What is a Farmers’ Market?

If you look up “farmers’ market” on the internet, it will tell you that a farmers’ market is:

(noun) A food market at which local farmers sell fruit and vegetables and often meat, cheese, and bakery products directly to consumers.

The USDA has a similar definition:

A farmers’ market is defined as a multi-stall market at which farmer-producers sell agricultural products directly to the general public at a central or fixed location, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables (but also meat products, dairy products, and/or grains).

While those are generally accepted definitions, they are not enshrined in law so the term “farmers’ market” can legally be used by retailers that do not involve “local farmers” or “farmers-producers.” This is true in California where the law does not define the term “farmers’ market.” Instead, the state of California defines “certified farmers’ markets” as “California agricultural point of sale locations” (California Food and Agricultural Code 47004(a) [As amended by AB 1871 as of September 26, 2014]).

This official definition, and those that accompany it in the California Food and Agriculture Code, provide a very detailed description but not one that is easy to summarize and share. Using the state law as a guide, we have crafted an unofficial definition:

In California, a certified farmers’ market is a location where certified California farmers sell fresh products that they have grown and harvested themselves directly to consumers who intend to consume the products.

This definition gets across the main points that certification is required for both farmers and the farmers’ markets, that farmers sell only products that they have produced themselves, and that it involves direct sales to consumers. While it leaves out many of the exceptions that make the state’s farmers’ market system so complex, and that have also contributed to its growth and success, it is important to understand this concept as the foundation of the system.

Much of this guide is dedicated to a review of the legal framework that governs California’s certified farmers’ markets at the state, county, and local levels. While it might be tempting to try to ignore the complexity of codes and regulations by operating a farmers’ market without certification from the State of California, that option is not without its own set of challenges, many of which you will encounter regardless of if your market is certified or not. For a brief description of the challenges of non-certified farmers’ markets and other similar approaches, see “General Rule for all Food & Market Programs” later in this section of the guide. While much of the information presented in this guide will be useful to anyone interested in local food distribution methods, the primary audience is operators of certified farmers’ markets.

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