Shopping at farmers markets has become a weekly ritual for many people across the country. More personal than traditional supermarket shopping, these markets – many of them open-air – give customers a chance to purchase produce, meat, baked goods, flowers, and other items directly from farmers, growers, and artisans.
Farmers markets have a long history in the U.S. The first farmers market, modeled after European-style markets, opened in Boston back in 1634. Similar markets opened in New York City and Philadelphia in later years. The rise of the grocery store in the 19th and early 20th century detracted from local markets, but there’s been a resurgence in recent years. In 1994 there were around 2,000 markets nationwide compared with more than 8,600 in operation today.
National Farmers Market Week begins August 2nd, making this an opportune moment to examine the benefits of farmers markets, how they affect local economies and how many markets are adapting to the challenges of the current moment.
Farmers Markets as Models of Sustainability
“Farmers markets are the ultimate green sector of the economy,” says Bernadine Prince, co-director of Washington, D.C.’s FreshFarm. “They are stand-out successes in and spurring sustainable economic development.”
Markets allow community members to purchase fresh, seasonal food from local farmers, many of whom employ sustainable farming techniques. In turn, farmers are able to make a living wage from selling healthy produce, meats, grains, and more directly to consumers without excess waste or overhead. Everyone benefits from this exchange of goods.
Farmers selling at local markets reduce their carbon footprint by eliminating food shipping costs and excess travel. According to the Farmers Market Coalition, local produce travels approximately 27 times less than conventional produce. On average, food travels over 1,000 miles before it reaches a retail store. Alternatively, farmers markets ensure that vendors are selling food produced within 200 miles or less. For the consumer, this means the food is fresher than what they’ll find at the store.
At a grocery store, most of the consumer’s money goes towards food shipment, storage, and marketing. Farmers are likely to receive around 17.4 cents of every dollar spent at a conventional supermarket, whereas at a farmers market they take home closer to 90 cents of every dollar. There are financial gains for the consumer as well: a recent study in Vermont found that prices for many conventional and organic items, with the exception of potatoes, were actually lower at the farmers market than at the grocery store.
Farmers markets can also contribute to local economies by creating jobs. A 2011 Economic Research Service report showed that produce farmers who sold into regional markets employed more full-time workers for every 1 million in revenue earned than produce farmers who did not sell locally.
How Farmers Markets are Adapting to the Current Moment
Some areas have networks that support several local farmers markets such as the Sustainable Food Center in Austin, Texas, the Virginia Farmers Market Association, and the Florida Farmers Market Association. These organizations provide education and resources for a number of markets across their state or region.
With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, individual farmers markets and regional associations are finding innovative ways to adapt without compromising food quality. In Virginia, an online app—Lulus Local Food—helps local food suppliers connect with their customer base. The Virginia Farmers Market Association is offering free training to farmers interested in selling their goods through the app.
In Florida, farmers markets were declared an essential service during the pandemic. Although some markets throughout the state saw fit to close temporarily, others remain open while adhering to social distancing guidelines. In Austin, Texas, the Sustainable Food Center has implemented new safety protocols at their markets such as adequate vendor spacing, caps on shopper capacity, and the temporary closure of café spaces. Several markets across the country are offering online preorder which customers can pick up on the farm or at the market site.
While the farmers market experience may be different than it was a year ago, the economic and environmental benefits of these markets have not changed. If anything, farmers markets are more important than ever, showing us how sustainable farming and business practices can serve the greater good.