Real Food: Farmers Market Growth Explosion

Forget Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Randazzo’s, and other chain or local farm markets that buy their fresh products from area and regional farmers. They aren’t true farmers markets, but retailers of farm-produced goods. Some of them buy the food they sell from the same people who supply grocery stores. If they have stock boys, warehouses, or private back rooms for surplus and whatever – it’s not a farmers market.

A real farmers market is buying farm-direct out of the back of a truck, off of a folding table, and sometimes the trunk of a car. Many times there is no roof or structure besides a portable shade canopy over every stall, though there are farmers markets in large cities so well-established they have buildings. The most common farmers market business model takes place in a parking lot not far from the downtown shopping district of any city, town, or village in North America, and in the United States, these impromptu gatherings for the purpose of selling the harvest is growing like crazy.

The USDA recently released their ‘official’ report on the most recent farmers market data collected, and while a lot of people are aware that more and more folks are buying local with a keen interest on eating fresh, eating natural, or sticking with organic foods, some find the numbers surprising. It also shows that this isn’t a fad. It is more of a shift in consumer habits that is gathered momentum slowly, but steadily at first. Now it has skyrocketed

In 1994 there were 1,755 farmers market splattered from coast to coast. It would be safe to say that these are the oldest ones, long established in big cities. And then came GMOs, hydrogenated corn syrup, and a host of other food ingredients industry loves for it’s increased profitability. Consumer awareness steadily expanded, and with the dawning of knowledge – farmers market growth exploded. Over the decade from 2004 to 2014, the number of farm-direct markets operating in all 50 states grew from 3,706 to 8,284.

US Farmers Market Growth: 20 Years

Without a doubt the number of farmers markets will go up in 2015. Just look at ’em all on the map for 2014.

US Farmers Markets Map - 2014

This isn’t even taking into account the army of backyard gardeners selling their overage off a table at the curb, and these garden shops are everywhere, though their offering is limited to exuberantly productive veggies like zucchini, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and sometimes green beans. Some of them definitely load up the trunk of their car and head down to the closest market to sell it faster – while it’s fresh. No matter how small the grower is, they know that fresh is best.

As the USDA states in their blog post about the stats, not every farmers market insists that vendors sell only what they grow. The savvy local food shopper pays attention to how the food is packaged for transport. If the ‘farmer’ has everything not on the table in new commercial produce boxes – it is a pretty sure bet that the vendor bought it wholesale and mainstream. Small scale farmers will show up with everything in recycled boxes, plastic crates, bushel baskets, Rubbermaid tubs, or just piled in the back of their vehicle. They don’t have the funding to purchase fancy packaging. Nor do they have the time and man-power for this. And why would you want to pay for that or buy aging produce when all of the money you spend can go directly into freshly harvested food?

Why would they allow a re-seller of wholesale produce into a farmers market? Not all market masters care about where their vendor’s products come from, and some new markets can have trouble populating their spots with local growers – especially if the market is not in the right place. If the downtown authority cannot provide the right spot for a market – it will fail. Most grocery stores won’t want it anywhere near their business, so politics comes into play. Sometimes, in a small community where a lot of people already grow their own veggies – or are farmers themselves – a farmers market won’t succeed. These market masters are struggling to keep the market alive, and some vendors are better than none. But farmers market shoppers don’t want commercial produce, and farmers don’t want to compete with these vendors, and so… most of these mixed source markets are doomed.

This doesn’t mean that farmers markets can’t thrive in less populated areas, but there will be one in a larger town not far away… which is where you will find your truly local farmers selling. He needs to move his harvest, not get up at dawn to pick and pack, sit in the sun all day, and have to pack it all up only to have to unpack it all again back at home. (Been there. It gets old fast.) The best farmers markets will have stalls populated by truly local growers, because the farther the garden or fields are from that stall – the older the fruits and veggies will be. You can’t pick in the morning and be in your stall when the market opens if your farm is an hour or more away – this food is already a day old.

And hence we have urban farmers big and small popping up everywhere. It’s supply for a demand that big food continues to thumb their noses at. Thumb away boys, consumers will just go around you. Even if they have to grow good food themselves. Don’t think the boys haven’t noticed this farmers market growth – investigate what they’re up to in the new Farm Bill and Food Safety Act.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.