As farmers markets proliferate, challenges remain for many

The Columbia Farmers Market on September 7, 2013. | Photo Courtesy of Columbia Farmers Market
The Columbia Farmers Market got its start in 1980, before the recent boom in the number of farmers markets in Missouri and nationwide. | Photo Courtesy of Columbia Farmers Market

The number of farmers markets across the country and in Missouri has exploded over the last decade amid growing demand for local produce.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national farmers market directory listed 8,268 markets in the country last month, which marks a 76 percent increase since the USDA began releasing yearly numbers in 2008 and is more than double the number counted in 2004.

This year, for the second year in a row, Missouri cracked the top 10 in number of farmers markets by state, with 246 listings. That’s up from just 53 listings in 1997 and 131 in 2007.

Other signs point to a growing appetite for local food: The National Grocery Association’s 2014 Consumer Panel reported that 87.2 percent of consumers regard the availability of locally grown produce and other locally packaged foods as very or somewhat important. The same report said 53 percent of people view convenience as a very important factor in the decision to purchase local food.

But despite the uptick in farmers markets and increased interest in local food, Missouri farmers markets as a whole haven’t seen a corresponding spike in sales. In fact, sales of agricultural products through direct-to-consumer outlets like farmers markets and roadside stands in the state slid to about $19.7 million in 2012 from close $21 million in 2007, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture.

The corresponding figure for the country climbed to approximately $1.31 billion in 2012, up from slightly more than $1.21 billion five years ago. But that $1.31 billion made up just .33 percent of total U.S. agricultural sales in 2012, down from about .41 percent in 2007.

Carving out a niche

Brooke Salvaggio and Dan Heryer started BADSEED Farmers Market in 2007, on the verge of a major growth period for U.S. farmers markets. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of farmers markets nationwide increased 68 percent, from 4,685 to 7,864. Just before that boom, Salvaggio began selling food from the couple’s 2.5-acre farm in south Kansas City in her downtown storefront.

Seven years later, Salvaggio and Heryer bring products from a 13.5-acre farm five miles east of the Country Club Plaza to the storefront that houses about a dozen vendors every Friday night during their summer and winter market seasons.

Heryer attributes the success of BADSEED to creative marketing through email newsletters and flyers, and to appealing to a diverse clientele that includes professionals, young families and older people around retirement age.

“There’s no end to the need for farmers markets because they’re a great thing for all communities to have,” Heryer said, “and luckily we’ve been able to carve out our own niche, but I think we’re the success story. It’s not always easy.”

A recent study by the Agricultural Marketing Service suggests as much. According to a 2014 report from the service, many direct-to-consumer outlets are “highly labor-intensive, and not very profitable for farmers on average,” and many farmers need to supplement their market sales with sales to commercial food retailers.

Conditions have led to the concentration of farmers markets in urban areas, which makes sense to a Kansas Citian like Heryer.

“In general, farmers markets should be started where there are customers that want it in their neighborhood or community and there’s enough people to make it worthwhile for farmers to be there,” he said.

Standing the test of time

Fresh fruits on display at the Columbia Farmers Market on September 7, 2013. | Photo Courtesy of Columbia Farmers Market
Produce sold at the Columbia Farmers Market must be grown or raised within a 50-mile radius of Columbia. | Courtesy of Columbia Farmers Market

The Columbia Farmers Market, located in the state’s fourth-largest metropolitan area, has been working to meet the demand for local produce and other products since 1980, when a group of local farmers banded together to sell their products directly to their mid-Missouri neighbors in one place.

The market now brings between 70 to 90 vendors together every Saturday morning from late March to late October and Sunday mornings during the winter months, but retains its original structure of vendor ownership of the market. 

Each member vendor, who votes for a governing board of directors, must grow or raise products within a 50-mile radius of Columbia, which market manager Corrina Smith says is vital to the market functioning properly

“We try and keep everyone as close as we possibly can to Columbia to ensure that the product is … mid-Missouri grown, and also to cut down on the carbon footprint of the produce the people are buying,” Smith said.

Smith recognizes the uptick in farmers markets starting across the state in recent years and the potential for competition, but she says the Columbia Farmers Market has coexisted for years with its would-be crosstown rival, the Boone County Farmers Market, due to separate sets of loyal clients. She doesn’t see statewide proliferation as anything to fear.

“A lot of the other farmers markets that are popping up are in larger cities, which most of our customers are not going to drive to St. Louis or Springfield to go to a farmers market,” Smith said. “And there are a lot of smaller ones that exist in the more rural communities … but I don’t think that we’re competing with them because the whole point of a farmers market is trying to sell goods to the people in that community.”

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