Are There Too Many Farmers Markets? Notes from the Market Field, Part 1

      Posted On: May 8, 2019

by Dar Wolnik, FMC Senior Advisor |

In March of 2019, NPR did a story on farmers markets; unfortunately, it was focused only on how some leaders and vendors believe there may be “too many markets”, while others found that focus to be an inaccurate or a misleading framing of farmers markets in the U.S.

As soon as the story ran, online discussions within farmers market groups grew and led to the collection of quotes from leaders, all of which are listed in Part 3. FMC also added questions for analysis (Part 1) and gathered relevant published data (Part 2). We also welcome more input from the market community and from researchers; please email us to share your data or expertise.

Click here to read Part 2
Click here to read Part 3


Some framing questions for needed analysis to consider in this ongoing discussion:

What is driving the rapid multiplication of markets in some states and not others?

Who says there are “too many markets”: Is it vendors? If yes, which type? ( i.e. which channels do they use, what size is the farm/business, products, length of time at markets, number of outlets to sell)? Is it market service providers (like state f.m. associations getting constant calls from places that want a market)?  Is it market organizers of established markets?Is it buyers? If yes, which type?

Does the farmers market field currently serve a fairly representative socioeconomic strata of Americans?

Are there circumstances where any one type of market is failing at a higher rate than others? (e.g. within the first year, 2-4 years old, fewer than 5 vendors, too few anchor vendors, or used for a certain purpose more than others?)

Do markets with certain characteristics outperform others in places where the “too many markets” topic is a regular topic?  

What is the minimum size for a successful market (is there one)? How was that number derived?

Do more markets in one area help any type – or size or length in business – of DTC vendor?

Do fewer market in one area help any specific type – or size or length in business – of DTC vendor?

What is the radius of trade (the distance that farmers and vendors will travel) for farmers markets circa 2019 in any region?

What is the median number of markets that DTC farmers attend in each region? Is that rising or falling?

Is there longitudinal, accurate data on sales per shopper in any region that shows a rise or fall in average spending?

How does the use of other DTC channels such as farm stands and CSAs among shared vendors affect their market attendance or satisfaction with markets?

How does the number of other channels for multiple channel (DTC AND intermediate or wholesale) vendors affect markets or satisfaction with markets?

How does the CSA field’s reinvention influence markets and the perception of markets as saturated?

How are food retail trends influencing farmers markets? From Food Shopping Trends from Stagnant, Saturated, or Ready to Surge? Strategic Marketing Investments for Vermont’s Direct to Consumer Markets (Hamilton 2017): Some of the most pertinent trends that are relevant to direct markets include:

    • Consolidation & Fragmentation
    • Empowered Consumers
    • Fierce Competition
    • Shifting Consumer Values
    • Changing Households
    • Less Cooking

All of those questions (and more) show the need for contextual and accurate data to be the fulcrum of our discussions.

What do market leaders need to respond to this story?

1. More data. Whether or not there are actually “too many markets” may be difficult to actually prove, as data remains spotty in terms of the number of markets in the U.S. The USDA Directory is a voluntary, self-reported directory and many markets have not managed their listing very well. Some state market associations have done an excellent job in collecting and verifying market data, but in other states, the number is an educated guess. In addition, the data is often only the current number that exist or those that are members of the state association, without information on how many opened, how many closed, and information about those organizations. More than half of the states have formal, independent farmers market associations; some of these associations are beginning to release information like this West Virginia Census of Markets graphic.

2. Retail data. Sales data is the best way to find if there is an actual change, but only some market organizations have begun to collect this in a methodical manner, while many others are still leery of asking their vendors. In the 2018 national survey of market organizations that FMC conducted among its members, 437 organizations responded from all 50 states and the District of Columbia (operating an average of 2 locations); 47.6% collected sales data from their vendors in 2017. Half of those said they only encourage vendors to share their sales, but do not require it. Markets that collect the data often report to FMC that being clear about why the data is useful, protecting individual data, and sharing analysis of that data with vendors is key to its success. Other data that would help wold be information about any vendor business changes, how many outlets are used by vendors, product number and product variety counts, data on average sale per shopper, conversion rates (Visitor versus Shopper), sell-through rate (what is available vs what is sold), and sales per category (F&V, value-added, hot, crafts).

3. More about markets’ mission and goals. There is a need for an expanded typology of markets so that when evaluating questions about markets, any analysis is shared in terms of the type(s) of market being discussed. Typology organizes markets by their intentions and therefore their design. By choosing an intention – either formally through a mission statement, or informally through a statement such as “this neighborhood has little to no access to healthy food and needs a market to help change that”, or “this business district sure could use some added activity and shoppers; maybe a market would help”, the intended goals can be measured. Choices made during design and program development to bring the right mix of community (meaning vendors, visitors, and stakeholders) to meet those goals is the crux of market typology. Here is a brief example (done by FMC for the City of Pittsburgh) of clustering markets by design in order to properly analyze their effectiveness. FMC’s research is based on earlier work done by Market Umbrella during their trans•act research in 2008 which included the Moon typology.

Part of typology is information on the design of the market organization. Here is a snapshot of two markets in Virginia that both collect data but are set up quite differently. It is important that profile characteristics are also shared when data is being analyzed:

4. Make the organization part of the story. Related to that, the organizational work behind successful markets is rarely common knowledge among the shopping public, but is also scant among natural stakeholders such as municipalities, program partners, funders, and sometimes even vendors. That issue may be steeped in the culture of markets, where its organizers only highlight the ensuing market day activities and impacts, and leave the work of managing out of the story. This is relevant because when many markets are run by different organizations in one area, duplication of intention or of product offerings may result. When the organizations are known to each other and to the community, the work can be aligned and knowledge shared more easily. And if the work of managing markets is not visible, new markets can underestimate the work and time required to build a successful market.

5. Remind everyone that no two markets (or vendors) are the same. Circumstances may differ from market to market, even in the same neighborhood or even among vendors in the same market. To explore the questions of saturation, collect data. 

6. To include market partners in this discussion. Good stakeholders of markets understand the complexity of successful markets and how local culture and policies around agriculture matter if a market is to be successful.

7.  Tell the story of how many communities rely on their market for many different reasons.  In short, what the mechanism of markets can do to build a more inclusive, engaged, regional place that exists even when market hours are over.

8.  Remember that our vendors business needs are central. How this affects our main stakeholders – market vendors – should be a primary exploration and is included in the questions that we pose below:


End of Part 1

Next, Part 2.

Click here to read Part 3.