As Farmers Markets Turn Into Trendy Food Courts, Some Farmers Are Feeling Left Behind

Image courtesy of Lucy Rendler-Kaplan

A decade ago, as farmers markets were beginning to see a resurgence in a number of U.S. cities, they were a place to spend a morning picking up fresh, seasonal ingredients. Aside from the occasional stand selling baked goods, there wasn’t really anywhere to dine or socialize.

Since then, the number of markets operating in the U.S. has nearly doubled to more than 8,500, and in many of the wealthier metropolitan cities, farmers markets are transforming from the place you go to get ingredients for a meal, to the place you go for a meal — fresh pizza, sandwiches, smoothies, coffees, snacks, ice cream. That’s great news for people who previously found farmers markets lacking in excitement, but some farmers say it’s not great for their bottom line.

Today’s Washington Post takes an in-depth look at the recent shifts in farmers market culture, and the impact they’ve had on those who originally helped make these forums popular.

The farmers market in D.C.’s DuPont Circle has been around for nearly 20 years, but a number of traditional farmers say they have seen their revenues from this market drop significantly — by upwards of 50% — as a growing number of the markets’ visitors come to buy something other than farm-fresh produce and other ingredients.

One farmer says this new brand of market-goer is “shopping with the eyes… and they don’t care about the season.”

These are customers who can get organic groceries from any number of sources, and can get them delivered to their door. Similarly there are a growing array of farm-to-table restaurants, serving up food with farm-fresh ingredients, so these folks don’t have to do any cooking.

Which is why some newer growers are going against the grain, using greenhouses so that they don’t have to tell a customer that you can’t get farm-fresh tomatoes in February.

To the traditional farmers, this is both a smack in the face to the ethos of earth-friendly farming (growing in a greenhouse requires a lot more energy) and a direct attack at their wallets — if a customer can get the same tomatoes all year round, it may result in a loss of value to a traditional farmer’s seasonal products.

So the question facing these farmers — and the companies that operate the markets — is how best to evolve their businesses to adjust to reality of a world where “going to the farmers market” no longer necessarily equates with “buying things directly from farmers.”

Some say they are considering becoming certified through the USDA’s Good Agricultural Practices program (GAP), which would allow them to sell to restaurant chains and large retail stores. In fact, the company that operates the DuPont Circle market and several others says it has raised funds to help upwards of 25 farms prepare to be GAP-certified.

However, some of these farmers tell the Post spoke to are skeptical, raising concerns about the cost of coming into — and maintaining — compliance with the federal standards.