By Alexander Chen
From hair salons and movie theaters shuttering indefinitely due to COVID-19 fears to auto parts stores and commercial real estate brokerages suffering from pandemic-induced contractions in consumer demand, few industries across America have escaped recent months unscathed.
Yet, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, farmers’ markets nationwide have thrived in the midst of this unprecedented public health crisis. Most likely fueled by high demand for fresh, locally-grown, sustainable produce by affluent quarantine-weary consumers as well as widespread concerns about the risks of shopping at enclosed grocery stores, the recent success of farmers’ markets has unquestionably been one of the rare more sanguine pandemic tales.
However, while the COVID-19 has brought a temporary boost to America’s farmers’ markets, legitimate questions about their viability as an economic model remain from before the pandemic. With total revenue at farmers’ markets across the nation totaling $711 million according to a survey conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service in 2015, it should seem that farmers’ markets are sound business models, especially as consumer tastes change to favor more locally-sourced foodstuffs. Indeed, the growth of such markets has not only helped farmers acquire critically-needed reliable income streams but also assisted average consumers, especially low-income families, incorporate healthier products into their daily diets.
Yet, despite their continuing proliferation, farmers’ markets have faced a series of challenges, many structural in nature, that threaten their very survival. For instance, the explosion in their numbers from about 2,000 nationwide in 1994 to more than four times that amount in 2014 has led to the side effect of market saturation. Much like how the rapid success of the Subway fast food chain and lax internal policies regarding the development of new locations promoted dangerous market oversaturation, the lack of effective regulation in the farmers’ market industry may lead to a similar fate for these innovative establishments.
Meanwhile, farmers’ markets have also faced significant criticism in regards to the selection of goods most commonly sold. Specifically, a comprehensive 2014 Albert Einstein College of Medicine study found that farmers’ markets in the urban Bronx area most often marketed unaffordable, heirloom produce varieties as well as unhealthy refined jams or pastries. As farmers’ markets are frequently portrayed as promising respites from the sanitized aisles of convenience stores and large groceries, this observation may be a worrying sign that farmers’ markets are gradually losing their appealing niche.
Evidently, despite the success that farmers’ markets have had during this unprecedented time, certain reforms need to be made to their fundamental economic model. First and foremost, market saturation must be dealt with in a responsible and incremental fashion. While local farmers’ market associations exist and loose coalitions have been created nationwide, regulatory bodies are still comparatively nascent. Just like how other forms of commerce possess their own strong trade associations, farmers’ markets must also discard the mindset that each market is unaffiliated with any others in order to preserve the viability of the entire industry. Of course, it should remain an absolute priority to preserve the distinct character and heritage of each farmers’ market, but there is no reason to see this desire as mutually exclusive with more effective regulation.
The development of better organized farmers’ market associations can also help solve the issue of varying quality at different farmers’ markets. Trade guidelines that recommend broad categories and price points of produce to be sold along with standardized procedures to obtain an association guarantee or mark of approval would only improve consumer confidence and stimulate demand. Meanwhile, processed products such as honey and jams should continue to be encouraged as long as quality standards are met, but their marketing must not come at the expense of fresh produce and public health.
Finally, technological innovation may be another promising solution to the creeping woes of farmers’ markets. While their entire appeal relies on traditional notions of freshness and community, farmers’ markets are nevertheless ripe candidates for new technology. Case in point, many farmers’ markets have already begun to gradually adopt mobile payment systems such as Venmo to more easily facilitate transactions. Farmers’ markets could also take advantage of the growing dominance of e-commerce to digitize their brick-and-mortar venues and ensure steady income streams for sellers outside of regularly scheduled physical events. In any case, the introduction of new models centered around the “on-demand” economy may bring significant benefits to the farmers’ market industry.
With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage nationwide, farmers’ markets may have more than just fifteen minutes of fame. However, to ensure that they remain exciting, viable means of foodstuffs purchase after this public health crisis is over, their entire business model must be reconsidered: a fresh reboot for America’s farmers’ markets.