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
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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.