A 2020 vision for Maine’s farmers’ markets

The future reality of farmers’ markets can be determined to a great degree by today’s vision of what we’d like to see, and on what tools we have and can develop to bring that vision about. This article discusses our understanding of where we are today, and what choices we might make to bring about a bright future where the majority of the population understands how their own economic, social, and spiritual lives benefit by shopping locally. To satisfy that desire for local sourcing there will be hundreds of independent local markets who each supply their surrounding communities with a far wider range of goods and services than they do today. At the end of this decade we might look back at the farmers’ markets of 2012 and realize that they were just the tip of the iceberg. As we begin, let’s consider four major trends that are affecting in farmers’ markets in Maine today.

Current Trends

First, as of 2012 there are close to a hundred farmers’ markets in the state and more forming all the time. The vast majority of newly forming and established markets are one-location markets, organized either by the farmers themselves or by a local market sponsor. Each gets started for reasons of isolated local interests, such as for attracting shoppers into an area or for providing a market outlet for the members’ products. In other words, there is little thought given about how a new market in any particular location will affect surrounding markets, even though all new markets undoubtedly introduce farmers’ markets to a certain number of brand new market shoppers.

Second, in several other states a problem has arisen where there is the perception among many market members that there are already too many farmers’ markets too close together, and that this only acts to break the pie of market shoppers into smaller and smaller pieces, with the result that market members are bemoaning the over-saturation of the marketplace. This has yet to become a major problem for Maine markets, but we can only assume that this phenomenon may well be in our not-too-distant future. The obvious solution is to grow the size of the pie, or at least to keep the growth in numbers of markets in balance with the growth rate in the number of market shoppers.

Third, there are three basic categories of market members in most farmers’ markets today, consisting of: 1) farmers (including greenhouses and honey and maple producers), 2) non-farming food producers (makers of cheese, jams, baked goods, caterers, wildcrafters, etc.), and 3) non-farming non-food producers (makers of soaps, salves, carvings, wrought iron, printed or painted goods, pottery, etc). Note that although farmers themselves will often bring the same items as those from groups 2 & 3, these two groups intend to refer to members who are not farming at all, at least not in relation to what they are bringing to market. For a further discussion of this way of categorizing market members, with more examples, see Types of Farmers’ Market Members.

Fourth, the retail industry is not oblivious to the success of farmers’ markets, and we can expect they will be using their significant resources to woo folks away from shopping at farmers’ markets. National and multi-national chains will “localize” their image, make their displays, signage, “outdoor feel”, and product lines imitate those found at markets as far as possible. They will include photos and stories about their growers and processors, attempting to “put a face on their food”. They may even set up produce displays under canopies outside their front doors, or invite the local farmers’ market to set up in their parking lot. In short, we should expect competition that is a lot more directly targeted at us and our shoppers from the brick-and-mortar retail establishment.

What should our response to these trends be?

Looking at today’s situation in our markets and at trends likely to soon emerge, what can we envision as the most appropriate ways for the community of farmers’ markets to respond? Should we fail to respond appropriately to such trends the rising tide of our markets may languish and subside. To work toward an answer, we might do well to look at the current strengths and weaknesses of our markets.

Strengths and weaknesses of markets

A great current strength of markets is that there is no overall shortage of people wanting to join them to sell. While this can create problems when trying to decide who is admitted to a market, it means that there are folks waiting in the wings whenever a market has a vacancy or decides to expand its numbers. This factor is often more prevalent in large markets in larger towns than it is in small markets in smaller towns. However, the very existence of numerous small markets, as well as the ability to start a farmers’ market just about anywhere, provide alternatives to those who have difficulty joining larger markets.

In most markets there is a tendency for such things as the days, hours, season, and location to be determined in relative isolation from other nearby markets.This tendency is countered somewhat by the fact that many market members attend more than one market, which provides some cross fertilization of ideas and techniques among markets that have multi-market members. The existence of an active statewide association of farmers markets such as MFFM further enhances the likelihood of such cross fertilization.

Most markets have a single steering committee or board which oversees only that one location or market. This results in a given minimum amount of organizational overhead for each market. A few farmers’ market associations in the state have multi-location markets on multiple days, with a single board or steering committee overseeing all locations. Cumberland Farmers’ Market Association and Lewiston Farmers’ Market are examples of this. Such efforts result in a greater number of markets with very little additional organizational overhead required. They also offer market members the opportunity of attending more market locations without having to join more markets.

Several market members have begun expressing concerns over the increasing number of non-farming market members in their markets. While all micro businesses have a wide range of common interests, all farming micro businesses have far more in the way of common interests. A vegetable grower and a goat dairy share a similar agrarian culture; bakers, soap makers and ironmongers are simply not on the same cultural page as farmers.

On the other hand, markets offering shoppers a more varied and interesting display of products tend to be stronger markets that keep more shoppers coming back repeatedly. Food and non-food items produced by non-farming market members can and do supply much of the variety which gives shoppers even more reason to return to the market to shop. A current trend in food retailing in both supermarkets and specialty stores is to include a wide variety of locally produced fresh and processed items, although not at the tiny producer scale seen at farmers’ markets.

This trend does, however, give shoppers access to many previously unavailable items, and although it does not allow them to “meet the producer”, it will continue to erode the appeal of local farmers’ markets.

A possible vision for the future

We should expect that simply repeating the “same old same old” way of thinking about markets will lead us straight into difficulties. Our old “tried and true” methods will likely benefit from some adjustment during these times of rapid change in the greater food system. Considering the trends, strengths and weaknesses cited above, how can we think about markets in a way that facilitates the evolution of a robust farmers’ market scenario for the year 2020?

  1. Grow the numbers of folks who want to shop at a farmers’ market through educating the public and through connections with other “buy local” efforts, and other community organizations.
  2. Increase the desirability of shopping at market by offering far wider array of goods and services, while retaining the “buy from the producer” image and “no peddlers or re-sellers” rules.
  3. Encourage markets to invite and make space for non-farming micro businesses offering both food and other goods and services so they better reflect the productive capacities of the local economies.
  4. Reduce the organizational and operational overhead of new markets by using a single local farmers’ market association to operate multiple market locations wherever practical.
  5. Forget about keeping the farmers’ market for farmers only and invite in a wider range of local micro businesses. Accept the fact that farmers’ market membership will consist of a range of very different types of businesses whose principle commonality is the dependency upon the local marketplace. A wider variety of member types will teach and learn from one another, and more closely reflects the broader community. This seems to be the way many markets are now headed almost unintentionally, but we should not be going there without a general agreement among each market’s members that this should indeed be the market’s course of development.
This fifth suggestion is perhaps the most difficult to accept at present, at least by many market members. How could we develop ways of retaining the agricultural nature of a farmers’ market that may already have significant numbers of non-farmers as members? Here are some alternative possibilities to consider (mix and match!):
  1. Reduce or eliminate the number of non-farming members at farmers’ markets. Since non-farming market members already make up a significant and valuable segment of today’s market members, this may be impractical and undesirable to current market members.
  2. Physically divide the market into farmer and non-farmer sections, and maybe with the overall market being considered a “Community Market Day”. However, the current mix of market member types and displays contributes to the charm and vitality of the markets.
  3. Allow voting and decision-making in the farmers’ market to be exercised by farmers only, everyone else perhaps being “associate members”. This hardly seems fair.
  4. Create a parallel market structure for non-farmers which is organized and maintained by the non-farmers, while they continue to set up with the farmers market on market days. Close cooperation between the two organizations would be essential (and complicated).
  5. See #5 above. After all, shouldn’t agriculture get re-integrated into our culture?

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.