Despite the recession, farmers markets are booming. The Food Marketing Institute found that local and sustainable foods were a top buying trend for in each of the last 8 years. Economist Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center notes that, as a business model, farmers markets are inherently flexible, which offers them protection from drastic economic changes. “They can adjust price and adjust their product to get consumers’ needs met. Retailers and big stores with big overheads and big expenses can’t do that.”
What happens to food left over at farmers markets?
Most vendors have a good sense of how much will sell on any given market day, and prepare for it accordingly. However, if there are leftovers at the end of market, vendors are ready to recycle unsold produce into value-added products. For instance, excess tomatoes become tomato sauce and apples become apple cider. Unsaleable produce can be composted to return nutrients back to the farmers’ fields. In addition, many markets also have donation arrangements with local food banks, soup kitchens, and other social service agencies. Farmers at seven farmers markets making up the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance in Seattle donated 44,000 pounds of fresh, local, quality produce to food banks in 2011. Through a partnership with a local health food store, farmers at the Webb City Farmers Market in Missouri donated enough fresh produce to serve 4,000 vegetarian and vegan meals to tornado relief volunteers working in the heat after the Joplin tornado last May. These are just a few examples of the ways farmers give back to the communities that host their markets.
How do farmers markets preserve farmland?
As the number of markets grow around the country, so do the number of farmers. For instance, Alabama had 17 registered farmers markets in 1999, involving 234 farmers. Fewer than ten years later (2008), there were 102 farmers markets involving 1,064 farmers in the same state. This means that with the help of farmers markets, hundreds of farmers choose to stay in agriculture over another profession, thereby helping to preserve Alabama’s farmland and rural traditions. Further, farmers markets allow young farmers to network and learn from more experienced farmers. The Webb City Farmers Market runs a mentoring program that partners their most experienced growers as well as state extension horticulturists with younger farmers who want to improve quality and production practices. “Last week our inspection team visited three farms and saw, for the first time, drip irrigation in action on those farms”, says Eileen Nichols, Market Manager. “Before starting the mentoring program, they either had no water in the fields or were trying to use small sprinklers.”
Seven Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance (NFMA) markets in Seattle support 9,491 acres of farmland in diversified production, stewarding natural resources rather than selling out to industrial residential development. “This represents a four-fold increase in the last ten years,” says NFMA Executive Director Chris Curtis. Even smaller markets nationwide champion acreage in the hundreds, such as Georgia’s Lilburn Farmers Market, which supports 10 farms stewarding 500 acres of farmland.
Chicago’s Green City Market, established in 1999, required that all of its 2012 vendors possess one of eight third-party certifications. Nearly half of the 44 farmers chose the USDA Organic Certification, ensuring clarity for consumers regarding chemical usage and contributing to the long-term health of farmland. Believed to be the first of its kind to require such production-practice certification, the Green City Market serves as a model for new markets and farmers alike.
I love my farmers market. What can I do to support it?
Purchasing as much as you can from your community’s farmers market is the simplest way to demonstrate your support. Some markets have “friends of…” programs where you can contribute directly to the market’s operation and support its educational programs. Others may be recruiting neighborhood volunteers or providers of in-kind design, writing, or bookkeeping services. Just ask the market manager how you can help best. You can also support the Farmers Market Coalition’s national efforts to strengthen farmers markets (through education, leadership development, National Farmers Market Week, and other technical assistance programs) by making a secure on-line donation.