Is a Farmers’ Market a Good Fit for your Community?

Farmers’ markets are incredible community resources. They have proven their ability to bring communities together and provide access to fresh and healthy foods in places neglected by others and to be catalysts of community improvement. But they are not right for every community and have not always been successful at building themselves into sustainable markets for local food access. While it may seem strange to devote space in a guide about how to start a farmers’ market to a list of reasons not to start a farmers’ market, it is important to consider some of the reasons why a farmers’ market may not be a good fit for every community.

While farmers’ markets are less expensive to launch than brick and mortar stores, the regulations which govern them also makes them less efficient to operate than other food access strategies. Under California law, farmers can only sell products of their own farming production in a farmers’ market. That means a farmer who only grows strawberries can only sell strawberries and he or she must earn enough from the sales of strawberries at that market to make it cost effective to continue selling at that market. Before committing to a farmers’ market as a strategy, it is important to assess whether or not there will be sufficient sales to support the diversity of farmers and products that will be necessary to make the market attractive to consumers.

This limitation on who can sell also limits what consumers will find at a farmers’ market: only fruits, vegetables and nuts that are grown in California and currently in season. Consumers seeking products only grown in other places, such as bananas or pineapple, may be disappointed to not find them in their local farmers’ market, especially when those products are plentiful in mainstream supermarkets. Similarly, those accustomed to purchasing products like tomatoes or peppers throughout the year, may be disappointed to learn that those products are only available in farmers’ markets during summer months. This can be especially challenging for farmers’ markets serving immigrant communities where local stores stocking imported produce are plentiful and beloved.

Compared to mainstream grocery stores, farmers’ markets are also less convenient. While many grocery stores are open 12 to 24 hours a day, seven days a week, most farmers’ markets are only open four to six hours a day on one or two days a week.

None of these obstacles are insurmountable. Community education campaigns can teach consumers about seasonality and introduce them to new fruits and vegetables that they can incorporate into their diets when their favorites are out of season. Listening carefully to the community can find the days and times for a farmers’ market that are most convenient for the largest number of customers.  Identifying these barriers early in the planning process is essential to determining if a farmers’ market is the right strategy and what will need to be done to maximize the chances of success for the market.

Survey Your Community

If you are targeting a specific audience as potential farmers’ market shoppers, you may be able to conduct surveys of them to estimate the potential customer base for your farmers’ market. Some of the information that could be important to collect includes how often potential customers currently shop at farmers’ markets, how much they spend on fruits and vegetables in a typical week, the extent to which they are food insecure, how interested they are in shopping a farmers’ market, the days and times that would be most convenient for them to shop and whether or not they rely on public assistance such as CalFresh or WIC to make food purchases. Sample questions can be found in Appendix A.

A Guide to Opening Small Farmers' Markets in San Jose, California