Farmers' markets & beyond:
Expanding the market for local foods
Part 1: A prominent local-food activist with decades of experience selling at farmers' markets in both the U.S. and the U.K. says it's time to take this growing movement to the next level and go toe-to-toe with the big boys by better serving customers.

By Nina Planck

In 1979, when I was eight, my parents, Chip and Susan, sent me to sell homegrown vegetables at roadside stands in the small towns near our 60-acre farm in Loudoun County, Virginia. I sold corn and tomatoes, zucchini and pumpkins. I kept change in a Danish cookie tin and bills in an apron my mother made. When it got dark I’d pack up and wait for my parents to come get me. With sales of $300 here and $157 there, we struggled to earn a living. That winter my parents took part-time jobs.

The following summer, the first farmers’ market in greater Washington, D.C., opened. We picked and loaded on Saturday morning and arrived an hour after selling had begun. In the Arlington County courthouse parking lot, swarms of people pounced on our beets and lettuce. The customers were plainly as grateful to see us as we were to see them. It was as if they had waited all their lives for the farm stands scattered all over the countryside to come to them. Soon we abandoned local roadside stands altogether, in favor of suburban and urban farmers’ markets. You have to go where the people are.

Since 1980, my parents have earned a living solely from ‘producer-only’ farmers’ markets, where all the food is local and you must grow what you sell 1. In peak season they go to 13 markets a week, selling sixteen varieties of cucumbers, 28 different tomatoes, and a great variety of other produce, including beans, summer and winter squash, garlic, herbs, lettuce, flowers, sweet and hot peppers, melons, sour cherries, and strawberries. We grow only the best-tasting varieties and we pick and sell them at the perfect ripeness or maturity. We offer samples of everything from cucumbers to sweet peppers to melons. Our signs are ubiquitous and informative. We give away recipes and teach people about unusual vegetables. We think hard about prices, using creative approaches, such as per-basket and per-pound prices and discounts for volume or for ‘seconds,’ such as canning tomatoes.

Running our stand at farmers’ markets, in hot competition with my mother (herself a demon marketer), I learned firsthand about small-farm economics. The main lesson was that we were the best sales staff for our own good food. When you stand before the customer and slice open a Brandywine tomato or an Ambrosia melon, it makes all the planting, weeding, mulching, and picking worthwhile. You make the sale based on quality, knowledge, and enthusiasm. The producer as retailer has the best of both worlds. He knows the product intimately and knows the customer, too. The reward, of course, is the sale—at retail.

"The lesson we learned from farmers’ markets was basic. The market doesn’t come to you. You have to take your produce to the market. "

There were lessons on the farm, too, about productivity and efficiency. They did not come dressed in the language of small business courses or economics text books (I didn’t learn terms like gross or net profit until years later) but the basic principles of business were clear enough from the many decisions in a day’s work. Working alongside my parents, I learned to think about cost, price, and value. How long does it take one person to pick 30 pounds of tomatoes, what’s the price of labor, where is the market, how long will they keep, how much can you sell them for?

Farmers’ markets saved our farm. More precisely, farmers’ markets made it possible to keep 60 acres of prime farmland only one hour from Washington, D.C.—land under significant pressure from development—in open, productive farmland without recourse to off-farm income. The lesson we learned from farmers’ markets was basic. The market doesn’t come to you. You have to take your produce to the market. There simply weren’t enough people near our farm to buy our vegetables. We used to spend all day at the roadside stands, waiting for midmorning customers to dribble in, then the lunch trade, perhaps a rush-hour flurry. Farmers’ markets, by contrast, concentrate the customers in space and time. In four hours on a Saturday, my parents can do $4,000 in sales. As good as our Cherokee Purple tomatoes and Middle Eastern zucchini are, our stand alone would not attract several thousand customers in four hours during peak season. Thirty farmers at the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market do 2. This is true even when multiple farmers are selling the same foods, such as produce, though diversity of foods is another attraction for customers. Farmers’ markets are, essentially, a cooperative. Farmers agree to meet each week to sell only what they grow. Each farmer relies on the presence of the others.

Farmers’ markets saved our farm, but they meant much more than that to me. Farming can be isolating, and sitting at roadside stands is lonely. Once we started selling at busy, sociable markets in the suburbs and the city, where we met customers and other farmers, we not only made a modest profit—we began to have more fun.

"My parents won’t get rich farming. In a good year, they work harder than anyone I know...Yet with hard work, thrift, and reliable markets, they paid off the mortgage on a 60-acre farm and put two kids through college—all with tomato and zucchini money. It can be done. Yes, Virginia, there is a future for small farms."

Of 2.2 million American farms, our small farm is unusual. It makes more money than the vast majority of farms. Gross sales last year—$355,000—were greater than sales at 93 percent of U.S. farms. Our farm is also profitable. My parents’ net farm income, after all farm expenses, was $108,000 in 2003. They receive no agricultural subsidies and have no off-farm income. Most American farms lose money. When you remove the income from farm subsidies, net farm income is generally negative. Farmers who make a living farming, without subsidies or off-farm income, are the exception—about 27 percent of all farms. (Moreover, the USDA definition of ‘farm’ is liberal. Any operation with sales of $1,000 per year from agricultural produce counts. A home gardener could qualify 3.) Finally, my parents’ farm is unique in another way: it is efficient. In 2003, the Plancks took in $10,000 gross per acre on 35 cultivated acres. In the sales bracket they share with only 7 percent of American farmers—sales over $250,000—the other farmers’ gross sales were $147 to $293 per acre.

My parents won’t get rich farming. In a good year, they work harder than anyone I know for a pre-tax income of $54,000 each. They only get what’s left over after paying for everything else, including supplies and labor. Like many self-employed people, they also pay for their own social security, healthcare, and retirement from that modest income. Farm income varies 4. Yet with hard work, thrift, and reliable markets, they paid off the mortgage on a 60-acre farm and put two kids through college—all with tomato and zucchini money. It can be done. Yes, Virginia, there is a future for small farms.

In this paper, I will argue that a financially viable agriculture of small and medium-sized, independent farms depends on two things. We must first expand, develop, and reform farmers’ markets themselves. Since the mid-1970s, farmers’ markets have grown organically, without strategic or professional management, which is sorely needed. Two, we must look beyond farmers’ markets to develop the market for local foods. A thriving market for local foods will mean more farms, more rural jobs, a cleaner environment, and more nutritious food.

How Farmers’ Markets Work and Why

Some years after I left home, I was working in London, England as journalist for TIME magazine and, later, as a speechwriter for the American ambassador. I found myself homesick, not for Virginia, but for local foods. In the recent past, there had been many street markets in London, with farmers selling food from farms in nearby counties such as Kent, the ‘Garden of England.’ By the mid-1990s, however, London markets had little but Dutch peppers and Israeli tomatoes, alongside T-shirts and batteries.

What I craved was local food in season: ripe strawberries, fresh asparagus, traditional apple varieties. I rented a site in my neighborhood and set about finding farmers. Fourteen months and many hours of leafleting later, I opened London’s first farmers’ market. When the Minister of Agriculture rang the opening bell at the Islington Farmers’ Market on June 6, 1999, farmers were selling homegrown fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, goat cheese, traditional chicken breeds and pork. Three months later I opened two more farmers’ markets, and six months later I quit my job writing speeches for the ambassador to start more. Today London Farmers’ Markets (LFM), a private company, runs 10 weekly farmers’ markets with more than a hundred farmers selling the finest traditional apple varieties, Asian greens, and other produce; juice, wine, brandy, and cider; homemade preserves from local ingredients; milk, butter, and raw milk cheese; grass-fed beef, lamb, pork, veal, poultry and eggs; wild and farmed fish and game; wild foods such as ramps and Cob nuts; handmade savory foods such as sausage, game and fish pâté, and meat pies—every food you can garner from the English countryside and coast, all of it produced within 100 miles of London. Farmers, who pay LFM to attend, make gross sales of $6.8 million a year at the markets. Farmers’ markets grew rapidly in Britain, from zero in 1997 to about 300 today. The combined effects of committed farmers’ market organizers, low farm income, and a spate of food scares (from biotechnology to BSE, foot-and-mouth disease to pesticides) revived demand for high quality, local British foods.

American farmers’ markets are thriving, too. From 1994 to 2002, the number of farmers markets grew by 79 percent, to 3,100. This dynamic alternative to the conventional food supply is a direct rebuke to industrial agriculture and its indifference to wholesome, delicious food. For customers, the chief virtue of a farmers’ market is the superior flavor of the food. Commercial tomatoes and peaches are tasteless because they are bred for shipping not flavor, picked green, and ripened artificially. The same is true of delicate fruit such as raspberries, which are now grown year-round in greenhouses to supply the supermarkets. Inevitably, this industrial production diminishes flavor. Tomatoes, peaches, and raspberries at the farmers’ market are grown for flavor, picked ripe, and they don’t travel far 5. They taste better.

Variety and freshness are also virtues of farmers’ markets. There is more variety of each item, especially fruit and vegetables, than at supermarkets. That is often because certain varieties, such as heirloom tomatoes, don’t lend themselves to commercial production methods such as mechanical picking, shipping, and storage. My parents, for example, grow 28 varieties of tomatoes, including old heirlooms and newer hybrids 6. In New York, Hudson Valley orchardists produce a vast range of traditional and modern fruit. These unusual or older varieties often have superior flavor to the modern hybrids favored by large-scale farmers, shippers, and retailers. Also, the food at farmers’ markets is fresher than at the supermarket—or should be. That’s because farmers bring the food directly the market from the farm, typically from less than 100 miles away.

"The food at farmers’ markets is often healthier. Direct contact between farmers and consumers is partly responsible. No shopper presses the farmer to use more pesticides on his carrots."

The food at farmers’ markets is often healthier. Direct contact between farmers and consumers is partly responsible. No shopper presses the farmer to use more pesticides on his carrots. Farmers’ markets have long embraced farmers selling produce raised with ecological methods, even though most farmers are not certified organic. Recently, farmers’ markets have included ‘grass farmers’ selling meat, dairy, poultry, and eggs raised on a natural diet of pasture. Nutritionally, these foods are demonstrably superior to the industrial versions. Eggs from hens raised on grass contain more omega-3 fatty acids than those from chickens without access to pasture, for example 7. Factory farms feed dairy and beef cattle on grain, not their natural diet of grass. Grass-fed beef and dairy contain less total fat, more omega-3 fatty acids, and less saturated fat than the grain-fed versions. Grass-fed beef and dairy are rare sources of conjugated linoleic acid, a potent anti-tumor agent. In cattle, a grain diet not only increases the number of E. coli but also raises the chance of infection in humans 8.

Ecological farming methods such as grass farming also have environmental benefits. Factory farms create manure lagoons that pollute local communities. Animal manure becomes a waste product that must be removed like any toxic byproduct of manufacturing. Without animal manure to build soil fertility, farmers must buy commercial fertilizer. (The Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry has described this as neatly dividing one solution into two problems.) Intensive vegetable and fruit production—and grain farming, to feed cattle—relies on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, which poison ground water. The vast ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico is the result of intensive farming in the Mississippi River Valley. The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that 70 percent of the Mississippi’s nitrogen comes from six states in the heart of America’s corn belt.

Are these hidden costs of industrial food? Not really. Pungent manure lagoons and toxic E. coli—and their consequences for drinking water and health—are all too visible and tangible. These costs are, however, unaccounted for in the price of food.

Over the years, I’ve asked many people why they shop at farmers’ markets. In formal surveys we have suggested (and heard) many reasons: to meet the farmer, for the vibrant atmosphere, because it’s good for kids, to buy healthy or ecological food. Yet the results of these British and American surveys are quite predictable and unambiguous. The top two reasons customers cite are always quality (or some subset of quality, such as freshness, flavor, or even healthfulness) and price. Together, quality and price affect perception of value. I am aware that this term is an unromantic way of describing the allure of farmers’ markets. Many market managers and farmers prefer to believe that aroma, atmosphere, and, of course, the presence of authentic farmers are the draw 9. But shoppers are quite clear about why they come. Those features—though nice—are secondary. If the food isn’t good, and the price isn’t right, they’ll shop elsewhere.

"Over the years, I’ve asked many people why they shop at farmers’ markets . . . The top two reasons customers cite are always quality . . . and price . . . They are not shopping for the cause; they are shopping for good food. If the quality of the food declined, or the same flavor, variety, and freshness could be found elsewhere for the same price, farmers’ markets would lose sales."

As a variable in the perception of value, price is not an absolute factor but a relative one. Consumer’s sense of value includes cheap peaches in peak season, and pricier treats such as specialty salad leaves in mid-winter or rare wild blueberry preserves. I often remind farmers fretting over prices (usually the low prices of another farmer) that it is not a question of high or low prices, but the right price. No customer will be tempted, or should be, by heirloom tomatoes for $4 a pound if they aren’t demonstrably better than hybrid tomatoes for $2 a pound at the next table. Indeed, I am dismayed when farmers or shoppers seem to think the word ‘heirloom’ will paper over flaws such as bruises or mealy texture. Moreover, many modern hybrids have excellent flavor and other virtues. Yet many customers are willing to spend $18 on a slow-growing, grass-fed chicken raised without antibiotics once they understand—and taste—how superior a pastured chicken is to a factory-farmed bird.

It’s worth noting what virtues of a farmers’ market don’t trump the combination of quality and price in the customer’s mind. Secondary reasons to shop at farmers’ markets include meeting the farmer; organic foods per se, especially certified organic foods; reducing ‘food miles’, or the distance food travels from farm to fork; preserving local farmland; raising farm income; reducing the environmental impact of food (in use of chemicals or packaging, for example); urban revival; bridging the gap between urban and rural communities; creating small business opportunities for immigrants; and bringing business to shops near the market. All these are ancillary benefits of farmers’ markets, to be sure. But these things are not chief draws for customers. They are not shopping for the cause; they are shopping for good food. If the quality of the food declined, or the same flavor, variety, and freshness could be found elsewhere for the same price, farmers’ markets would lose sales. This has happened already, where farmers’ markets, once the only game in town, now face competition from better farmers’ markets and shops. At the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, farmers complain bitterly of shrinking sales. They recall fondly how much easier it was to make money in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before food retailing began to mimic some of the virtues of farmers’ markets. In 2004, a large Whole Foods will open on the doorstep of Union Square, Greenmarket’s flagship market. Time will tell what customers do, and don’t, prefer about the two ways to shop. It bears repeating: Customers are not loyal to the idea of farmers’ markets or any social benefits. They are addicted to the good food.

Farmers’ Markets Face New Competition

Despite the rapid growth of farmers’ markets and their evident popularity in the U.S., the food market has moved on in the past thirty years, and farmers’ markets as a whole have failed to keep pace. Many individual farmers’ markets are stagnant and need reform. Competition is tougher since many farmers’ markets opened in the 1970s and 1980s. In those days, supermarkets paid scant attention to demand for organic fruit and vegetables. Other innovations in food retail, such as zucchini blossoms, baby vegetables, salad green mixes, juice bars, and alfalfa sprouts, were once hard to find except in farmers’ markets and health food stores. Now they are mainstream.

One rival for farmers’ market shoppers is the chain Whole Foods, which opened its first health-food store in 1980, the year the first farmers’ market in Washington, D.C., opened. With $3 billion in sales, the supermarket with ‘whole foods’ values already has sales three times bigger than all U.S. farmers’ markets combined. Whole Foods meets demand for ecological foods with all the intelligence and seductive marketing tricks professional retailers can muster. The stores appeal to the consumer’s desire to learn by creating marketing that resembles education. I don’t use ‘resemble’ to be snide: it is indeed often informative. We try to do the same with our own signs at farmers’ markets. But the marketing doesn’t feel like salesmanship. Shopping at Whole Foods makes you feel a little more informed about food and farming. Farmers’ markets used to have a virtual corner on that market.

"The food market has moved on in the past thirty years, and farmers’ markets as a whole have failed to keep pace. Many individual farmers’ markets are stagnant and need reform. Competition is tougher . . . One rival for farmers’ market shoppers is the chain Whole Foods . . ."

But Whole Foods has done more than create an appealing ambiance in its 160 stores. The company represents ecological values which overlap with the virtues of farmers’ markets. Many foods are certified organic. The chain doesn’t sell meat or poultry produced with hormones or antibiotics. They stopped carrying foods with unhealthy trans fatty acids before the government acknowledged that margarine and other foods made with hydrogenated vegetable oils caused heart disease. These are laudable policies. They are also more progressive than the rules at most farmers’ markets. Of course, many farmers at markets use humane and ecological methods, but the vast majority of markets have no rules about standards of production. They don’t require bakers to use butter or prohibit the use of hormones or routine antibiotics as growth promoters in meat 10. Why not?

Sourcing is another important policy. Does Whole Foods support small, ecological farms, or does it mostly represent the minimum standards of large-scale organic agriculture? Mostly the latter. In supermarkets including Whole Foods, it is almost impossible to find organic milk from cows raised on a natural diet of grass. Most certified organic milk comes from cows fed grain. Many small farmers have higher standards than the National Organic Program requires. Supermarkets seldom stock those foods. Does Whole Foods buy local? To a modest degree—and probably more than other supermarkets—Whole Foods buys produce locally and regionally. Hence the heart-warming farmer biographies in the produce section. If you read those farmers biographies closely, however, the charming stories of hard-working farmers don’t always correspond to the food you’re looking at. But the stories create the impression of small-farm values, the ambiance of respect for the grower.

Farmer-retailer relationships are famously cut-throat 11. Many farmers complain that supplying large buyers (including Whole Foods, which is probably among the most honorable buyers in its relationships with producers) is like a slow squeeze. In the beginning, the terms are reasonably favorable. Gradually, the contracts begin to favor the buyer, not the grower. Often the result is the farmer’s total dependence on an ever-choosier buyer, who dictates not only price but other critical terms. For example, a supermarket buyer may advise a broccoli farmer whose season is six months that to continue to supply the supermarket the farmer must find a source of broccoli from other farms in his off-season—at a given price. To keep the customer (sometimes the farmer’s only customer), the farmer is forced to become a produce broker. Many poultry farmers lack any meaningful independence from the eight poultry processors who buy two-thirds of American birds. The processors own the birds, from egg to slaughter, and farmers, or, as the industry prefers to call them, ‘independent contractors,’ take instructions on feed and antibiotics. The farmers also take the price they are offered. If poultry farmers are unhappy with how they raise the birds or the price they get, they have little choice.

A startling illustration of the dynamic of farmer exploitation comes from a story Richard Manning tells in Against the Grain [North Point Press, 2004]. ‘A farm scholar once asked an agribusiness executive when his corporation would simply take over the farms. The exec said it would be dumb for the corporation to do so, in that it is not free to exploit its employees to the degree that farmers are willing to exploit themselves.’ In most of American agriculture, growing food is unprofitable. Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland does not grow food, for example. ADM buys, processes, distributes, and sells food. That’s where the money is—assuming you can buy the raw ingredients from farmers ever more cheaply. Large supermarkets, food processors, and other buyers in the conventional food chain may not, therefore, be reliable regional outlets for independent farmers selling ecologically sound and wholesome foods.

Competition from other retailers such as Whole Foods affects farmers at farmers’ markets directly, but farmers’ market management has to keep pace, too. Management is often mired in a nonprofit, ‘program’ mentality, unable to give farmers and consumers an efficient, appealing service. Individual farmers may use the best modern marketing techniques, but too often market management fails to make the case for local foods.

Most farmers’ markets are stuck in the past, when the summer bounty of fresh, local peaches and tomatoes was the main attraction and the markets were novel. Today, customers would like to buy local foods all year ’round, whatever the weather. In the winter, markets should offer processed foods such as local tomato sauce, peach jam, dried mushrooms, and pickled okra. Farmers’ markets have also failed (or been slow) to meet demand for meat, dairy, eggs, and other animal foods. Customers want to buy all the foods they need for dinner at the farmers’ market—not only fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers, but also meat, game, poultry, eggs, fish, wine, beer, corn meal, flour, milk, cream, butter, yogurt, and cheese. Many farmers’ market organizers have not considered how to meet the demand for these local foods 12. This is short-sighted. I suspect that an unspoken—even unconscious—vegetarian bias is partly responsible.

Thirty years ago, when farmers’ markets were novel, vegetarians claimed the moral and environmental high ground with arguments such as those in Frances Moore Lappé’s groundbreaking 1971 book Diet for a Small Planet, which argued that you could feed more people on the grain beef cattle ate than on the beef they produced 13. In the 1970s, health-food stores and organic farming were virtually synonymous with the vegetarian diet. As recently as 2001, we invited a beef farmer to a farmers’ market we started in Takoma Park, Maryland in 1983. Local vegetarians protested that the farmers’ market was for vegetarians. As the writer and dairy farmer Joann Grohman puts it, ‘So vigorously has the vegetarian movement pursued the twin themes of whole food and rejection of animal products that in the minds of most people, to be committed to whole foods or even to organic gardening without being a vegetarian takes some explaining.’

But any sound—or, as environmentalists might say, holistic—approach to local foods must include animal husbandry. Animal foods are a staple of the human diet. There are no traditional vegan societies because a strict vegan diet lacks essential nutrients. Even vegetarian societies prize butter and eggs for the essential fat-soluble vitamins A and D and for vitamin B12, found only in animal foods. The plant-based sources of the essential omega-3 fatty acids are rare 14. Fish and grass-fed meat, dairy, and eggs are far better sources. Animal foods are not only vital in the diet; they are also too important to farming to ignore. According to the USDA, animal products account for a small majority (51%) of American agriculture. Each year, American farmers sell $100 billion in animal foods, and consumers spend several times that amount on animal products at retail. Each year, the average American eats 186 pounds of meat including beef, lamb, pork, and poultry, and almost 600 pounds of milk, cheese, and ice cream. Leaving animal foods out of the market for local foods is simply inadequate.

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Farmers' markets & Beyond: Expanding the Market for Local Foods