Are There Too Many Farmers Markets? Notes from the Market Field, Part 2

      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 framing questions (Part 1) and gathered relevant published data (Part 2) to anyone pursuing this topic in the future. 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 1
Click here to read Part 3

Here are more of the opinions that we collected from market leaders during these discussions…

...on the topic of too many markets:

“Too many markets” is only an issue if consumer demand remains the same.”

“The number of farmers markets have increased so much in the past decade that we have a LOT more farmers markets now; the “low hanging fruit” of locations have been snapped up and these newer markets are facing different challenges than the earlier adopters did. The existing pool of markets is relatively stable-it’s just that as the market gets saturated, it’s harder for the newer markets to get going and stabilized. There are lessons learned from this research that can help new markets succeed – so it’s not all bad news!”

“The implication in the national story of “too many markets” seems to be that some must believe that we have maxed out the likely customer base, yet many other markets believe that that is far from the case.”

…on how we need planning strategies for the future:

“There’s an equity issue here. It’s hard to say to a community “there’s too many markets already, so your community doesn’t get one.”

“Consumers want local foods but it’s my belief that many are paralyzed by too much information. Does local mean organic? How local is local enough? Can I trust that these farms are local? Can I follow a keto or low-carb or vegan or fad-of-the-moment diet while sourcing food locally? All of this input takes the joy out of shopping and eating and I think it’s why we aren’t seeing as many young people as I would like at the market.”

So what do we know?

Farmers Market Numbers
  • The USDA began to count the number of U.S. farmers markets beginning in 1994 and recorded 1,755; in comparison, the number of farmers markets that existed in 1970 is largely agreed to have been around 340 (Brown 2002).
  • In  2004, the USDA listed 3,706 farmers markets, slightly double the number of listed markets in 1994. By 2014, the number had increased to over 8,200. 
  • The USDA Farmers Market Directory is a voluntary, self-reported survey that asks market leaders to fill out contact information and answer a series of questions about the operation of the market. That data is embedded in a public search engine and is used as the basis for many (if not most) of the directories of farmers markets, and also used as the basis for USDA’s work with farmers markets. Some states have had difficulty getting their markets to keep or  to delete the duplicates or out of date entries, and have begun to create their own statewide directories to offer better data to the USDA.
  • In terms of the number of markets listed in the directory in 2012, the top states were: California (827 markets), New York (647 markets), Massachusetts (313 markets), Michigan (311 markets), Wisconsin (298 markets), Illinois (292 markets), Ohio (264 markets), Pennsylvania (254 markets), Virginia and Iowa (tied with 227 markets) and North Carolina (202 markets). Together, these states accounted for nearly half (49 percent) of the farmers markets listed in that year’s directory. 
  • In 2004, markets began to expand their programming by adding the first wireless card processing machines in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Prescott, Arizona; and Lewiston, Maine. As of 2017, the USDA lists 7,377 DTC outlets authorized to accept SNAP; about half of those listed are farmers market entities acting as SNAP – authorized retailers with the remaining terminals being operated by farmers who are the SNAP – authorized retailers.
Market-level data
  • In 2014, the USDA surveyed market managers and found:

74% of farmers markets had at least one vendor accepting federal nutrition assistance as payment. Of the 91% of surveyed managers for markets open in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, 64% reported increased customer traffic; 63% reported increases in their number of repeat customers; and 63% reported increases in annual sales. Virtually all market managers surveyed (99%) sold locally grown fresh fruits or vegetables at their market.

  • From a 2006 report of Oregon markets: “New markets were most vulnerable to failure with 24 percent closing during or after their first year of operation. These failures represent almost half of all market failures in the state and illustrate the heightened vulnerability of first-year markets, said the researchers. Other factors that increased risk of market failure, included: Small number of vendors; Need for a greater variety of farm products with specific emphasis on fruits and vegetables – products considered basic to farmers’ markets; Lack of administrative revenue to meet operating needs; Low paid or volunteer market managers; High manager turnover.” (Stephenson/Lev 2006)
  • One of the organizations that has collected data from its vendors since its inception shared the graphic below during the 2018 Direct Agriculture Marketing Summit. Countryside Farmers Markets in Peninsula, OH not only collects data from its vendors, but shares it back with them weekly. This snapshot indicates the situation that resulted when their location was beset with significant road construction in 2018; overall sales declined as a result of the lower attendance. Interestingly,  the average sale per shopper increased significantly:

• The Brattleboro VT Winter Farmers Market has also collected and used data since its inception to make market decisions. The data shows sales and attendance changes over time including lower attendance but higher sales per shopper.

DATE Customer # +/- Gross Sales +/- Per Customer +
11/18/17 653 $9067.63 13.90
11/17/18 519 -20% $10.906.35 +20% 21.01 +51%
1/27/18 548 6178.93 11.28
1/19/19 449 -18% 7178.92 +16% 15.99 +41.7%



Data on direct-to-consumer production:

  • Local food represents a very small share of the national food supply: Between 1978-2007, farms that engaged in direct-to-consumer food sales represented 5.5 percent of all farms, on average 0.3 percent of total farm sales. (Tropp 2014)
  • Using data from the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture: Direct to consumer food sales increased from $404 million to $1.2 billion, and grew twice as fast as total agricultural sales (105% vs. 48%)  (Tropp 2014)
  • According to the newly released 2017 Census of Agriculture, there were over 321,000 (2012: 208,000) farmers under the age of 35 in the U.S. In the 2017 Census, additional or part owners could be listed for the first time and since over 100,000 said they were part-owners or tenants of the farm, the overall percentage is only up by 2 percent, from 7.6 to 9.4 percent. More than 200,000 of young farmers listed their primary occupation as something other than farming.
  • There is no comprehensive tabulation of the number of DTC farms or the number of unique farmers market vendors. To analyze DTC farms, USDA/AMS uses the Agricultural Census which is conducted every five years and attempts to gather data on all farms. 
  • There is also no comprehensive tabulation of the number of channels that DTC farms use and what percentage of sales and profit result from each type of channel. Some states, like Vermont, do regularly survey their producers. In a 2017 report, 138 farmers answered, of what is estimated by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Marketing to be roughly 800 direct marketing farmers operating in state.  Of the 98 selling in direct-to-consumer (DTC) markets, the majority utilized only direct market channels, including both direct-to-consumer and direct-to-retail channels. The next largest majority relied on an average of four market channels, including both  wholesale and direct market channels. (NOFA-VT, Wolnik 2018)     
  • From 2007 to 2012 the average direct sales per Vermont farm decreased 15% from $15,511 to $13,245 as the number of farms selling direct increased 40% from 1,474 to 2,071.(Hamilton 2017)
  • A 2017 survey of vendors selling at Pittsburgh farmers markets ranked the reasons for selling at specific farmers markets:


Data on consumer awareness of “near and direct”:

  • Grocery shoppers largely embrace the increase in local food options because they believe: it helps local economies (66 percent), delivers a broader and better assortment of products (60 percent), provides healthier alternatives (45 percent), improves the carbon footprint (19 percent), increases natural or organic production (19 percent) (A.T. Kearney, “Buying Into the Local Food Movement”, February 2013)
  • According to National Grocery Association, the availability of locally grown produce and other local packaged foods are major influences on grocery shopping decisions:
    • In 2014, 87.2% of consumers regard this as “very/somewhat important”, up from 79% in 2009, and nearly equal to the 2012 peak of 87.8%. Only 3.3% said “not at all important”
    • Hispanics, 50-64 year olds and members of single person households were the most dominant segments in the “very important” category
    • “More locally grown foods” is the second most desired improvement among surveyed grocery shoppers at 32.1%, just under “Price/cost savings”
    • Eating local foods is a regular habit for nearly three-fourths of the nation; only 27.0% consume them once a month or less.  
    • Convenience also becoming more important to consumers (Very important 53.0% in 2014, up from 35.7% in 2012


This Hartman Group analysis shows the potential for attracting a multitude of generations to purchase local food.

End of Part 2

Next, Part 3


Click here to read Part 1