What Makes a Farmers Market? Farmers Market Coalition Takes Stance, Engages Members

      Posted On: June 4, 2010


June 4, 2010
Contact:  Sharon Yeago, President; David Rand, Marketing & Public Relations Chair

As the number, popularity, and diversity of farmers markets increase year to year, the sector is evolving  in exciting ways.  This brings with it myriad opportunities as well as growing pains.  Consumers, farmers, and even market organizers may ask themselves, ‘what is a farmers market?’ Several states have enacted  legal definitions, and more are in process.

Because the farmers market sector asked for more clarity in what constitutes a farmers market, the Farmers Market Coalition convened a task force of its board members in October 2009 to address this issue. This task force was chaired by Jeff Cole of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, and included Chris Curtis of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance (Seattle, WA), Bernadine Prince of FRESHFARM Markets (Washington, DC), and Andrew Stout of Full Circle Farm (Carnation, WA).  The task force observed that many markets already label themselves with terms such as ‘producer-only,’ ‘green market,’ ‘certified,’ or ‘mixed market’ and that FMC should “work to transform markets that currently don’t have farmers to ones that do.”

In a January 2010 letter, Chair Jeff Cole noted that the term ‘farmers market’ was “coveted from marketing and public image perspectives and is not always used with sufficient integrity or in the best interest of family farms.”  The task force identified the following reasons for developing a definition:

1) Policymakers’ confusion around what a farmers market is weakens their political and financial support.

2) Consumers’ confusion leads to a lessening of their support of farmers markets and, potentially, local farmers, inhibiting the development of robust social networks within communities. Consumer confusion also allows “big retailers” to subvert local food concepts to their benefit without supporting local family farms and the communities in which they live and work.

3) Maintaining or increasing support for farmers and farmland protection is a core value in farmers markets.

4) Farmers should be encouraged to enter into direct-marketing local food systems. Farmers benefit from understanding the ground rules before entering a farmers market. The sustainability of both market organizations and farm businesses are significantly bolstered when behavior and norms are clear and adequately communicated.

5) Measurements around the effectiveness of farmers markets are significantly clouded when inconsistent or overly-expansive definitions are used in data collection.

The task force acknowledged that a universal underlying factor of the farmers market system is to support farmers and their entrance into the local food system and the community. Providing a privilege for a market to call itself what it is not (a farmers market when there are no farmers) has far greater negative consequences than positive consequences, and should not be endorsed by FMC.  Farmers markets must have farmers participating directly in the market and selling directly to the public, and activity beyond mere sales transactions must take place in this context.

In May 2010, the Farmers Market Coalition Board of Directors approved text proposed by its Definition Task Force:

A farmers market operates multiple times per year and is organized for the purpose of facilitating personal connections that create mutual benefits for local farmers, shoppers and communities. To fulfill that objective farmers markets define the term local, regularly communicate that definition to the public, and implement rules/guidelines of operation that ensure that the farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced.

Rather than dictate exactly what composes a farmers market, this represents a definitive baseline focused on the mission of a farmers market rather than the specific logistics. FMC encourages regional and local adaptation of this baseline to meet community needs as well as continued discussion and refinement as farmers markets exert leadership in defining the “who, what, when, where, why” at the local level.

The Farmers Market Coalition is providing a discussion board for its members to provide feedback and engage in dialogue and continued refinement of a definition for use on the ground.

Farmers markets are good for everyone.  Join us to make them even better.