Are There Too Many Farmers Markets? Notes from the Market Field, Part 3

      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 2

Quotes and input from market leaders and researchers

Focusing only on the number of markets as the main story is not the best reference point for our field:

  • Measuring farmers market success by the number/growth of markets is a flawed idea to begin with.
  • (This argument) shows the scarcity of our system, in terms of how NGOs see the pot of money and stakeholders as limited – when it is not.
  • Many of these articles seem to conflate any decrease in the rate of growth with actual decline in growth.
  • In terms of vendor and product development and lack of niche/mission development among areas with numbers of markets, stagnation may be more likely. (Any sector that has captured less than a quarter of one percent of all food dollars in any given year isn’t saturated.)
  • I would love to know what is the closure rate for start-up businesses in their first two years of operation? I wonder why farmers markets should receive different scrutiny?
  • What bugs me is that the coverage tends to taint successful markets—“Farmers markets are dying!” “Have we reached Peak Farmers Market?” instead of viewing the closures as a natural correction.  

What do you think about the story being about “too many markets?”

  • “Too many markets” is only an issue if consumer demand remains the same.
  • There is something to the main point of the article; we have heard from many markets that they face increased competition, both from other farmers markets and other sources of produce.
  • 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.
  • At some point, you can’t maintain 400% growth every year. Yet, the landscape of competition for consumers is vast compared to 1994 or 96.
  • At Market A, we see about 600 visitors on a Sunday throughout the season, this is about 200 or so slower than 2013-2014, but we get a dedicated group of buyers every week.  Our neighbors started a market (Market B) which we attend as a farm (starting) 7 years ago and get about 1200 people every Saturday and sometimes get as many as 1700 people depending on weather and special events with a similar population. I contribute the difference of attendance to these facts: Market B has several dozen or more dedicated volunteers that do everything from marketing the market, social media, website work, planning special events, volunteering for market manager on the day of the market, recruiting and managing vendors, helping the vendors unload and set up, etc. Market A has me with a bit of help from a few others: major difference in people power. Market A residents seems to disappear for summers, our town is a ghost town in the summer, Market B town is not, people really are so much more dedicated to a thriving community during the summertime. (Yet) As a veg farmer at both markets, I sell more produce in Market A (3 total farms about 20 vendors) than Market B (4 1/2 total farms about 40 vendors).
  • In a town of about 16,000 people, I am constantly surprised by how few people know about or attend the market.We’ve carefully curated our market over the past 16 years that holds the farmers in the highest regard, gives preference to vendors who source local ingredients in their own products, offer live music (yes we pay our musicians), community groups, cooking demonstrations, events, and we don’t allow crafters. We are a destination for “foodies” and folks who care about what they eat, their connection to the land and want a relationship with their farmers and artisans….and we struggle to get new people to show up each weekend.
  • “While farmers markets remain popular and many report high attendance, I’ve spoken with producers across the upper Midwest who rely on these markets and report lower sales in 2016 and 2017 than in past years. None in my study reported higher sales. Many farmers see the wider availability of specialty foods as a main cause.” (McKee 2018.
  • (In our area) we had over 38 [markets] at one time, we are down to 29 and still its not quite right. We have large areas / neighborhoods without a close market and some with too many. A few years ago, every corporate wellness department was contacting us to hold a market on their lawn or in their lobby in order to promote health and wellness for their employees. There just aren’t enough farms to fill that need, nor is it in the best interest of the farmer. We cannot have farmers standing out all day for a short lunchtime rush or a few customers. We need to work together to identify where the best locations are for markets and work as a community to support the markets for the vendors sake. We need to build strong vibrant markets where vendors can bring in more income in one day, instead of spreading that income out over a couple days. By pouring our support and investment into right sizing the number of markets we are doing our part to support the local food system. Otherwise by allowing smaller markets on every street corner, we are diluting the markets and the vendors cannot be successful. Consumers need to understand this.
  • I am always excited to see new businesses emerging at markets every year. Some stay vendors for decades even when they could evolve toward other primary sales outlets, leaving behind the uncertainty of weather, the time spent shlepping tables, tents, and valuable goods back and forth because they love the community of market life. There are real challenges facing markets and producers, but I don’t see it as a simple issue of “too many markets.”  There are, instead,
    1. a) too many young markets that are launched with enthusiasm and good intention but without much research, management expertise, or public investment.  All of these things are important if a market is going to build trust in a customer base and buy-in by potential partners.
    2. b) not enough new farms keeping pace with the spurt of new non-farm businesses– delicious street-food, artwork, and packaged goods
    3. c) poor curation of ratios that make non-essential or periodically-purchased goods (prepared hot foods, jewelry, or specialty pastries, for example, though they may be weekly necessities for some) at greater proportion than the perishable farm goods that would keep people coming back every week.

    In my relatively progressive university town, the customer base for market goods would be seemingly inexhaustible. And yet many who seem like ideal members of the “target market” don’t make a regular habit of coming to market to shop. When they do, it’s for the treat of artisan popsicles for the kids, or to nab a quart of berries while they’re in season, or just to get out and socialize. Why are these folks not spending more of their food budget with local farmers, resulting in legitimate complaints from long-time growers that their sales are stagnant or going down?  The reasons cited are all over the map (maybe they are members of a CSA, or have competing priorities on Saturday morning), but I sense that for some, the market is TOO big– that they lose their family members in the crowd, that slow-moving strollers clog the aisles, that there are simply too many things competing for their attention (and their hands) and so their brains simply narrow the range of focus to their immediate hunger. “I could stock up on veggies for the week but BOY don’t those dumplings (or fresh donuts) smell gooooood!” In the end, more markets is certainly a good thing.  Both vendors and customers need options. But they need to be intentionally human-scale. That is, curated to prioritize farm products, optimally located and timed, easy to navigate, and, most importantly, managed by innovative people who are willing to listen, and implement programs that address stated problems from all sides.

Comments on “we need planning strategies for the future”:

  • We need to refine the “theory of change” that markets bring to community food systems in 2019; if local is now available at other outlets in the area, then the message as to why shoppers need to get to the market may not be as clear. The one part of our value that cannot be co-opted is the connect made directly between producers and eaters. I think we need to make that a little more defined and do some messaging around the core values of open-air farmers markets.
  • 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.”
  • Many communities who want a farmers market either don’t know what they really want, haven’t done a strong business plan to understand their suppliers (farmers) or customers, or aren’t compensating the folks who pour their time and heart into creating a market.  
  • 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.
  • We all could to better in gathering info, learning and talking to one another. The romance of DTC clouds us in both market side and consumer side sometimes.
  • You can’t start a business without capital and you can’t start a successful farmers market without resources and a plan.
  • In many cases, the ones who are feeling the effects of markets without a niche message or a targeted demographic may be the anchor vendors of long time markets those who have long had a larger share of the local purchasing (when there were less markets).
  • If five communities partnered on one market instead of starting five different markets, that one market would be a more exciting venue for customers and a more profitable market for farmers. We don’t need more markets — we need stronger and more viable markets.
  • The need for infrastructure is an argument that markets themselves have been making for a few decades, and in some cases, actually made happen for their farmers. It is not counter to the idea of the tented market in any way and when community infrastructure is added, all producers will benefit. However, if it only comes at the sight of shiny new buildings and asking farmers to scale up-without eradicating the barriers that still exist for them, then has help truly arrived? The core truth is that the entire community food system remains immature. It is immature because it has not connected its networks and built collaborative communities of practice everywhere.
  • A viable, vibrant market that draws hundreds of customers and has community support and funding to staff and organize it is the best model. I suspect many of the markets that closed didn’t have enough vendors to create critical mass for a customer to want to shop there (having a rounded assortment of choice and variety) AND be economically viable for a vendors time. If those things don’t happen, they should close.
  • A lack of full thought process around starting a farmers market – location, day, time, available vendors, likely customers, etc. is the bigger issue.
  • I think it’s a great case for why we must invest in leadership and capacity of markets to figure out their niche, maintain customers, and play the role as the initial point of distribution and learning.
  • One hypothesis I’d offer to be proven or disproven is that I think what vendors are saying when they say “too many markets” is that many markets in the same region have the exact same mission, the exact same product offerings, the exact same shoppers. If I were a vendor at two or more of them, I’d ask myself why I needed to deal with two different administrations, two different reimbursement systems and so on, if the return is simply split between the two.
  • Taking people’s excitement about local food and farmers market and pairing it with just a little common sense could be quite helpful.   
  • How can we, the people who care about a strong farmers market sector, educate the public about the million and one actions that go into the creation of a successful market?

How does this movement press forward?

  • It’s incredible to me how threatened Big Ag feels. What’s the local food market— like 1 percent? But we have to be ready for how threatened they’re going to be. And we have to be very careful. One of the weaknesses of our movement is bastardized language. If you listen to ads from Wal-Mart and big chain grocery stores, they’ve got our language. They’re talking “local, local, local” and “sustainably raised,” and that’s just bullshit. If the big grocery store claims they’re selling local produce, find out what they’re talking about. And if you can’t, that means they’re lying. You have to educate yourself. You have to be vigilant..
  • We found that a variety of factors affect the financial outcomes of farms that produce for local markets, however, these factors affect short-term outcomes differently than long-term measures of performance…If local foods systems are going to develop to meet local demands, structural changes in agriculture and local supply chains must occur in many foodsheds. We found that the fundamental demand and supply conditions, such as access to farmer’s markets and recent growth in farmer’s markets, were critical in the producer choice to engage in local food production. (Liang 2018)
  • From “Stagnant, Saturated, or Ready to Surge? Strategic Marketing Investments for Vermont’s Direct to Consumer Markets” (Hamilton 2017)

“It is common to feel competitive with your closest market allies as they often present the most overlap in target customers, values, and attributes. At an extreme example, we often see category managers in a retail store perceiving and acting most competitive with other departments within the same store. It is easier to point to concrete and tangible discrepancies such as, they have more/better retail space, than to tackle the larger market forces of cheap industrial food, hyper-sophisticated food marketing, and disappointing consumer trends. Similarly we often hear of vendors getting wrapped up in competitive battles within their farmers market or CSA marketplace. This can present as price battles to the bottom, personal feuds and political slanders, which all serve to weaken the overall market channel and confuse customers.”

    • Need for Marketing Assistance: Direct marketers need to develop specific messaging, products and services that address the nuanced needs, pain points, and values of consumers beyond their demand for simple, easily replicable product attributes like “local” and “organic.”
    • Messaging: Vermont’s direct markets benefit from distinct competitive advantages in the context of today’s grocery industry. Direct marketers are best poised to deliver on consumer demands for authenticity, transparency, and experiential marketing. Direct marketers and advocates should work together to develop more sophisticated messaging, products, and services that address the nuanced needs, pain points, and values of consumers beyond easily replicable product attributes like “local” and “organic.”
    • Collaboration: Marketing campaigns can be strengthened through coordinated collaborations between direct marketing enterprises, market makers, and advocacy organizations. Vermont’s direct food market channel can be stronger and gain more market share through collaborations in which vendors promote other vendors. Markets can team up for regional promotions and pool resources to develop innovations and impactful messaging. Advocates can invest higher-level resources like consumer research and sophisticated statewide marketing.
With creative/entrepreneurial thinking, good data, smart organizing, and a focus on serving local farmers and good food – I see brighter headlines in our future.”
– Washington State Farmers Market Association Executive Director, Colleen Donovan.

end of Part 3

Part 1

Part 2




Brown, Allison. ( 2002) Farmers’ market research 1940- 2000: An inventory and review

Hamilton, Jean (2017). Stagnant, Saturated, or Ready to Surge? Strategic Marketing Investments for Vermont’s Direct to Consumer Markets

McCarthy, R. (2008) Evaluating the Social, Financial and Human Capital Impacts of Farmers Markets

McKee, E. (2018). “It’s the Amazon World”: Small‐Scale Farmers on an Entrepreneurial Treadmill. Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment.

Rahe, Gwin, Sussman Antolin. 2018. Oregon Community Food Systems by the Numbers.

Stephenson, G. O., Lev, L., & Brewer, L. J. (2006). When things don’t work: some insights into why farmers’ markets close.

Tropp, D. (2014) “Why Local Food Matters”The rising importance of locally-grown food in the U.S. food system” presentation to National Association of Counties Legislative Conference March 2014

USDA (2016) Local Foods Marketing Practices Highlights.

Wolnik, D., Cheek, J., & Weaver, M. (2018). Designing an effective, scalable data collection tool to measure farmers market impacts. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. Advance online publication.