What's Right and What's Wrong with Today's Farmers Markets

Jul 7, 2017

Summer is in full swing, and for many that means regular visits to a local farmers’ market. Since 1994, the number of farmers’ markets in the country has grown from less than two thousand to nearly nine thousand - and that's just counting the ones registered in the US Department of Agriculture’s directory. In fact, there are over 350 markets within 100 miles of Milwaukee.

Registered farmers markets within 100 miles of Milwaukee.
Credit US Department of Agriculture

Many shoppers visit a farmers market to support their local community, to be environmentally friendly, to educate themselves about their food, or to simply socialize.  But these shoppers represent only a fraction of the $800 billion dollars spent annually on groceries in the United States - and farmers markets are only one of numerous options for consumers to buy produce. 

Contributor and local farmer David Kozlowski of Pinehold Gardens notes that farmers markets are "beautiful things" - when they're working right.

"A farmers market is the Greek agora, it's the community coming together to discuss politics, social issues, meet new people, and certainly talk about food. It's also an opportunity for entrepreneurial people in the community to try out new businesses...and they also provide a function of drawing attention to the existing local businesses," he says. "Of late though, there's been some stresses on the market that are maybe going to cause it to adapt, maybe some are adapting, but we'll see what the future is for farmers markets."

Locally grown garlic at the Tosa Farmers Market
Credit Mitch Teich

So how can farmers’ markets compete more effectively? That's something Kozlowski has thought about a lot. "There are more options now than ever before for people to get 'fresh' organic produce. From everything to delivered to their door, or the grocery stores themselves," he says.

He also notes that shifting cultural demands are also impacting the markets - particularly the trend that people seem to be cooking less. "That's obviously going to have an impact on the farmers at the farmers market, and it's going to have an impact on what the farmers market is going to look like," explains Kozlowski. "Because now to attract people down there they have to have farmers, but they're also bringing increasingly prepared food vendors."

Some farmers believe food trucks and other booths that sell products could take away money that consumers would have spent on produce. If a farmers market ratio of farmers to vendors becomes increasingly unbalanced, Kozlowski says that will weaken that market.

"I mean, people come to a farmers’ market in part to see farmers," he says.

One reason people may go to a local grocery store versus a farmers market is the economic difference. While some produce may be more expensive comparatively at either a grocer or a market, Kozlowski says consumers save more money in the long run if they buy directly from the farmer.

"What you're buying in (most) grocery stores is, according to USDA data, at least two weeks old," he says. "Taste and nutrition aside...you're more likely to end up throwing away that head of lettuce that you bought in a grocery store after a week than you are buying that head of lettuce at the farmers market after a week."

Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods creates yet another option for consumers to buy produce at a store, or have it delivered right to their front door. Amazon's goal of the purchase is to have physical hubs for customers within two hours of any given location. However, Kozlowski says that whether this will significantly impact the farmers that supply Whole Foods is a waiting game.

Credit Photo by Pinehold Member Melissa Klein / Pinehold Gardens

"I'm for farmers making a living, so if this is the route that it's going to take for farmers to get their produce to the hands of the community, so be it. But I haven't seen that yet."

Kozlowski and his wife Sandy Raduenz no longer participate in local farmers markets. He says they require extra expenditures for the farmer - licenses, booth fees and insurance.  After seeing a consistent decline in sales - not even making over $500 at a market - they decided it was no longer worth their time and effort. Instead, the couple have a stand on their farm open to the public on Saturdays to buy produce.

Although Kozlowski admits he misses the atmosphere at the markets, "farmers put too much work involved in coming to a market to be able to sustain a drop in sales to a certain point, and what that point is depends on the market itself."