Farmers' Markets Grow 17%, Continuing Trend

A closed-off public street. A parking lot. A barn. These are just a few places where shoppers can find farmers' markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farmers' market directory. Despite the location, people can't seem to get enough of farmers' markets. The USDA reported this month that more than 1,000 new markets have sprung up in the U.S. marketplace during the past year, their

A closed-off public street. A parking lot. A barn. These are just a few places where shoppers can find farmers' markets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farmers' market directory.

Despite the location, people can't seem to get enough of farmers' markets. The USDA reported this month that more than 1,000 new markets have sprung up in the U.S. marketplace during the past year, their numbers growing 17%, from 6,132 markets to 7,175. These markets are gaining popularity in diverse parts of the country, too. Alaska, Texas and Colorado experienced the biggest growth, while California, New York and Michigan are home to the most markets.

On top of growing in number, farmers' markets have been stepping up their efforts to make their food accessible to the food insecure. Now, almost 12% of farmers' markets accept SNAP benefits, an increase of 16%, the USDA found from self-reported data collected last spring.

As farmers' markets grow in number and accessibility, retailers may be asking themselves if the markets are a threat. One expert says no.

“It's such a little bit of business that it's not going to close a supermarket down,” said Ron Pelger, president and chief executive officer of RonProCon, a Reno, Nev.-based produce and floral consultancy.

However, retailers should take note that growth in farmers' markets stresses shoppers' continued interest in local, fresh foods, as well as a desire to connect with food producers.

Pelger told SN that for consumers, farmers' markets represent “fresh.” A farmers' market “gives people the feeling that they're getting a product that's picked maybe that morning — and that afternoon at the farmers' market they can get fresh product,” he said.

But, while shoppers expect products grown by the vendors themselves, it may not always be the case. Pelger said in his personal shopping, he's experienced vendors selling products that were impossible to grow in the region or with other suppliers' brands on them. Overall, though, it would appear that vendors sell the majority of their own products: Pelger estimates 80% to 85% of the products are currently grown by vendors.

Shoppers' sustained interest in local food has led supermarkets to create new marketing programs highlighting the local growers with whom they work. Some retailers are bringing attention to their continued work with local growers, while others are reaching out for new partnerships.

For instance, earlier this month, Weis Markets began a campaign highlighting 13 of its long-time local growers and noting that their produce moves from the farm to the store in 24 hours. Photos of the growers are displayed on Weis' website, circulars, advertisements and produce departments.

And, just last week, Meijer announced that it has increased its purchases of local produce by 5% this year (see related story [2]).

Some retailers are even hosting or holding their own farmers' markets, such as Whole Foods Market, which according to the USDA directory, is home to five farmers' markets on the East Coast.

Onsite farmers' markets — whether hosted or the retailer's own — have the potential to bring more people to the store who might then go buy other items. “What it does is it draws people. And that's the object of supermarkets when you're operating a business,” said Pelger, who noted that retailers putting together their own markets is a slow-growing area of business due to seasonal limitations.

NUMBER OF U.S. FARMERS' MARKETS

1994 1,755
1996 2,410
1998 2,746
2000 2,863
2002 3,137
2004 3,706
2006 4,385
2008 4,685
2009 5,274
2010 6,132
2011 7,175

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Marketing Services Division