Thursday, June 23, 2016

Farmers markets aren't what they used to be

Many growers who once earned a living selling fresh produce at farmers' markets have found it harder and harder to remain profitable as the culture at those markets changes.

Zach Lester, co-owner of Tree and Leaf Farm in Unionville, Va., has noticed a shift in recent years, especially at the Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market in Washington, where he once could expect to generate $200,000 or more a year in gross sales. “The customers have changed,” Lester told The Washington Post. “A lot of people that walk through markets are not shopping. They’re there to meet. They’re there to socialize.”

Such "customers" are there to eat and drink, not to buy produce, and they tend to be young. Lester says they hang out with friends, grab some pizza or booze and "window shop."

The change in market demographics, Lester says, has affected Tree and Leaf’s sales, which have plummeted by as much as $50,000 annually at the Dupont Cicle market compared with his peak years in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

The decline in sales is, arguably, one result of the contemporary farmers' market, which has evolved to meet the needs of a new generation of shoppers who view these urban markets as more a lifestyle choice than an opportunity to support local agriculture.

When farmers' markets first started springing up in the 1990s, local growers practically had the organic market to themselves. Now they face stiff competition from bricks-and-mortar retailers such as Glen’s Garden Market and Whole Foods, and from online delivery services such as Washington’s Green Grocer and AmazonFresh. As they increase in popularity, farmers markets have even begun competing with each other. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national directory lists 8,553 farmers' markets, almost double the 4,385 markets in 2006.

The markets have been forced to evolve. In Seattle, for example, organizers offer cooking demonstrations to show young techies how to prepare simple dishes with ingredients sold at the market. Organizers at other markets help prepare farmers for Good Agricultural Practices certification from the USDA. It’s a food-safety program that, once completed, allows growers to sell wholesale fruits and vegetables to retailers or restaurant chains.

But market managers say farmers must also help themselves if they want to survive and thrive in this new era. It’s not enough to show up at a market and expect consumers to buy all your fruits and vegetables. Farmers must be attuned to consumer demand and be better marketers and shopkeepers, even at their makeshift outdoor stands.

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