Farmers Markets: Health, Access and Community

Originally published June 25, 2015 in Agri-Pulse.

Back in the 1980s when I sold produce from my brother’s family farm at farmers markets in Boston, there were maybe 15 farmers markets in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Today, there are nearly 300 summer and winter farmers markets.Since then, farmers markets have exploded nation-wide, driven in part by the enormous demand for healthy, fresh, local food.

Over the past three decades, I’ve visited countless farmers markets across the country, chatting with farmers and shoppers alike. Young farmers starting out express their hopes for the future of their businesses, and customers are thrilled to find just-picked, fresh, local and increasingly affordable fruits and vegetables right in their neighborhoods.

It’s become clear that markets are playing a critical role in the health of communities and their residents. Some hospitals now offer farmers market fruit and vegetable vouchers to their patients, and many low-income Americans are able to double their fruit and vegetable purchases at farmers markets offering SNAP (food stamps) incentives.

But what about the farmers? How has the increase in number of farmers markets impacted the agricultural community: the people, the economic viability, the products and the farming practices?

Selling goods directly to consumers provides a unique opportunity for farmers. In one day’s interactions, they’ll learn about customer desires, knowledge gaps and reactions to their existing product. Farmers can build their business slowly, using the customer feedback to inform production plans, farming practices, signage, and marketing efforts.

While the US Census of Agriculture monitors the number of farms direct-marketing their products, little information exists on what it means to be a farmers market farmer, and how these farmers are impacting agriculture, land use, and food consumption in general. A recent national survey by American Farmland Trust and the Farmers Market Coalition helps to shed some light on the farmers who sell at farmers markets. Here are some highlights.

America’s farmers markets are not just critical to helping thousands of young farmers get started, they are also critical to the health and well being of communities. Today, programs are underway to help ensure that:

  • All Americans, regardless of income, have access to affordable, healthy, local foods.
  • More farmers markets have EBT machines to process SNAP (i.e. food stamps) transactions, so that everyone can have access to healthy food.
  • A diversity of farmers, producing a diversity of products, can help meet the food needs of all communities—including the underserved.
  • Farmers are able to use farming practices that promote healthy soil and clean water.
  • Farmland is protected in order to support the ability of communities to provide healthy, local food to their citizens well into the future.

We still have a long way to go. But the nation’s farmers and farmers markets are helping us get there.