SALEM, Ohio – U.S. farmers are becoming increasingly aware of opportunities for farmers’ markets, roadside stands, farm markets and pick-your-own markets. In fact, the number of farmers’ markets in the United States has increased 37 percent over the last four years to include more than 2,700 farm markets nationally.
Markets are becoming increasingly popular as small growers discover the advantages of marketing directly to consumers. They are a great way for small-scale producers to reach out to consumers, and develop marketing skills, new products and new markets.
“We see very few who open farm markets and don’t make it. They are very popular and I don’t see an end to their popularity in the near future,” said Tim Sword, Ohio Department of Agriculture marketing specialist and state farm market representative.
A farmers’ market is a location where several farmers come together to offer fruits, vegetables, flowers, plants, etc. These are often located in a public parking lot or at a local fairground. Most are open once or twice a week.
Farm markets are normally run at a producer’s farm. They are usually open daily during certain seasons.
Pick-your-own describes a farm where the grower allows customers to pick their own produce during the harvest season.
A roadside market is located along the road where it is convenient for customers to purchase produce.
Outlets for locally produced foods provide more than just the freshest possible food. They help establish connections between consumers and food producers and provide an additional income source for farmers. However, starting them and keeping them in operation demand a great deal of attention to consumer, vendor and community needs.
Farmers’ markets are effective at keeping food dollars in a given region and help keep family farms in business. Growing a small amount of fruit and vegetables may add enough annual income to help a small grain farmer make a profit during a less-than-ideal grain harvest.
Selling at a farmers’ market can also provide an opportunity for a part-time grower to make the transition to a larger vegetable and fruit operation.
“Farmers like getting instant feedback. Once people establish a relationship with a certain farmer, they continue to come back,” said Sword. “A farmer who sends his corn to the supermarkets doesn’t hear anything unless they find a bad ear or two and want to chop off the price.”
“People like to get to know where their food comes from and how it was grown, and what pesticides, if any, were used,” said Michael Varner, chief of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s commodity promotion division. “It’s almost like a festival atmosphere and it’s a good way to get back to the farm.”
Farmers’ markets seem to work best for growers who have a variety of produce to sell. Having certified organic produce can be an added bonus, depending on the customer base, said Sword.
Promotional ideas for the farm market range from live music to sales of recipe books and T-shirts. Farm markets often offer corn mazes, pick-your-own pumpkins and wagon rides. Markets can cater to consumer desires for wide variety by offering baked goods, cheese, meat, eggs, honey, cider, fresh and dried flowers, jams and other preserves, and plants.
“It really borders on entertainment farming, however there are some who don’t do anything special except build a good relationship with their customers,” said Sword.
According to the USDA, more than 20,000 U.S. farmers sell through the markets, and for the 1 million U.S. consumers who visit the markets each week, the markets provide access to fresh, local fruit and vegetables – especially for urban consumers who would otherwise not be able to get fresh produce.
At the same time, the markets are introducing foods that supermarkets don’t have, such as heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables, and local wines.
USDA announced the Farmer Direct Marketing Action Plan in January 1999 to help small farmers sell their products directly to consumer. This program benefits both vendors and low-income customers such as recipients of the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.
The goals of the program are twofold. One is to provide fresh, unprepared food such as fruits and vegetables from farmers’ markets to WIC participants who are at nutritional risk. The second goal is to expand consumer awareness and use of farmers’ markets.
Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are participating in the program.
“There are coupons that WIC participants can use only at farmers’ markets for state-grown produce. ODA and the Department of Health trained the farmers and the women involved on how to use the coupons. We’ve found that once out of the program, the women continue to come back to the farmer’s market and use their own money,” said Sword.
“In my opinion, this is one of the best programs we’ve got going.”
Although sales from farmers’ markets are a relatively small percentage of total food sales nationally, the increasing numbers of these markets and their social and economic benefits indicate a need to foster their growth and improvement, said Sword.
Many state offices offer guides to the direct marketing venues such as farmers’ markets, pick-your-own operations and roadside stands. This guide helps consumers know where they can go for locally produced foods and helps farmers who are not currently selling at farmers’ markets to identify possible outlets for their products.
The Consumer’s Guide to Pennsylvania Farm Markets is available from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Web site at http://sites.state.pa.us/PA_Exec/Agriculture/main/publications/index.htm#produce.
Ohioans can go to ODA’s Web site at www.state.oh.us/agr/frmrmrktdirindex.HTML to check out the farmer’s market directory. A directory of West Virginia farm markets is available at www.state.wv.us/agriculture.
While farmers’ markets cannot meet all the food needs of a given community, they can fulfill a valuable role in helping to support a segment of local economies.
“Overall, these markets are just a really good opportunity for the small American farmer,” said Sword. “They can create a relationship with their community or create a niche market.”