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Doin’ the Dots: farmers market data collection engages community participation

Posted by Colleen Donovan | August 30, 2012

How many customers do we have? What do customers care about most? How much do they spend?

And how do you answer these questions with no turnstiles, barcodes, or cash registers to be found? The very charms of shopping a farmers market – a weekly intimacy with the product and producer; low-tech, hand-crafted displays; and the intermittent transformation of parking lot or city street into colorful, bustling marketplace – can make data collection a real challenge. And these questions don’t just matter to farmers and other vendors, they matter to the farmers market as a whole.

WSU's M. Flores staffs the dots
WSU’s M. Flores staffs the dots

On Saturday, August 25, a team of fifteen market managers, farmers market organizers and WSU Small Farms Program researchers partnered with the University District Farmers Market  in Seattle to get some answers. The approach used is called a “Rapid Market Assessment.” Pioneered by Oregon State University, RMA is based on participatory principles used in international development. The driving goal is to help a farmers market collect badly needed information in a way that adds to the market atmosphere, is affordable, and can be replicated by the market itself. The U-District Farmers Market RMA is also part of a three-year farmers market research project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture and led by WSU’s Marcy Ostrom.

Five flip charts on easels asked five questions such as “Where do you live?” and “How much will you spend at the farmers market today?” Shoppers responded with a “dot” sticker – one dot per question. It’s fast and fun. It is also transparent, yielding results before our eyes throughout the market day. In all, we had 884 people responding to our “dot survey,” representing an intercept rate of 17%. We know this because RMA team members were stationed at each of the market entrances and counted shoppers as they entered the market. (Technically, we took a sample for ten minutes each hour.)

K. Kinney, C. Curtis, and C. Lane strategize about access to healthy foods
K. Kinney, C. Curtis, and C. Lane strategize about access to healthy foods

The RMA approach also gathers qualitative data. Each of the RMA team members offered constructive comments and observations about the overall vendor and product mix, market atmosphere, and physical site. Their opinions matter. The team is comprised of experienced market managers from Queen Anne in Seattle, Yelm, Pike Place Market and the Washington State Farmers Market Association. The “outside eye” was balanced by the market board members and local volunteers with an in-depth knowledge of the market.So what did we learn? Preliminary results suggest:

  • An estimated 4,960 shoppers came to the U-District Farmers Market on Sat. August 25, 2012.
  • 20% of the shoppers live in the U-District, but people came from all over Seattle and only 9% were from outside the city.
  • The vast majority (77%) reported that the farmers market was their primary reason for coming to the U-District neighborhood that day.
  • The estimated average shopper spending exceeded $36.00.
  • When asked what their “favorite thing” was about the market, shoppers highlighted market features (friendly! With a strong sense of community); attributes of products (quality, fresh, organic local); specific products (flowers, salmon, baked goods and peaches); values and experiential attributes (knowing farmers; direct connection to food and farms); variety in terms of overall mix, fresh produce, food, and organic options; and vendors (friendly, great people, quality).


One message is clear: shoppers care deeply about their neighborhood farmers market. We know there are limits to the RMA, but it provides a valuable touchstone in the pursuit of collecting data so that markets are better able to make decisions and thrive.

Our thanks to Chris Curtis and the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance and each of the RMA team members:

Thanks to this hard-working team
Thanks to this hard-working team

Amanda Cross, Queen Anne Farmers Market;

Bee Cha, WSU Small Farms Program;

Claire Lane, Within Reach;

Colleen Donovan, WSU Small Farms Program;

Florence Vincent, Yelm Co-op;

Geana Henkes, Yelm Farmers Market Manager.

Jennifer Brown, WSFMA;

Joe Gruber, U-District Food Bank and NFMA board member;

Kaho Makiba, iLeap intern;

Karen Kinney, WSFMA;

Ivy Fox, Broadway (NFMA) Market Manager;

Malaquias Flores, WSU Small Farms Program;

Rieko Izumizarra, iLeap intern;

Teri Wheeler, Pike Place Market;

Tom Phillips, President, NFMA board of directors.

A complete report will be posted on the Small Farms Team website along with results from other Rapid Market Assessments.

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