Reimagining Farmers Markets?

Few farmers are ever 100% satisfied with their farmers markets. Should they reimagine them?

A study of New England farmers markets by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station (NHAES) and UNH College of Life Sciences and Agriculture claims they should. According to their press release, what the researchers have noted is the “typical” description of a farmers market may not resonate or be experienced in the same way by all consumers. “These differences in perceptions have led to farmers markets being primarily visited by a niche group of repeat shoppers.”

Isn’t this what defines a lot of small businesses? There are other questionable points. “The practical impact of this to the region’s small and mid-sized farmers and food entrepreneurs — who rely on higher prices by selling directly to consumers — is a narrower customer base that limits their abilities to grow their businesses.”

This sounds like the “Get big or get out” thinking that dominated farming for a long time and still hasn’t gone away. Its premise is that farmers need to continually grow in size and expand their businesses. Just how big should a small farmer be compelled to get? Serving a “narrow customer base” is a valid strategic business decision, not a limitation or failure. If beginning farmers give in to the pressure to pursue expansion at all costs, they eventually run smack into the legacy problems that have been causing small farmers to call it quits. They end up with an operation that outgrows its capacity to support itself financially.

What the researchers have found out is “that over 70 percent of New England adults consider attributes such as taste, quality, healthiness, and affordability as important factors when choosing their food.” Anyone who has been working in the farming business knows this. They also know they have to develop cropping and marketing strategies that go way beyond these vague generalities.

Another finding is that factors such as locality of food and size of farm vendors were less influential for shoppers than previously thought. One researcher explained, “A surprising finding from the survey is that a little over half of New Englanders say food that supports fair wages and is sustainable and local is important to them, while only a third say it’s important that their food was grown on a small or family farm. And even fewer — just 21 percent — say it’s important to know the people who grew their food.”

What defines most farmers markets is being able to buy direct from the grower. That is what differentiates them from other food retail stores. Most don’t have the resources to take on the work of trying to change consumer behavior, and what would they become by trying to serve those who have no interest in having a personal connection to the farmers who grow their food?

SPIN-Farming has been helping beginning farmers start up using backyard-size plots for over 15 years, and here is our simple way of looking at it.

There are two groups of people. Group 1 are those who will go to farmers markets. Group 2 are those who won’t. Rather than trying to expand the customer base, it is more beneficial to focus on the group that will and do come to farmers markets and provide them with a better experience. That could include offering more value, which farmers do with their pricing strategies. Innovative pricing is also what helps farmers grow their businesses by increasing the dollar amount of each individual customer.

It is quite possible for people in Group 2 to migrate over into Group 1, and it is hard to say what promotes that. Word of mouth can certainly help, as well as media coverage and social media marketing. As in any sales effort, what matters is converting new market visitors into customers, which in addition to pricing also requires good customer service, optimal hours of operation, well-thought-out traffic flow, attractive looking stands and adequate parking or accessibility. The focus should be on creating a positive experience. Good vendorship and professional level market management are what make that happen.

A goal of the study is “to develop more effective marketing models and messaging by alternative food networks (AFNs) — of which farmers’ markets are one type — that appeals to a broader range of consumers and underserved populations who have not previously engaged with local and regional food markets. This work is important for reimagining farmers markets and other AFNs in ways that better celebrate and serve the cultural and ethnic diversity that is present and growing in our region.”

SPIN marketing calls for creating a farm identity; in other words, a marketing message. To work well it is specific, easy-to-understand and unique. The more unique it is, the more likely it will appeal to some and not others. To have a viable business, a farmer does not have to attract or sell to everyone who goes by their stand. They just need to have enough customers to absorb their production and support whatever size business they want to have. It is the work of a SPIN farmer to figure out and define their niche. The same reasoning applies to farmers markets.

Scalability has come to define success in our tech-centered age. But for farmers to serve local markets, the number of customers is limited by geography, and production is limited to what individual farmers can grow given their size, local labor and inputs. Owner/operated farms and local markets are not scalable beyond a certain point. This study’s researchers view that as a problem. SPIN farmers use it as a competitive advantage.

Having good research by academics can help since it makes for debate and generates ideas for how to make farmer markets stronger. But there is little of practical value in this one so far, and by adhering to the thinking based on scalability and trying to please more people, it may even lead farmers astray. Some SPIN farmers do successfully grow the size of their farms and businesses. Depending on their locations, some farmers markets can serve multiple groups and demographics. Some can’t and shouldn’t be criticized because of it. Rather than being reimagined farmers markets should strive to be the best at what they are.

More information on the Reimaging New England Farmers Markets study is here.


Local farmers markets aren’t for everyone, and shouldn’t try tp be.