amid a harsh political and economic environment. This piece is an example of NYT starve-the-beastism. Fulsomely support corporate ag, do all you can to make the small farmer impossible. Then, when the small farmers’ attempts to thrive experience a speed bump, crow, “See? I told you it wouldn’t work!”
It’s a good measure of the corporate media’s lameness that this piece was unable to suppress the basic facts:
1. Farmers’ markets are thriving, and if they’re experiencing any difficulty, it’s a growing pain, not decrepitude.
2. If in some places there’s a mismatch between the number of markets and the market revenue of farmers, it’s far more likely that this means there’s not enough farmers to meet the demand for markets, than that the supply of markets has outrun some fixed customer demand.
This is a structural problem where the many parts of the solution take time. Perhaps a faster part like founding farmers’ markets may sometimes get out ahead of other parts like the rate of small farm startups. But this doesn’t mean there’s too many markets in an absolute sense, only in a relative and temporary one. But you’d never know that from tendentious corporate media “analysis” like this.
The corporate media frame assumes food commodification as normative and tries to keep farmers’ markets in their “locavore” lifestyle-accouterment ghetto. From that bogus point of view, it sounds logical that there’s a “fixed” saturation point.
But if the real point of farmers’ markets is to be part of the general relocalization movement, and every aspect of that movement is on a vector against the structural factors the corporate media assumes to be given, then it becomes meaningless to say there’s “too many” markets in an absolute sense.
Small farmers face difficulties for many structural reasons, including the fact that there’s not enough of them to meet community demand for markets. And that demand, exemplified in the mission statements of most markets including our own, go beyond just setting up a marketplace. The aspiration is a general community-building effort. Communities are trying to move ahead to meet expansive social, economic, and political needs, but we’re finding that in some places we’re outpacing the number of farmers available to staff these markets. (Also, the education of consumers on the benefits of shopping there has slowed down after the initial surge. So this is a long-term project as well.)
It’s tough to tell if there actually is a temporary saturation. A Portland market manager describes a plan based on market research:

Farmers Market spokesewoman Deborah Pleva says that the organization does not believe Portland has reached a saturation point for markets at all. Only three percent of produce purchased in Portland is bought from a farmers market; Pleva says they’re aiming to make that more like 10 percent.

According to numbers like that, there ought to be plenty of room for the current number of markets and then some. The fault, if there is a present-context glut at all, lies not with the community demand for farmers’ markets, but with the lack of farmers to sell at them, and beyond that with the structural, and often intentional, hostility of the system itself.
So none of this can be meaningfully discussed outside the big picture context of corporatism, kleptocracy, and the long-term relocalization movement.


  1. Good post Russ, thank you for sharing all this information. There’s a local Farmer’s Market where I live but it is only open for business on Saturday mornings. If it was open all day on Saturday and Sunday plus one day during the week, like Wednesday, I would buy most of my produce, meat and (raw) dairy products there. But it’s not. Bummer!

    Thanks again for all your posts (having David Graeber on here is great! I bought one of his books a couple years back).

    Please keep the posts coming and thanks again for all your hard work…


    Comment by William — September 1, 2011 @ 5:45 am

    • You’re welcome, William, and thanks.

      Most farmers’ markets are just one day a week for several hours. In most places, that’s the most effective confluence of the availability of space, staffers (vendors and managers), and customers.

      Comment by Russ — September 1, 2011 @ 6:24 am

      • Wouldn’t it be nice if a Farmer’s Market could organize it’s vendors to stagger selling throughout the week? Then people who want to market everyday or more than once per week would know that a vendor would be there each day. The vendor(s) would probably be elated to know they have a captive audience one day every week instead of competing for business on the one weekend day.

        Comment by Ross — September 1, 2011 @ 9:38 am

      • That would be good, but as a rule there’s neither enough vendors nor enough customers to support something like that. Although I haven’t yet delved into existing market research (and to the best of my knowledge no one else on the Committee has either; I plan to do it later this year), our anecdotal impression is that many and probably most farmers’ market customers go to one market a week, so the markets within a given radius of how far people are willing to drive are probably competing for what at any particular time is a finite number of customers. So any small market needs to maximize the variety of goods and quality of experience it can offer on one day.

        A vendor would prefer to go to just one such market in a given region, as this would minimize the costs discussed in the articles. The allegation here is that if too many markets open for the current customer base, they divide this base too thinly among themselves so that many or all are weak, whereas fewer could all have been stronger. Meanwhile, the vendor feels compelled to spread his own effort among more markets to make up for the smaller revenue from each, but this increases his overhead. But, as the NYT piece admitted, the problem also involves there sometimes being more vendors than can staff existing markets, but perhaps not enough to drum up enough new customer traffic to support new markets.

        So in a perfect world the number of small farmers marketing locally/regionally direct to the citizenry, the number of customers, and the number/size of markets would grow in synch. Obviously such perfect synchronization is unlikely, and here we’re seeing some imbalances. We need the right educational campaign to generate more customer support (but also an answer to the question of how people who are increasingly beleaguered economically can afford it); and a way to render the position of small farmers more economically tenable (but also how they can make their products more affordable to the citizenry). Better coordination among markets and with people who are thinking of starting markets is also necessary.

        I don’t claim to have any clear answers yet to these very hard questions. Even figuring out answers is a major project. But at least I think those are the right questions. At least they transcend the standard MSM line that farmers’ markets are just another capitalist phenomenon which is to be analyzed according the standard mercenary criteria. True, some markets and vendors view them in those terms. But that’s not what they’re really about, and that’s certainly not the character they’d have where embraced within a broad relocalization movement.

        Comment by Russ — September 1, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  2. There’s probably some room for looking at central place theory in this context. There was some work done on the distribution of Chinese villages and their markets by GW Skinner using central place theory that was pretty interesting- I’ve thrown up a .pdf here: http://www.mediafire.com/?a2udfo1v5mzb4tb

    Anyway, until someone actually does an analysis of the marketing distance of small farmers and the relative positions of farmer’s markets, I’m not going to get too worried about some anecdotes thrown around by the NYT. If there really are too many markets, some will fail, others will merge. People aren’t stupid, and farmers aren’t going to go bankrupt chasing around tiny markets that they only make a couple bucks at.

    Comment by paper mac — September 1, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    • Thanks for the link, paper mac. I hadn’t heard of “central place” before, but a quick skim looked interesting. I’m printing it out now.

      I’m not very worried about the negativity of this talk. I’m more concerned with how to keep the expansion going.

      While we’re here, I have two links you might find interesting. This one somebody gave me on another thread here.

      Click to access 137_JAFSCD_Assessing_Food_Supply_Capacity_Detroit_Nov-2010.pdf

      It’s a study of urban agricultural capacity, specifically Detroit. I haven’t read it yet and don’t know how much it assumes at least the benevolent neutrality (if not active support) of government. It probably does.

      Also, does this


      have bearing on previous discussions of an alternative Internet?

      Comment by Russ — September 1, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

  3. We started a local market in my town this year. We are trying to provide a little extra income for our few local farmers and a lot of fun for everyone. We are having a blast. So far we have got an 8-person coordinating committee and we have NO RULES yet. We have been able to work everything out as we go. (Solvitur Amulando!)

    This NYT article caused a stir but I agree with your analysis. The corporate media will snicker at all of this and try to paint us as elitist. We should ignore them. I get the NYT used from a friend with a subscription. I read a bit and then I use it in the summer as garden mulch and pee pee pads for the puppies. In the winter it starts fires in the masonry stove. The corporate mouthpieces for corporate America will laugh at all decentralized, scaleable activities until they begin to be a bit threatening. Then they will send the food police and the FBI.

    Our state NOFA chapter wants to work to get support for small farms and markets into the 2012 Farm Bill and I think they are right. We should use the crumbs that fall off the corporate tables to build our local infrastructures. What do you think about that? Jack K. has written about this in the current issue of the Natural Farmer and I am persuaded.

    You raise really important issues though that I would love to discuss more. The only farmers markets that I see really “working” (in the sense of making enough profits to pay their debts to the USDA banks) are the ones that rely upon a lot of driving around from exurbs to dense cities. A lot of these farmers have people in big trucks on the road all the time. I worry about how they will make out when fuel gets really expensive and when their customers run out of cash. I don’t blame them for complaining to the NYT that they are being squeezed. Their profit margins must be very thin and they work very hard.

    It is already hard to work in local agriculture when it really is not profitable (because of industrial ag.) I think it is going to get much worse soon as we go through a period when cash is scarce but (bad) food is still plentiful. That is why I think that local farmers markets have to try to become community centers – traditional meeting places, not just outdoor supermarkets – and why I think we need to get as much out of the USDA feed trough as we can.

    Comment by Ellen Anderson — September 11, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    • Hi Ellen. I’m glad to hear you got a market started. But you’ll need rules for how much the vendors can resell other producers’ stuff, and the maximum distance for any ingredient. Otherwise you’ll just end up providing a spot for scammers out to free ride on the local food movement.

      Our market’s rules on those are (this is a somewhat simplified account) : The vendor must be owner of the operation, at least 80% of what they sell must be self-produced, and anything they resell has to have come from within 75 miles of the town boundaries. Those rules comprise a common level of rigor, though many markets are more strict.

      I agree completely on farmers’ markets as public spaces, community centers, movement nodes.

      As for the Farm Bill idea, the problem with that is that it didn’t work last time. In 2007-08 a coalition of groups were supposed to hang together in opposing any bill which didn’t greatly cut Big Ag subsidies. Instead they were peeled off one by one with what you agree are crumbs. And then what’s happened since? Congress never funded some of the crumbs, and while others received partial funding for awhile (BTW, in federal legislation “mandatory” funding doesn’t mean what English speakers might think it means), that funding has steadily been withdrawn, and several programs were cut completely in 2011.

      It’s hard to see how things are going to be better this time around.

      I wrote a post on this


      where I said:

      I’m ambivalent about the whole thing. My default is to think we should have nothing to do with big federal legislation. But at the same time, I figure that the legislative consensus on maintaining the corporatism of farm policy will either stand or not, regardless of what happens with the small pro-democratic (organic, sustainability, relocalization) programs. The funding for these is very small, yet it still provides real help for real people engaging in real projects. We try to do a little every day. And as the funding is small yet the feel-good propaganda potential is high, advocates like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) are able to make decent progress in getting these programs into the bill.

      So the Farm Bill isn’t exactly like the sham finance bill, which was pure propaganda, or the health racket bailout, which was a reactionary assault whose alleged “reforms” would obviously never be enforced. With the Farm Bill we have the corporatist status quo which will either continue or fall apart on its own (no citizen advocacy will ever persuade Congress against its inclination to vote down corporate ag welfare), while we also have a large number of small but real benefits.

      Comment by Russ — September 11, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

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