A couple of headlines earlier this year grabbed my attention: “Has the Farmers Market Movement Peaked?” ran in the Los Angeles Times, and “Are Farmers Market Sales Peaking?” appeared on NPR’s The Salt blog.
The headlines were based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture report from January that showed while more farmers are selling directly to consumers, what consumers are spending has decreased slightly.
Here are the details: Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers selling directly to consumers increased 5.5 percent, while the value of sales declined by 1 percent. (These sales include transactions at farmers markets, roadside stands, pick-your-own farms and community-supported agriculture subscriptions.) For a little historical context, between 2002 and 2007, the number of farmers selling directly to consumers increased 17 percent and the value of sales increased 32 percent.
In other words, today we have more farmers splitting the same pot of money.
The Triangle’s about 30 farmers markets are holding steady but not immune to the trend.
A few managers of the larger markets say they have seen attendance plateau or decrease slightly. Attendance at Raleigh’s state-run farmers market off Lake Wheeler Road peaked at 3.7 million people in fiscal year 2013, up from 3.3 million in 2010. Last year’s attendance was down slightly by 33,000, or less than 1 percent.
Few local markets track sales numbers or are willing to share them. But one market that does is the Western Wake Farmers’ Market whose board president is Jim Pellegrini, owner of Muddy Dog Roasting Co. Pellegrini, who has an MBA from Duke University, had the market start tracking sales numbers as well as attendance a few years ago.
What Pellegrini sees is worrying. At last year’s opening weekend, customers spent $15,000; this year, it was $12,000. Attendance also has decreased at the market.
“It’s down. It’s real,” Pellegrini said.
He added: “We are not weak. I’m sounding the alarm bell now because I’m worried about the 20-year trend.”
Pellegrini identified several reasons for this trend, which were echoed by managers and farmers at other Triangle markets. In January, for the first time, Americans spent more money on food at restaurants than at grocery stores. Plus, more people are spending money on produce delivery services, like Papa Spud’s and Produce Box. Finally, farmers markets aren’t new anymore.
“We find it harder to be exciting,” said Erin Jobe, manager at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, the area’s longest running farmer-run market. “There are so many ways to get local food. It’s wonderful. Farmers markets are going to have to bank on direct relationships customers have with farmers.”
George O’Neal, owner of Lil’ Farm and president of the Durham Farmers’ Market board, agrees but worries that local food’s allure is being diluted by chain restaurants that promise “farm fresh veggies” on their buffets and produce delivery services that sell bananas alongside North Carolina produce.
“Don’t be fooled by the marketing,” urged O’Neal. “Go have a connection with an actual farmer.”
To stay robust, markets have to adapt. That’s why Pellegrini and the Western Wake Farmers Market have made some strategic decisions for the future. The market added a second location at the UNC Wellness Center at Northwest Cary. The market also partnered with the town of Morrisville to move its original location at Carpenter Village to near Town Hall in two to three years.
My hope for the Triangle’s farmers market scene is that people realize markets aren’t just places to do the grocery shopping. They are community events and even define our communities. (What would Carrboro be without that market? Or Durham Central Park?) These markets are worthy of patronage and spending money with these farmers and vendors is not just buying delicious foods to eat but an investment in our communities.
As O’Neal said, “Why not prioritize the vitality of the community and your health at the same time?”