These days, it seems like you can’t swing a free-range, antibiotic-free, heirloom-breed chicken without hitting a farmers’ market. In Portland, Oregon, where I live, markets take place across the city at least five days a week during the prime season, roughly May to October. The flagship downtown market, often touted as one of the best farmers’ markets in the country, runs every Saturday for nine months and racked up more than $5 million in sales last year.
But it’s not just the hotbeds of local, organic, and sustainable food that are experiencing the rebirth of direct producer-to-consumer sales. Dianne Ruff, the outgoing executive director of the Portland Farmers’ Market, confirms that farmers’ markets are “growing like crazy all over the country.” In 1994, according to the USDA, there were fewer than 2,000 farmers’ markets nationwide; by 2006, that number had more than doubled, to nearly 4,400.
Market managers confirm Ruff’s optimism. Take Iowa, for example. In 2005, the Hawkeye State led the nation in producing such industrial-ag staples as pork, corn, soybeans, and eggs. And like the rest of the Midwest, Iowa isn’t usually considered as Whole Foods-friendly as the nation’s coasts. But the number of farmers’ markets in Iowa increased by 60 percent over the past decade, and a recent report indicated that the state had the most markets per capita in the entire country. Farmers’ market sales in the Des Moines area alone totaled nearly $10 million in 2004.
Since 80 percent of Americans live in cities, it’s not surprising that farmers’ markets are largely an urban phenomenon, even in Iowa. Yes, prices at many farmers’ markets are higher than at nearby supermarkets, but most also try to make their offerings available to low-income shoppers. Farmers’ markets thus bring together cross-sections of their home communities.
Connecticut’s first farmers’ market, opened in 1978, was created by a nonprofit working to reduce hunger; it included state and federally funded vouchers to make fresh produce more affordable. As electronic benefit cards replaced paper food stamps and cell-phone technology enabled remote transactions, farmers’ market purchases became a reality for those receiving assistance. In California, the city of Oakland used grant money to subsidize farmers so they could reduce their market prices.
Our increasing interest in farmers’ markets and cleaner food, however, may be outpacing our ability to produce enough to meet demand. In March, in the environmental journal Grist, columnist and farmer Tom Philpott noted that while organic-food sales currently account for about 2.5 percent of U.S. food purchases, a minuscule 0.2 percent of U.S. farmland is certified organic. (Italy, which is smaller than New Mexico, has more organically farmed acreage than the entire U.S.) And while national grocery sales generally grow only 2 to 3 percent every year, sales of organic products have been increasing at annual rates of 16 to 20 percent.
Not all farmers’ markets, of course, sell exclusively organic food; the emphasis is on local above all else. But there are plenty of pressures on farmers’ markets. In the Los Angeles Times in April, the food writer Russ Parsons quoted Howell Tumlin, the executive director of the Southland Farmers' Market Association, as saying that farmers’ markets as we know them might soon be just a memory. Tumlin, Parsons wrote, is worried that farmers spend too much time at the markets, sort of “like a chef having to stop cooking in order to hand-deliver every plate.”
Slow Food founder and president Carlo Petrini — who is currently touring the country, giving lectures and promoting the English translation of his book, Slow Food Nation — is optimistic about farmers’ markets in the U.S., saying they’re an indication that a “revolution” is underway. Still, Petrini believes that we Americans, despite exhibiting an unprecedented level of interest in food, continue to mangiamo merda — literally, “we eat shit.”
There’s no way to tell what farmers’ markets will look like in the future, but judging from the crowds at Portland’s markets, they’ve got plenty of pep. The real question is whether customers are shopping for raw ingredients or just eye candy. Sales of such basics as leafy-topped carrots and orange-yolked eggs are what make markets work, even if most shoppers just seem to want a grilled Italian sausage or jammy hot crêpe from the prepared-food vendors.
Can farmers find a workable balance between growing food and growing a customer base? Some farmers, as Parsons pointed out, have found the CSA model preferable to the market model; with a CSA’s prepaid subscription base and once-a-week delivery or pickup day, farmers can spend more time on their farms and still make money. And plenty of stalls at farmers’ markets are no longer staffed by the busy farmers but by knowledgeable employees.
The farmers’ market of the future, in other words, will probably look less like a bunch of lemonade stands and more like a business. “Eventually,” Parsons quoted Tumlin, “we will look back wistfully on these days when you can still stand across a battered piece of plywood and have a conversation with the folks who grew your food.”
Jim Dixon is a writer in Portland, Oregon, who keeps a blog at Real Good Food. He also imports salt and olive oil, and occasionally sells both at the Portland Farmers’ Market.
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