About Farmers Markets (Q & A)

What is a farmers market?

A farmers market is a public and recurring assembly of farmers or their representatives, selling directly to consumers food which they have produced themselves.  More specifically, 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 a farmers market defines the term local, regularly communicates 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. Some states have even established their own formal definitions which specify market characteristics in more detail. The number of farmers markets in the United States has steadily grown to more than 8,500 currently registered in the USDA Farmers Market Directory.

What will I find at a farmers market?

It depends. Farmers markets vary in size and shape. Some are just a few vendors who gather a few days out of the year or month, while others involve hundreds of vendors and take place year-round. The products available at farmers market generally represent their agricultural region, meaning that you might find avocados, olives, and artichokes in Texas or California, and be more likely to find paw paws, peanuts, and peonies in Virginia.

Some markets concentrate on produce, while others carry everything from fruits and vegetables to baked goods, meat, eggs, flowers, and dairy products. Some may carry locally made crafts or prepared foods as a complement to the agricultural products they sell. As the number of markets grows, so does the variety of foods available.

How do farmers markets determine what to carry?

What is at market depends on a combination of location, season, and market rules about what can be sold. Many farmers markets only carry locally-grown, locally-made and/or locally-processed, foods, and create a system of guidelines that ensure vendors are producing what they are selling. Others have more flexible policies. The great thing about farmers markets is that if you are ever unsure about what a product is, where it came from, or how it was grown, you can just ask!

Are farmers markets only open in the summer?

Peak harvest season is usually peak market season, and some markets are only open in the prime summer months.  In 2010, about 15% of all farmers markets were open in the winter months, and the average seasonal farmers market in the U.S. is open for approximately four and a half months of the year.  However, you can expect to see more markets open for business in late spring through early fall, as markets aim to provide customers with products for more months of the year. Many markets are expanding their seasons through the winter or even all year with items like meat, eggs, dairy, bread and other products that are available fresh all year long. Even in colder climates, farmers are implementing a variety of season extension techniques that can protect crops from frosts and allow them to provide you with quality fresh produce for more weeks of the year. You can learn more about what is seasonally available in your community here.

How can I find a farmers market near me?

Farmers markets are in every state and located in all kinds of places– from Main Streets to city centers, from parks to parking lots, from sidewalks to shopping centers. To find a market near you, ask your neighbors, friends, and colleagues, or search for one in USDA’s Farmers Market Directory, or at LocalHarvest.org and EatWellGuide.org. A large number of states have a statewide farmers market association that can also provide you with information. You can find a listing of the statewide farmers market associations that are also FMC members by clicking here.

If you live in Ohio, Michigan, California, Wisconsin, Kentucky, New York, Iowa, Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Massachusetts you are lucky enough to be in a state with the most farmers markets in the country.

Do farmers markets only take cash?

There are many ways to pay at farmers markets. Cash usually works best but many farmers markets also accept credit and debit cards. Moreover, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has partnered with FMC to provide eligible farmers markets and direct marketing farmers with the equipment necessary to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In the past five years, the number of farmers markets and direct marketing farmers authorized to accept SNAP has grown from 1,041 to 6,500, and the amount of SNAP dollars spent at farmers markets has almost tripled.

In addition, more than 4,070 markets accept Women, Infant and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers and 4,590 markets participate in the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). In 2011, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service reported that over $38 million was spent at farmers markets through these two programs alone. Some markets have even developed their own locally based currencies, like HealthBucks in New York and Fresh Bucks in Rhode Island.

Who operates farmers markets?

Some cities are home to regional market networks, such as Greenmarket in New York City, FreshFarm Markets in Washington, DC, and Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance in Seattle. Many markets operate independently, or with the help of city or nonprofit partners, sometimes transitioning to a stand-alone nonprofit as they grow. No matter how farmers markets organize, there is always a market manager who enforces the market bylaws and oversees the daily business of the market. The market manager is generally the best point of contact for any questions.

Is produce from the farmers market always fresher and healthier?

More than 85% of farmers market vendors traveled fewer than 50 miles to sell at a farmers market in 2008.  In fact, more than half of farmers traveled less than 10 miles to their market, according to the USDA.  Some farmers markets require that all of their produce come from a specified mileage limit. For example, all farm products sold at the Morgantown Farmers Market in West Virginia are grown within 50 miles. Compare that to most supermarkets where seven to fourteen days can go by between the time produce is picked and when it becomes available to shoppers. In that time, fruits and vegetables travel, on average, more than 1,200 miles before reaching grocery store shelves. Studies have shown that produce loses nutritional value as more time elapses from the time of harvest, locally grown produce available at farmers markets is available to you at the peak of freshness and nutrient availability.

Why should I shop at a farmers market when my supermarket sells organic, and sometimes even local food?

While some food retailers do carry some local and organic products, not all of them can carry a variety of local foods, or ensure a fair price to the farmer. Shopping at a farmers market is a wholly unique experience that benefits farmers and producers directly (they go home with a greater share of the retail price than they would by selling wholesale, where the margins are, well, just that– marginal), offering you more unique products, more heirloom varieties, and more opportunities to build relationships and learn about healthy eating. Farmers markets are a community experience, where you can meet your neighbors, friends, and farmers, and where more of your dollar will stay in the community.

Are prices for food the same at farmers markets as in grocery stores?

Farmers market vendors are local entrepreneurs who, like other retailers, set prices that allow them to reasonably cover their costs. Prices vary by product, but a number of studies (including one’s from Seattle, NOFA-VT, and Leopold Center) found that similar produce are typically less expensive at farmers markets than at nearby grocery stores. A recent Economic Research Service report showed that less healthy foods tend to have a low price per calorie, increasing the difficulty of adding fresh fruits and vegetables into American diets. However, a price study conducted by students at Seattle University showed that most vegetables sold at the farmers market had lower if not comparable prices to their grocery store. Further, in 74% of the communities examined in Anthony Flaccavento’s price comparison study of Appalachia and the Southeast, produce was less expensive at farmers markets compared to supermarkets, on average by 22%. One cost advantage that farmers markets offer is the ability to buy fresh food in bulk at the height of the season and preserve or freeze for later use when the product would otherwise be more expensive, hard to find, or of lower quality.

When I shop at a farmers market, where does my money go?

At a farmers market, you hand your money to the person who grew or made the products in front of you.  According to the USDA, more than 150,000 farmers, ranchers, and agricultural entrepreneurs are selling quality products directly to consumers.  These direct sales at farmers markets exceeded $1.5 billion nationwide in 2015. A series of case studies by Civic Economics shows that for every dollar we spend at a large chain, about 15 cents stays in the area, while locally owned enterprises like farms trap 30 to 45 cents. Boise, Idaho’s Capital City Public Market generated an estimated $4.5 million in economic activity for the local economy in 2011 and in Iowa, thanks to the efforts of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, sales of local food by farmers in northeast Iowa rose from less than $10,000 in 2006 to over $2 million by 2010.  The majority of the money spent at markets, and the jobs that come with it, stay in the communities where the markets are located. The 52 producers of the Williamsburg Farmers Market in Virginia generated an estimated $48,969.84 in state sales tax in 2011, supporting the state economy. 32 percent of Crescent City Farmers Market shoppers in New Orleans report spending money at nearby businesses, resulting in $3.2 million in projected gross receipts and an annual contribution of $151,621 to local sales tax revenue.

How does shopping at a farmers market help my local economy?

Farmers markets generate business, and business creates jobs. A 2011 Economic Research Service report found that fruit and vegetable farms selling into local and regional markets employ 13 full-time workers per $1 million in revenue earned. Comparatively, fruit and vegetable farms that are not selling locally employed only three full-time workers per $1 million in revenue.

Farmers markets also bring business to neighboring stores and communities where the market is located. Spending money at farmers markets keeps your money in circulation within the local community, preserving and creating local jobs. A 2010 study of the Easton Farmers Market in Pennsylvania, for example, found that 70% of farmers market customers are also shopping at downtown businesses, spending up to an extra $26,000 each week. This is very different from many major grocery stores where a large percentage of sales leave the community, and possibly even the state or the region. A Virginia Cooperative Extension report showed if households in Southern Virginia spent 15 percent of their weekly food budget on locally grown food products, $90 million in new farm income would be created for the region.

How has the current economic crisis impacted farmers markets?

Despite the recession, farmers markets are booming.  The Food Marketing Institute found that local and sustainable foods were a top buying trend for in each of the last 8 years. Economist Ken Meter of Crossroads Resource Center notes that, as a business model, farmers markets are inherently flexible, which offers them protection from drastic economic changes. “They can adjust price and adjust their product to get consumers’ needs met. Retailers and big stores with big overheads and big expenses can’t do that.”

What happens to food left over at farmers markets?

Most vendors have a good sense of how much will sell on any given market day, and prepare for it accordingly. However, if there are leftovers at the end of market, vendors are ready to recycle unsold produce into value-added products. For instance, excess tomatoes become tomato sauce and apples become apple cider. Unsaleable produce can be composted to return nutrients back to the farmers’ fields. In addition, many markets also have donation arrangements with local food banks, soup kitchens, and other social service agencies. Farmers at seven farmers markets making up the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance in Seattle donated 44,000 pounds of fresh, local, quality produce to food banks in 2011. Through a partnership with a local health food store, farmers at the Webb City Farmers Market in Missouri donated enough fresh produce to serve 4,000 vegetarian and vegan meals to tornado relief volunteers working in the heat after the Joplin tornado last May. These are just a few examples of the ways farmers give back to the communities that host their markets.

How do farmers markets preserve farmland?

As the number of markets grow around the country, so do the number of farmers. For instance, Alabama had 17 registered farmers markets in 1999, involving 234 farmers. Fewer than ten years later (2008), there were 102 farmers markets involving 1,064 farmers in the same state. This means that with the help of farmers markets, hundreds of farmers choose to stay in agriculture over another profession, thereby helping to preserve Alabama’s farmland and rural traditions. Further, farmers markets allow young farmers to network and learn from more experienced farmers. The Webb City Farmers Market runs a mentoring program that partners their most experienced growers as well as state extension horticulturists with younger farmers who want to improve quality and production practices. “Last week our inspection team visited three farms and saw, for the first time, drip irrigation in action on those farms”, says Eileen Nichols, Market Manager. “Before starting the mentoring program, they either had no water in the fields or were trying to use small sprinklers.”

Seven Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance (NFMA) markets in Seattle support 9,491 acres of farmland in diversified production, stewarding natural resources rather than selling out to industrial residential development. “This represents a four-fold increase in the last ten years,” says NFMA Executive Director Chris Curtis. Even smaller markets nationwide champion acreage in the hundreds, such as Georgia’s Lilburn Farmers Market, which supports 10 farms stewarding 500 acres of farmland.

Chicago’s Green City Market, established in 1999, required that all of its 2012 vendors possess one of eight third-party certifications. Nearly half of the 44 farmers chose the USDA Organic Certification, ensuring clarity for consumers regarding chemical usage and contributing to the long-term health of farmland. Believed to be the first of its kind to require such production-practice certification, the Green City Market serves as a model for new markets and farmers alike.

I love my farmers market. What can I do to support it?

Purchasing as much as you can from your community’s farmers market is the simplest way to demonstrate your support. Some markets have “friends of…” programs where you can contribute directly to the market’s operation and support its educational programs. Others may be recruiting neighborhood volunteers or providers of in-kind design, writing, or bookkeeping services. Just ask the market manager how you can help best. You can also support the Farmers Market Coalition’s national efforts to strengthen farmers markets (through education, leadership development, National Farmers Market Week, and other technical assistance programs) by making a secure on-line donation.

These FAQs were developed in collaboration with USDA Agricultural Marketing Service.

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Sources and Other Resources

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