Written by Caroline Abels
Published in Vermont's Local Banquet
Over the past 10 years farmers’ markets in Vermont have burst forth like a backyard garden in July. Currently there are 63 markets in the Vermont Farmers’ Market Association, and a dozen or so that aren’t members. But every now and then you hear people wonder whether farmers’ markets have peaked in popularity, or strayed from their original purpose by offering more crafts and prepared foods.
Erin Buckwalter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) recently spoke with Local Banquet editor Caroline Abels about the state of farmers’ markets in Vermont—how they’re doing and how they’re adapting. NOFA-VT is the parent organization for the Vermont Farmers’ Market Association, and as part of her work, Erin often consults with farmers’ markets around the state.
How are Vermont farmers’ markets doing these days?
We have several markets that are doing amazingly well—they’re really vibrant and have strong customer followings and vendors who feel good about the money they’re making. And then we have several markets that are the exact opposite, that are struggling and trying to figure out if they should continue to exist. Thirty years ago Vermont had only a handful of markets, and then in the early 2000s the growth of markets was really fast—a lot of communities wanted that vibrancy happening on their town green. So some markets started that ended up not being a viable option for farmers. In some communities vendors would find more success at another market, or the population of the community would be too small and there wouldn’t be enough people shopping on a weekly basis.
Do you encourage struggling markets to continue or do you suggest they think about closing?
I do a bit of both. When a market calls me and says they’re not doing well, I try to understand what their motivation is. If a lot of farmers with a wide variety of products in an area really need another farmers’ market to sell their products, in general those are the markets that do better—the vendors really want to make it a place where they can grow and the variety of products will keep the customers coming back. But then there are people who want to start a market but have actually never talked to the farmers in their area to see if they need another market outlet—they just want their community to have a market. There a lot of well-intentioned community members who are keeping some of the struggling markets going that would otherwise close or who want to start markets that will likely never become successful. So we help people look at their goals and who their market is for. We might make suggestions, like maybe a market on a different day of the week so it’s not competing with other nearby markets, or perhaps there’s another way to create a vibrant community event that will fit the needs of the community
Are weekday markets successful in Vermont?
Farmers’ markets are as different as the towns in Vermont—each has its own unique flavor. I’d say the most successful weekday markets are tied to bigger weekend markets, such as those in Brattleboro, Rutland, and Middlebury. They tend to have paid managers, are making thoughtful business decisions, and are located in areas with bigger populations from which to draw shoppers. Those markets have found that their customers want to shop for fresh produce during the week, too, or maybe they missed the weekend market because they were out of town. That’s not to say that some of the smaller weekday markets aren’t successful too; the vendors and customers may just have different expectations for that market. Most weekday markets happen sometime between 3 and 7 pm, so they’re catching people who are both home during the day and people coming home from work.
People sometimes grumble that farmers’ markets have too many prepared food vendors, which they say takes away from the essence of what a farmers’ market is.
There are purists who say their market operates in these certain ways and always should, but just like any business, farmers’ markets also need to adapt and change with the times. For example, if ready-to-eat food is what customers want, we can’t ignore that and just base our market entry rules on what they’ve always been. An incredible amount of food in the U.S. is eaten away from home, somewhere around 40 percent and while we want people to keep cooking at home, we cannot ignore the trend of people eating prepared foods. Farmers’ markets and vendors have to adapt, to figure out a good balance between what they want the product mix to be at their market and offering what customers want to buy. And prepared food can be profitable for farmers, too. I’ve heard examples of a vendor selling $800 worth of their typical products at a market, but then making more than double that when they add ready-to- eat foods that use their farm products.
What are some creative approaches being taken at Vermont farmers’ markets?
I see markets engaging customers in a variety of ways, from live music to cooking demos and “come meet the chef” events. Some farms bring their CSA pickups to market so customers can get the rest of their groceries from other vendors. But at NOFA we also hear from people who are intimidated to go to their local farmers’ market, for any number of reasons. They may not like the music, feel intimidated by all the different options, or don’t like going with their kids because there’s so much for the kids to do that they beg their parents to stay. So it’s hard to make a market atmosphere that will work for every single person.
Who are the main competitors of farmers’ markets’?
I’d say co-ops and independent retailers and some grocery stores. They’re all carrying more local product. But I think farmers’ markets are still the number-one place to start changing people’s minds and inspiring them to invest in changing the food system. You can go there and meet many farmers in one day, in one place. You start hearing their story and seeing how your purchases impact their lives and the livelihood of the state and the working landscape. When you go to a grocery store, these stories are not as transparent, but you might remember that farm or farmer from the market. You want to buy local in the store because you’ve heard the farmers’ stories at the market.
Have farmers’ markets peaked in Vermont?
I think about that question a lot, because in the last 10 years, farmers’ markets have changed more than in the previous 20 years. The local food scene is evolving fast, so markets need to be creative to stay relevant. I was in Barcelona recently for the International Public Markets Conference put on by the Project for Public Spaces. Many of the attendees were from bigger public markets like the Atwater or Jean-Talon Markets in Montreal, in that they’re open most days of the week, and aren’t necessarily producers selling directly to customers. While this is a different model from markets in Vermont, the thing that struck me is that the folks running these markets make sure they have vendors with some raw product, some items that are diced and chopped, some prepared that just need to be heated, and then stuff that can be eaten there. They all talked about how important it is to have entry points for all types of consumers.
Also, I was struck by the number of people working at those markets who had a background in marketing and/or retail. I myself was a farmers’ market manager once, but I didn’t go to school for marketing or have retail experience. Those folks in Barcelona were definitely paying attention to market research. Our markets need to be looking at the kind of trends that grocery stores are looking at. At NOFA, we’re trying to think about what kind of resources and training to provide for our market managers, who might only have a community-based organizing background or who are doing it for the social good, to help them grow and maintain viable markets.
It sounds like farmers’ markets should offer a diverse array of products.
Yes. On the one hand, farmers’ markets are really good places for farmers to incubate their business. At larger markets, new farmers don’t have to sell a huge variety of things because customers can go to other vendors. Farmers can also try out new products, see what works. On the other hand, if a market doesn’t have a lot of different vendors, it can be frustrating for consumers. I was at a small market earlier this season and saw a small new farm selling only radishes, lettuce, spinach, and green onions. I was growing those things in my garden already, so what I needed were the early tomatoes and peppers and eggplants—more unusual things for a home gardener for that time of year—but no one was selling them at that market and I left with few items even though I was prepared to buy more
Do you see growth ahead for Vermont farmers’ markets?
If we look at our data over the past three years, we are still seeing trends of increasing sales at most markets. I think that’ll continue at the markets that are really vibrant. And I think as we continue to build awareness statewide about local food, the numbers will grow. Our target audience isn’t just the believers anymore—we want to widen the audience. We want them to shift some of their purchases to local food. Even if each person not currently shopping at farmers’ markets decided to shop at a market one day a month, that would make a huge difference to our local economy and for farmers’ livelihoods.