Consumer use of farmers’ markets has been steadily increasing in the last few years. The number of markets in the United States has grown by 63 percent since 1994. As of 2002, there were 2,868 farmers’ markets. Sales, which exceed $1 billion annually, are an important source of revenue for farmers, with 19,000 reporting that they sold only at farmers’ markets. Farmers typically record gross sales of $200 to $600 per day; some bigger growers realize more than $1,000.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers’ markets are defined as a common facility or area where several farmers and growers gather regularly to sell a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and other food and farm products directly to consumers. Farmers’ markets play a vital role in allowing small- to medium-sized growers access to consumers. Without this access, many small farmers would not be able to sell their produce, and their farming existence could be threatened.
Farmers’ markets provide consumers with a pleasant shopping environment and the opportunity to meet the people who grow the food. A farmers’ market in a community can establish close ties between farmers and consumers. Farmers’ markets usually offer a prime location that costs much less than a private retail outlet. Rather than taking the full burden of insurance, advertising, physical facilities and other marketing costs, a farmer can share these expenses with others. There are minimal start-up costs and immediate access for new farmers.
Eighty-two percent of the markets are self-sustaining; market income is sufficient to pay for all costs associated with the operation of the market. More than half (58 percent) of markets participate in the WIC coupon, food stamps, local and state nutrition programs, and 25 percent of markets participate in programs that help food recovery organizations distribute food to needy families.
Louisiana Farmers’ Markets
In 2002, there were 22 farmers’ markets in 18 parishes and 62 roadside stands in 32 parishes, according to the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry. Products and vendors vary, depending upon the area. In some of the markets, consumers can find native wines, cheeses, jams, jellies, and other canned and baked items. They can also buy seasonal produce such as greens, muscadines, strawberries, sweet potatoes, citrus fruits and pecans. Fresh seafood, poultry and eggs, and homemade sausages are available at some markets along with plants, herbs and fresh flowers.
In New Orleans, the Crescent City Farmers’ Market offers cooking demonstrations by local restaurants. Educational programs and exhibits by parish extension agents with the LSU AgCenter have become a regular part of the market. The Crescent City Market attracts more than 1,500 shoppers
each week to the year-round market in three locations.
In Baton Rouge, the Red Stick Farmers’ Market celebrated its sixth anniversary by becoming a part of the grand opening of the Main Street Market in the downtown area. This market is sponsored by the Baton Rouge Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance (BREADA). Counted among BREADA’s community partners is the LSU AgCenter. Local and state extension personnel as well as volunteer Master Gardeners support the market through educational demonstrations, special programs and exhibits.
Comments from Consumers
Research on farmers’ markets in Louisiana was conducted through a qualitative study to determine consumers’ and producers’ perceptions of farmers’ markets. Consumers and producers were interviewed at local farmers’ markets. Questions focused on availability of foods, comparison of prices, economic impact, regional differences and seasonal differences. Other questions posed included why people patronize the markets and why farmers vend there.
Of the 25 consumers interviewed, most were attracted to farmers’ markets because of the freshness of the produce and the special color and camaraderie typical of open-air markets. Consumers said they buy what they feel like eating or what looks good, rather than what has been planned. The predominance of perishables at a farmers’ market may contribute to this transitory and impulsive shopping style. Most customers purchase from six or fewer vendors.
Examples of consumer remarks include: “This is a lot more fun than a supermarket,” “You meet everybody,” “There is a trust here that you don’t have in stores,” “The atmosphere is fun and friendly,” “I love the freshness of the produce,” “You can’t find these products in the local grocery store,” “Prices are sometimes higher, but for the quality, it’s worth it” and “You get used to the vendors and can order ahead.”
Of the 25 producers interviewed, most were satisfied with the farmers’ markets and agreed that the marketplace had been profitable for them, especially the small business owner. Few producers reported that they had problems with consumers haggling over the price; stated prices generally remained firm. Offering free samples of products and sharing recipes attracted customers. Some had quantity discounts, depending upon the product being sold.
All vendors who offered food items said they are continually adding to their product lines or revising recipes for improvement. Farmers with seasonal produce reported that consumers shop according to the season and come to expect a good variety all year long. Remarks from vendors included: “It’s great for the small business owner,” “I am very satisfied with the market,” “It has been very profitable for me” and “I like to offer free samples when I can.”
Laura Lea Perault, Extension Agent, Livingston Parish, Livingston, La.; Frances C. Lawrence, Professor, and Carol E. O’Neil, Associate Professor, School of Human Ecology, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.
(This article was published in the winter 2003 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)