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
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
"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
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
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. 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
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
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.