Not your grandfather’s farmers market

Today’s consumers are looking for a unique shopping experience

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(For National Farmers Market Week, Aug. 7-13, we wanted to highlight the differences in farmers markets today and the unique shopping experiences they offer. Ohio State Extension has also joined in on the local foods movement by making it Ohio Local Foods Week.)

Today’s farmers market shoppers are all about the experience. With a coffee in hand or fresh slice of pizza, they can walk from table to table, learning about the farmers who grow the produce they enjoy and share recipes they can make with that fresh produce, all while enjoying the casual tunes of a local band.

Yes, the layout of the farmers market has evolved over the years, but many small markets still harbor that traditional produce market feel.

Sophisticated markets

Local food facts:

There were 8,268 farmers markets operating in 2014, up 180 percent since 2006.

Farm operations with direct-to-consumer sales of food for human consumption increased from 116,733 to 144,530 between 2002 and 2012.

In 2012, 7.8 percent of U.S. farms sold food through local food marketing channels, including direct-to-consumer marketing channels (e.g., farmers’ markets, roadside stands, U-pick) and inter-mediated marketing channels (e.g., direct to restaurants, institutions or to regional food aggregators).

Ohio has over 330 farmers markets listed in the National Farmers Market Directory.

Pennsylvania has over 300 farmers markets listed in the National Farmers Market Directory.

Source: January 2015 report, Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems, and the USDA’s National Farm Market Directory.

Markets have become more sophisticated, according to Brian Moyer, who specializes in direct to consumer marketing and farmers markets for Penn State Extension. “It used to be someone would say, ‘this is a good place to have a market,’ and get a group of farmers together and start a market.”

Today, vendors want to know what demographic is interested in coming to the market, is there interest in the market, and what are (customers) willing to pay, Moyer said. “Vendors who come into a market want to know that it is worth their time and that it will be profitable for them,” he said.

Often it is not, but it does provide an outreach to direct consumers to their onfarm retail markets. For those who have a farm market at their home farm, “they might use a farm market for outreach, but it is far more economical to sell off farm,” said Heather Neikirk, co-leader for the statewide OSU Extension Local Foods Signature Program and Stark County Extension educator.

Farmers markets are a great incubator for someone starting a small business, added Moyer. That face-to-face interaction with consumers provides for an instant reaction and opportunity for feedback.

Sophisticated customers

farmers markets richardson
Ben Richardson, of Richardson-Farm in Medina, stays busy at his produce stand at the Medina Farmers Market. He said it takes a lot of preparation to set up for weekly farmers market and he attends five-six in a week. Richardson enjoys his time at the Medina market getting to know the locals who frequent his booth.

On top of sophisticated markets, the customers themselves have become more sophisticated. “Customers have an idea of what they expect from a market and the vendors have to deliver,” said Moyer. Food recalls and increased concerns in food safety are some of the driving factors in making community farm markets more favorable.

“People are starting to ask for (more local, fresh food),” said Neikirk. “And what happens when the masses ask? Companies change.” As a result, local markets start to pop up in high demand areas. So is the increasing interest in farmers markets and local foods a trend that will wane? Neikirk and other farm market operators and vendors don’t think so and instead see it as an opportunity to connect with those that want to learn more about their food.

“I don’t think it’s a trend,” said Mark McKenzie, chairperson for the Tuscarawas Valley Farmers Market in Dover. “People are beginning to appreciate that fresh, local produce has more flavor.” McKenzie said the Tuscarawas market, open Wednesday evenings, prides itself on being a producers-only market — meaning only items that have been produced by the vendor can be sold in the market.

“If a patron has a question about a particular product, they have a person to ask directly,” he said. “This allows people to have a choice in the food they wish buy.” Many local markets also push for a producer-only market.

Mark Morrison, of Medina, said he comes to the Medina farmers market every Saturday. “I like the variety and how it’s all locally grown,” he said. “I try to buy local and support the local businesses.”

The market scene

farmers markets hooks
The Wellington Farm Market, while on the smaller side, still offers a variety of fresh produce a niche products for its patrons.

The farmers markets of today are more than just produce — they’re often an experience. While fresh produce remains the staple of most community farmers markets, some larger markets include homemade crafts, food demonstrations and music to make create a unique shopping experience.

McKenzie said the Tuscarawas market offers a food court and a different food truck each week to showcase the local dining options. It also features a local musician who performs as people stroll the market. Food demonstrations are put on by local chefs and food enthusiasts that highlight ingredients that can be purchased at the market.

The Wellington Farmers Market, although smaller in size, also offers produce grown by the vendors present and local entertainment. Vanessa Klesta, a vendor representing a healthy living initiative in Lorain County called Thrive, said one week the market offered a recipe to those visiting with all the ingredients available for purchase at the market.

Market director Betsy Varndell said they are trying to incorporate more things like a kids’ corner, to attract more people to come out and enjoy the market atmosphere. And for many markets, the atmosphere is what really sells.

The farmers market on the Medina square, features 60 full-time vendors and 20 rotating vendors from produce to fresh cut flowers, to fresh brewed coffee and teas and food samples, explained market director Nancy Romans. Once a week, Medina County residents can get everything from fresh produce to homemade pastas and breads to fill their pantries.

Casondra Clawson and Jimmy Myers, of Front 9 Farms, said it is their first year at the Medina County market, but they have enjoyed sharing their unique vegetables with the community. “A lot of people are receptive to the unique vegetables,” said Clawson. “We feel like we have introduced people to new products.”

As a customer stepped in to inquire about the patty pan squash, Clawson shared a special recipe card to show how this product could be prepared.

farmers market boyer
John Boyer, of Honey Haven Farms in Ashland, just can’t help but smile watching customers pick up those first tomatoes of the year, hold them to their nose, and take a big sniff. When he opens up his stand at the local farmers market he can’t wait to answer people’s questions about his produce and catch up with the locals.

Connecting with consumers

Being able to connect with the hand that grew the food is important to the patrons of community farmers markets. The farmers market in town has that social effect, explained John Boyer, owner of Honey Haven Farms in Ashland.

“People want to be entertained… but they really want to meet the person that had a hand in that food.” Boyer, who sells at the Saturday morning farmers market in Ashland, said interacting with people and seeing them enjoy his produce is his favorite part of the farmers market.

“Selling that first tomato of the year, watching (customers) pick up a couple, bring it to their nose, smell it, and ask about the tomato,” makes it all worth it for him, he said. “It takes the right kind of person (to be a farmers market vendor). Some don’t want to deal with people,” said Boyer. “I love people and I love to interact with them.”

In order to enhance that experience, many vendors are willing to offer an opportunity to come see how the produce is grown directly on the farm. The Tuscarawas Valley Farmers Market organizes a farm tour for patrons to see the home farm of one of the market’s many vendors.

Yoder Acres, in Wooster, was one of these farm tour stops. “We have a lot of customers that come here and ask ‘did you grow this?’ and we wanted to show them,” said Raymond Yoder.

Time commitment

farmers market produce
Farmers markets are not for every farmer and not for every community. But the opportunity to provide fresh produce and interact with consumers makes it worth it for some producers even when the profits are modest.

Most vendors agreed: The preparation that goes into a setting up at the market is an all day (or more) affair. David Borling, owner of Fruits of the Harvest Gardens in Litchfield, attends the Friday evening market in Wellington, and said getting ready for the market is no picnic.

He picks as much as he can Thursday evening and spends Friday morning washing and prepping vegetables for the market, which opens at 5 p.m. Doing a second sweep of his garden before leaving usually prompts him to find a few more items he could take along. “Hopefully by noon I am ready to load up,” said Borling.

Arriving at the market around 4 p.m., it takes an hour to set up the space and arrange the produce in a way that attracts market goers to his booth. After all that work, Borling said he is happy to break even for the day, sometimes making a little profit. “It is because I love farming and interacting with people” that he continues to come to the market.

About the markets we visited

  • Ashland Mid-week Farmers Market takes place every Wednesday from 3-5 p.m., in downtown Ashland. More information here.
  • The Tuscarawas Valley Farmers Market takes place Wednesdays from 3-7 p.m. at the Tuscarawas County Fairgrounds in Dover, Ohio. More information here.
  • The Wellington farmers market takes place Fridays from 5-7 p.m. on the square in Wellington. More information here.
  • The Medina farmers market takes place Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on the Medina square. More information here.
  • For a directory of Ohio and Pennsylvania farmers markets, visit the USDA’s farmers market directory.

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Catie Noyes lives in Ashland County and earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture communications from The Ohio State University. She enjoys photography, softball and sharing stories about agriculture. Formerly a reporter for the Farm and Dairy, Catie is now pursuing her master's degree in education.

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