Ed Perkins grew up working on dairy farms, in Carroll County, Ohio.
After getting a degree in botany from Ohio University, Perkins and his wife, a school teacher, bought a farm in Athens, in 1974.
Farming is different in Athens than in Carroll County. The land is hilly and rural. Farms can fit in a few acres of crops on ridge tops, like Perkins, or in valleys, or can graze livestock on hillsides.
After buying their farm, Perkins worked for about eight years to get the farm ready to grow small fruits and produce. But he had a goal: selling at the Athens Farmers Market.
Years later, in 2020, Perkins is the longest-selling vendor at the market.
“Most of us [vendors] do sell at restaurants and supermarkets and other places also, but I doubt most of us would be in business without this farmers market,” Perkins said.
Perkins is far from the first farmer to rely on his local farmers market. For centuries, farmers markets have been the place farmers go to sell their crops to their communities.
Farmers markets are often frequented by customers who take pride in supporting local farmers, or want the benefits of fresh, local food. But they also have a reputation for being less convenient and competitively-priced than supermarkets, according to a 2019 Cornell University report.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, farmers markets have had a sudden influx of new customers, many seeking stability in local food systems.
While they are part of our history, many believe farmers markets are also part of our future.
Some of the original markets are still around. The Lancaster Central Market, of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has been open since 1730, making it the longest continuously running market in the country.
“The Lancaster area was a natural stopping point for people … going out west from Philadelphia,” said Mary Goss, manager of market operations for the Central Market Trust, a nonprofit that manages the market.
The city was chartered as a market town, and ordered to hold two markets per week. In 1889, the city built a market house. It is still in use.
After World War II, food became more industrialized, and supermarkets became popular, said Brian Moyer, of Pennsylvania State University Extension. Farmers began to specialize more. Market houses went out of style.
But one of the costs of convenience and cheaper food is distance. Over time, some people wanted a closer connection to their food.
So, in the 1970s, farmers markets returned with a twist, said Darlene Wolnik, training and technical assistance director for the Farmers Market Coalition.
Back-to-land farmers wanted to bring back relationships between farmers and customers. They built their markets on one main rule: you could only sell things that you grew.
“‘Grow it to sell it’ was a very radical idea that I don’t think those farmers get enough credit for,” she said.
“It was an opportunity to provide something else that was completely different from the conventional food system,” Moyer said.
The Athens market, founded in 1972, was one of these markets.
For farmers, markets are time-consuming. There are no guaranteed sales. In short, for some, Moyer said, it’s not worth it.
“It’s actually the most expensive marketing,” he said. “It takes you all day.”
On the other hand, markets are an instant focus group.
“You’re putting what you grew out there on the table, and either the public likes it, or it doesn’t,” Moyer said.
The Athens Farmers Market, Perkins said, provides exactly this.
“It’s … a trial ground for new businesses,” he said. “There’s great diversity and innovation amongst people in the food industry, and the farmers market has been the nucleus.”
In addition to local meat, dairy and produce, vendors bring things like kombucha, coffee and tea. Food trucks serve a range of options, including Thai food. People test their ideas for new businesses there. Some expand. Others move on.
Some markets draw farmers from further away, seeking customers interested in their products. Jake Kristophel, of Fallen Aspen Farm, in Volant, Pennsylvania, drives down to markets in Pittsburgh. There are more potential customers there.
In Volant, “they’re either growing it themselves, or they don’t wanna pay our prices,” Kristophel said.
Fallen Aspen Farm focuses on pasture-raised animals, using non GMO grains for feed.
Farmers markets make up 70% of the farm’s sales. Kristophel sees many repeat customers at the market.
“We’ve really worked hard to get to where we are today with our customers,” he said. “Having a quality product … that’s what sells our stuff.”
Becky and Mike Minimyer, of NewMe’s Pies, in New Waterford, Ohio, drive an hour to get to the Robinson Farmers Market, in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. They heard about it at markets in Moon Township, Pennsylvania. So, this year, they decided to give the Robinson market, which was founded in 2017, a try.
The first day, their selections were picked over within 20 minutes, Becky Minimyer said. Even now, they are usually mostly sold out by 5:30 p.m., two and a half hours after the market starts at 3 p.m. That’s a stark contrast to some markets they’ve tried, where they might bring less pies and still go home with more.
Becky Minimyer isn’t sure why their pies sell so well there. Maybe it’s because the market is next to a busy road, near Pittsburgh.
Hannah Ketchum, manager for the market, said it gets about 500 customers every week.
“It’s almost more about community than it is about shopping local,” Ketcham said.
Normally, the market is a hangout spot that showcases local music. The first time it opened during the pandemic, Ketcham said, market workers had to ask people who lingered to chat with friends to leave, due to social distancing rules.
But, Moyer said, events like live music and cooking demonstrations are unlikely to draw more customers, based on surveys and studies.
So, who spends their money at farmers markets?
Overall, Moyer said, based on market assessments and surveys, farmers market customers tend to be people over 50 in one- or two-person households. They often have grown children, and more time and spending money than younger families.
But to draw people in, Wolnik said, markets need to focus on their local communities
“It should be very obvious to the community why [the market] does what it does,” she said.
In the 1990s, another huge wave of new farmers markets fell into two groups. One came from towns that opened markets to have more community events. They often included things like cooking demonstrations, and music. The other came from small towns renovating their main streets. They often included crafters and other small, local businesses.
“What’s interesting about all of it is that … there was an intentional behavior; an intentional organizing to all of them,” Wolnik said.
The most recent wave of new farmers markets started around 2005. These markets were viewed as a way to improve public health. They accepted food assistance, including SNAP. Many Ohio markets are also part of the Produce Perks program.
The program offers a dollar-to-dollar match for people who spend SNAP benefits on fruits and vegetables, up to $20 per day at farmers markets and $10 per day at grocery stores. The goal is to help low-income families get healthy food, and help local farmers sell produce.
During the pandemic, the program offered unlimited matching through June 30.
Lately, Moyer said, markets and CSAs are seeing new customers. These customers arrived at local food as an alternative to national systems that were struggling to meet sudden high demand and facing disruptions.
“Farmers markets and the local food system has been very consistent,” Moyer said. “There’s a feeling that we want that security.”
Many vendors are using online ordering systems, and some markets have tried drive-thru models. Moyer believes the pandemic could shape future farmers market operations.
“I’m encouraging [vendors and market managers], don’t look at an online ordering system as a stopgap measure to get through this,” he said.
Moyer believes making markets more convenient can encourage customers to stick around, instead of shifting back to grocery stores.
Wolnik noted that there are nearly 10,000 farmers markets in the U.S.
“I think the future is going to be about the city and about the town,” she said. “It’s exciting for the work we do. It has to be extremely local and direct. That’s where you make the fewest mistakes. That’s why it keeps renewing itself.”
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