August is peak season for Washington State’s 160 farmers markets. With the rain in check and days long, farmers are out in full force with their tree-ripened peaches, corn picked that day, heirloom tomatoes, farmstead cheeses, grass-fed meats, and more. We estimate that farmers markets support around 1,400 unique farms. Some of these farms have been selling directly to customers for decades, building profitable family enterprises. Others are just getting started, experimenting and learning each season. Regardless of scale or product, farmers markets provide a vital marketplace for these farm businesses.
And shoppers have responded. The WSFMA, our statewide farmers market association, reported that 60 markets alone had over 1.6 million visitors in 2011. People love their markets for the freshness, flavor, and variety; to see neighbors, and learn something new. More and more people relate not just as “consumers” but as engaged citizens making choices that maximize their relationship to agriculture. In our twelve market assessments around the state, we asked shoppers why they came to the farmers market. “To support a local farm” was the number one reason across the board.
Amid the canopies, many shoppers don’t see the organization muscle behind every farmers market. In fact, people may even assume that vendors “just show up.” Nothing could be further from reality.
Each farmers market has a group of people tirelessly working to support farmers, bring fresh and healthy food to their community, support the local economy, and create a fun event. While most farmers markets are run by non-profits, others are sponsored by the local Parks and Rec or Chamber of Commerce. A few are even incorporated as small businesses themselves. Regardless, farmers market organizations operate on extremely lean budgets and rely heavily on community volunteers to do an array of work.
Indeed, the demands upon farmers markets continue to grow each year. Even the smallest market must navigate city permits, insurance, staffing, food safety and other public health requirements; secure a location, work with police and fire departments, provide sanitation; recruit and screen vendors, manage internal policies, fund-raise and pay bills; market the market amid changing competition; and keep up with food assistance policies and payment technologies. Not to mention that most markets work amid the whims of rain, wind, and summer sun.
Holding this all together is the market manager. Part referee, part visionary, she wears the hats of an event coordinator, product developer, and marketer par excellence. Despite this vital role, a third of all market managers in our state volunteer their time and talent.
Given the required sophistication, dependence on volunteers, and scarce resources, what will it take to make farmers markets sustainable — as community-based marketplaces – over the long term? The WSU Small Farms Program, WSU researchers, WSFMA, and Farmers Market Action Team are working on this question and others through a three-year, USDA funded research project.
For now, the next time you’re enjoying your farmers market, go find the market manager. And thank her (or him) for bringing us another season of wonderful farmers and food!
Colleen Donovan coordinates farmers market research for the WSU Small Farms Program.