The Cultural Significance of the Farmers Market

Farmers markets are important for many reasons.  Foremost, they are important because they are the critical component in rebuilding local food economies. By providing a cost-effective, retail sales opportunity for local food producers, farmers markets help make farming profitable. By making farming profitable, we preserve farmland and farmers and have encouraged a new generation to take-up farming.

Farmers markets are cost-effective for farmers because they provide brief periods of intense retail sales with low fixed costs.  Unlike grocery stores or public markets, farmers markets ask their customers to come at the same time – for brief periods of time -once or twice a week; thereby minimizing the retail labor cost for the farmer.

Minimizing the retail hours of operation has multiple benefits:

1) Farmers can be full-time farmers and part-time retailers;

2) Rapid sales encourage farmers to bring bountiful quantities to market, thus creating the abundant displays we feast upon every week. And, as the old retail adage goes, “Stack ‘em high, watch ‘em fly!”  Farmers markets validate this adage every week; and,

3) By having customers come at the same time, farmers markets have the potential to become important social and civic events for their communities.

The mercantile purpose is, of course, the raison d’être for the market and the one that farmers and customers immediately recognize. But, I contend markets are culturally significant for two more reasons – reasons that I characterize as social and civic.   In my experience, these two aspects are not always fully-developed in farmers markets.  This situation always saddens and frustrates me, because I believe all three purposes are important and complementary.

By social purpose, I mean that a farmers market can be an important social event in the life of a community. It is a meeting place that encourages friendly interactions.  Food shopping is a weekly event – thus increasing repeated social interactions.  I contend that for many customers, the social aspect of many farmers markets may be as important as the mercantile.

By civic purpose(s), I mean that farmers markets can be community-building,  community-defining and community-sustaining institutions.  They can provide opportunities for citizen involvement in food policy issues; promote volunteerism; and serve as a civic forum regarding matters of importance to the community, e.g. public health issues, community planning issues, political issues and campaigns.  In addition, farmers markets help bridge the cultural and economic schisms that often exist between the urban and rural citizens.

In my opinion, farmers markets are most likely to succeed and most deserving of civic support when managed to support all three of these purposes.

The Three Purposes of Farmers Markets

Defining Terms

When I say “farmers market” I mean an open-air market that occurs once or twice a week for a limited number of hours at a specific location, providing stall space to farmers and artisan food producers. I realize, however, that behind the curtain, not all farmers market organizations are alike.  Many different organizational models have been used to create and support markets.

Some markets are community-organized; some are farmer-organized; and some are entrepreneurial private businesses. Some lack any organization.

If a market is community-organized, it may be operated by a city government, an independent non-profit corporation or as an adjunct activity of a business or civic group. If it is farmer-organized, it may be an informal or formal legal relationship.

There are varying traditions and regional differences.  I approach this topic from a Pacific Northwest perspective.  Consequently, in my experience, community-organized markets seem most likely to recognize and best able to support the mercantile, social, and civic purposes of a market.  In other words, I believe farmers markets should be place-based institutions in more than just name.

Farmers market customers want their farmers and their farmers markets to succeed. And, in general, it is the customers – the community residents – that have the time, volunteer energy, and local connections to make the market a success. That’s the model we pioneered in our neighborhood.

But, I do not mean to exclude farmer vendors from participating in the governance of a market organization. In the case of HFM, farmers have designated seats on the board of directors, but neighborhood residents hold a majority. In the case of an existing farmer-organized market, it might be helpful to create a community-based sister organization (e.g., “Friends of the Market”) to help operate the market.

The Mercantile Purpose

Location. Creating a significant business opportunity for local producers should be the number one goal of all farmers markets. And, as is true for any retail store, location matters.

To locate a market in an out-of-the-way location limits convenience and visibility. In contrast, locating in a central business district or neighborhood business district increases convenience and visibility. By convenience, I mean both proximity and synergy with area businesses.

When a market is located in a functioning business district, customers can accomplish multiple tasks, e.g., library, banking, pharmacy, etc. in combination with a visit to the market. What I do not advocate is locating a farmers market in a dead or dying business district with the hope that the presence of the market will revive it. Dysfunctional business districts generally have many problems that need to be addressed before starting a farmers market. To attract and keep farmers, farmers markets need to be a success from day one.

Sometimes business district merchants oppose locating a farmers market in the vicinity of their stores. However, in all of the surveys taken at farmers markets located in business districts here in Oregon, the surrounding storefront businesses have benefited financially by having a farmers market locate in their midst.[iv]

Securing a site in a business district that can accommodate a market by providing truck access and customer parking is often a challenge. In general, community-organized markets have the business and political connections to beg, borrow, or lease a site; and ideally, the commitment to eventually secure a permanent site.

A permanent site should be a priority for any market. It is a goal not yet realized in our neighborhood. If we are asking our farmers to bet the farm on direct marketing, then we urbanites need to invest in permanent sites (not necessarily permanent structures, mind you) for our farmers markets. They are urban infrastructure investments needed to support sustainable local food economies.

Design and Management

Like it or not, operating a farmers markets is in many ways analogous to designing and managing a shopping mall. And, I think farmers markets can benefit from the research that has been done to develop economically successful malls. Specifically, I am thinking about things like securing “anchor stores” at each end of the mall; a layout that provides a circular pedestrian route; a carefully selected mix of stores; a central “food court”; and public toilets!  I think all these lessons are applicable to farmers markets.

Mall operators encourage customers to linger because they understand that increasing time spent increases money spent. With respect to farmers markets, I contend that encouraging people to linger serves all three purposes of the market – mercantile, social, and civic.

Therefore, to encourage lingering and sociability in your market:

  • Layout the market to provide a circular path that encourages strolling and recirculating
  • Provide aisles that are sufficiently wide to permit people to pause and chat without interrupting the flow of pedestrian traffic (yet tight enough to cause people to interact)
  • Provide tables and chairs
  • Offer coffee and a few healthy, artisan comestibles for on-site eating
  • Provide live music, food demonstrations, etc.
  • Provide portable toilets or secure access to restrooms in nearby buildings.

The Social Purpose

In my experience, the social purpose of a market can be managed to complement, not overwhelm, the mercantile purpose. It is the value-added component of shopping at a farmers market.

According to research done by the Project of Public Places, a customer has an average number of 15-20 social interactions at a farmers market versus 1-2 at a grocery store.[v]

When I founded the Hollywood Farmers Market, I consciously developed the social component of the market. From the start, HFM was intended to be a place for neighbors to gather and meet. And, that spirit is what I sought to capture in the market slogan – “Where Local Growers Bring in the Harvest Every Week and the Neighborhood Celebrates!”  The slogan was intended to be an invitation to come and linger and enjoy!

And, the neighbors came and stayed and bought because we had assembled a great group of farmers and artisan food producers and we followed the advice I offered above. We had a good site, a good circulation pattern, close but not tight aisles, a few on-site comestibles, tables, chairs, music, and portable toilets!

In our neighborhood, Saturday mornings at the farmers market has become quality family time. Strollers and wagons full of kids, berries, and fresh corn is a common sight.

In the last fifteen years, hundreds of volunteers have invested their time in setting-up and breaking down the market and in greeting their neighbors; and dozens of volunteers have served as board members. Many of the original vendors remain – some farms now represented by the next generation. New residents and vendors have been quickly absorbed into the activity. Friendships have ensued. Volunteer leaders grown. Through marriages, divorces, births and deaths – market friendships have offered support and solace.

Finally, recognize that your market has a personality or ’soul’. Create a welcoming atmosphere.

 

When we started HFM, I stated that I wanted it to have the beauty, innocence, and pride associated with the agricultural exhibits at the county fair. I believe that is still good advice.

In my opinion, a farmers market should not resemble or smell like a carnival midway. When I go to the market – and linger – I want to be able to smell the aroma of fresh basil, anise, and melons in the wind– not kettle corn. Protect the soul of your market.

The Civic Purpose

As sociologist Robert Putnam has reported, we aren’t as social as we used to be.[vii]  We don’t join as many organizations; we’re not as involved in community life. In Oregon, our elections use mail-in ballots exclusively, so we don’t even gather together to vote any more.

I contend farmers markets are the counterexample – if they are managed to promote the social purpose. Farmers markets can be a meaningful way to rebuild social capital. They are a communal activity.

In addition, community-organized markets provide opportunities for volunteer involvement – including opportunities for children.   Community involvement is a concrete example of city residents becoming involved in food policy issues and helping to create a sustainable local food system.

Furthermore, farmers markets promote healthy eating by providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  In our neighborhood, we now have a generation of children who have grown-up enjoying and expecting fresh local produce – a habit that will influence their food choices for the rest of their lives. Use the farmers market as a venue to educate people about healthy food choices. Be mindful of what products can be sold in your market. If healthy food is part of your market’s mission, for example, why include junk foods (e.g., soda or caramel corn)?

Historically, markets have also been civic forums. Seize the opportunity. Devote one stall space as a community booth that can be reserved by community groups and public agencies for outreach purposes. Set up a table for petitioners.

In Conclusion 

Farmers markets are the prototypical example of communities regaining local control over one aspect of their economic lives. People have voted with their dollars and their feet to support farmers markets and local agriculture.  But farmers markets are more than just business enterprises.

Farmers markets are important because they have helped us reconnect to the land, but equally important, they have helped reconnect with one another.  I urge you to manage your market to serve all three purposes: the mercantile, the social, and the civic.  They are complementary and synergistic.

See you at the market!

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