Vendors benefit from loyal customers and higher prices
By TIM HEARDEN
What does a 150-employee farming operation near Seattle and a husband-and-wife business in Northern California have in common?
Both ventures emphasize the face-to-face marketing opportunities at local farmers' markets.
Full Circle Farm in Carnation, Wash., grows about 150 varieties of certified organic produce on 340 acres and sells the fruits and vegetables at 25 different farmers' markets.
"The markets have been great incubators in allowing you to grow your sales and adding more markets to the routine," farm owner Andrew Stout said. "When you get to over 20, there are only a handful of those that are doing what we're doing ... A lot of people do multiple markets, like five, seven, eight or 10 a week.
"There are so many markets and they're distributed fairly well throughout the week that you could almost have a staff person go to a market a day," he said.
R and K Orchards in Corning, Calif., sets up a booth at about seven farmers' markets a week. The gatherings are a major part of the marketing plan for the orchard's peaches, cherries, apricots and nectarines, co-owner Karen Mills said.
"At most of the farmers' markets we go to, the customers requested that we go," Mills said. "I enjoy the customers and I enjoy selling quality products that people love. That's the best part is just hearing the customers' feedback."
Farmers' markets have been steadily growing in popularity and in number in the past decade, as more and more consumers are seeking foods that are fresh and locally grown.
Since 2000, the number of farmers' markets nationwide has grown from 2,863 to nearly 4,900, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture database.
The markets haven't suffered because of the current recession. In fact, consumers yearn for face-to-face contact with their food producers and have been choosing to prepare fresh foods at home rather than go out to eat, said Stacy Miller, executive director of the nationwide Farmers Market Coalition in Martinsburg, W.Va.
"There are a lot of forces that are outside of our control as consumers," Miller said. "We feel like a lot of these larger corporations have misled us or taken us on a path that is not in the country's best interests. What farmers' markets offer are real relationships where there are tangible products being exchanged."
While farmers' markets have long appealed to some consumers, they're also beneficial to many growers, including those drawn in by significantly higher sales at the markets in the past year, Miller said.
The recession has kept a lid on higher-end products such as gourmet cheeses, rare mushrooms and other delicacies, she said. But for most products, the returns are often higher than they would be on the wholesale market because there's no middleman, growers say.
"Probably the main (benefit) that attracts a lot of producers is they get full retail price instead of a wholesale price," said Shermain Hardesty, director of the Small Farm Program at the University of California-Davis. "They are able to sell smaller volumes that a wholesaler may not be willing to take."
Another benefit, growers say, is the ability to develop lasting relationships with customers through direct marketing. Loyal customers often join subscription-type agreements, known as community supported agriculture.
For Full Circle Farm, the farmers' markets are only a small part of a comprehensive marketing plan, which also includes delivery programs, wholesale and direct sales to restaurants and grocery stores. The farm's products include five different kinds of lettuce, four types of carrots, three types of beets and other fresh produce, Stout said.
But the business has been selling at farmers' markets since 1996. The Puget Sound region has long been a supportive environment for farmers' markets, but many of the 40 or so markets in the region have started in the past five years, Stout said.
Selling at the markets "gives you the ability in a direct fashion to change the function of your business to the customers' demands in real time," he said. "That's an exciting opportunity ... You're really able to dial in your operation to what your customers want without having to go through too many channels."
Farmers' markets range in size from a few booths on a street corner in small towns to 100 vendors and thousands of customers in some metropolitan areas. Many of the smaller participating farmers have an outside source of income, but some are full-time farmers, Miller said.
Hardesty is on the board of the Davis farmers' market, which was recently rated the most favored market by the American Farmland Trust. The market gathers twice a week and has about 75 vendors.
In addition to the standard fruits and vegetables, markets have begun to feature eggs, processed cheeses, beef, chicken and pork, Hardesty said.
The markets have their downsides for growers, they said. The farmers may have to drive a long distance and spend a lot of time at a market for little return, and some may have difficulty if they're not accustomed to striking up conversations with their customers.
"I'm seeing some producers who have been around for a long time ... get out of farmers markets because they've developed really strong other forms of marketing, especially as community supported agriculture has become more popular," Hardesty said.
But overall, there is still more demand than there are markets to meet it, the experts said. And the farmers who participate can often offer a riper and fresher product since they can afford to wait a little longer before picking.
"If you want to produce a good, quality product, it's not the shelf life you're after," said Mills of R and K Orchards. "We usually pick and sell within 24 hours. ... You farm because you love it, and hopefully it'll pay for itself."
Tim Hearden is a staff writer based in Shasta Lake, Calif.
For more information about farmers markets, visit the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's web page at www.ams.usda.gov.