October 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA4

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Extension's Role with Farmers' Markets: Working with Farmers, Consumers, and Communities

Farmers' markets are popular outlets for fresh food in many communities. Consumers choose to shop at these markets for a number of reasons, including freshness, appearance, and taste of produce, as well as enjoying the atmosphere of such a market. In addition to these benefits to consumers, farmers' markets serve the vendors who sell at them and the communities in which they are located in economic, educational, and social ways. This article examines the multiple benefits of farmers' markets and suggests ways that Extension can continue to take an active role in furthering their growth and development.

Jennifer Abel
Master's Degree Candidate
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Internet address: jla209@psu.edu

Joan Thomson
Associate Professor
Department of Agricultural and Extension Education

Audrey Maretzki
Professor of Food Science and Nutrition
Department of Food Science
The Pennsylvania State University
University Park, Pennsylvania

On any given summer Saturday, a visitor to a farmers' market in Ithaca, New York; Madison, Wisconsin; Lawrence, Kansas; Knoxville, Tennessee; Cochise County, Arizona; or any one of the 2,476 markets (Johnson, 1998) throughout the country will be greeted with mounds of fresh-picked produce and, in a lot of places, fresh baked goods, meat, cheese, and eggs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that two decades ago, less than 100 farmers' markets operated in the nation. The first directory, published in 1994, listed 1,755 markets (Johnson & Bragg, 1998).

Farmers' markets and other direct marketing venues were the norm during the 19th century, but lost popularity when refrigeration and improved transportation systems made it possible to ship produce long distances (Hughes & Mattson, 1995). Recent decades have seen a revival in farmers' markets as health conscious consumers demonstrated a desire to get the freshest produce possible (Hughes & Mattson, 1995). In surveys conducted throughout the country, consumers rank freshness as the number one reason for buying produce from farmers' markets, and as the main factor that they consider when buying produce anywhere (Anderson, Hollingsworth, Van Zee, Coli, & Rhodes, 1996; Bruhn, Vossen, Chapman, & Vaupel, 1992; Connell, Beierlein, & Vrooman, 1986; Eastwood, Brooker, & Gray, 1995; Hughes & Mattson, 1995; Kezis, King, Toensmeyer, Jack, & Kerr, 1984; Leones, 1995; Lockeretz, 1986; Thomson & Kelvin, 1994). These surveys also indicate that consumers perceive the freshest produce to be available at direct markets like farmers' markets.

The resurgence in farmers' markets is good news for consumers, communities, and farmers. Outlets for locally produced foods provide more than just the freshest possible food. They help establish connections between consumers and food producers, provide an additional income source for farmers, and in general, serve as a tool for community development. However, starting them and keeping them in operation demand a great deal of attention to consumer, vendor, and community needs. This article explores the benefits of farmers' markets and ways that Extension educators can help support and sustain these efforts in their communities into the next century.

Benefits of Farmers' Markets

Benefits to Farmers

Farmers' markets are effective at keeping food dollars in a given region, helping to keep family farms in business (see Table 1). For a farmer trying to get by on grain sales, growing a small amount of vegetables and/or fruits may add enough annual income to help him/her make a profit during a less than ideal grain harvest (Hughes & Mattson, 1995). Selling at a farmers' market can also provide an opportunity for a part-time grower to make the transition to a larger vegetable and/or fruit operation (Hilchey, Lyons, & Gillespie, 1995; Hughes & Mattson, 1995). Gross returns to producers from farmers' market sales are generally 200% to 250% higher than sales to wholesalers/distributors (Integrity Systems Cooperative, 1997). Also, at present farmers earn $22 for every $100 spent by consumers, but with direct marketing methods that amount can increase to $30 (Integrity Systems Cooperative, 1997).

A study of Alabama food producers found that over two thirds of those surveyed preferred farmers' markets over other forms of direct marketing because of "the presence of more buyers, easy way to sell, convenience and better prices," (Adrian, 1982, as cited in Hughes & Mattson, 1995, p. 1). Vendors at Kansas farmers' markets cited the following benefits to vendors: "the opportunity to meet and visit with people, a source of seasonal income, an outlet for excess produce, and provides advertising and contacts for on-farm and in-home operations," (Hughes & Mattson, 1995, p. 9).

Vendors surveyed at markets in New York added that "an increased customer base, direct feedback from customers, increased publicity, having a stable market for products, an increased volume of sales and increased net income" are benefits to them (Hilchey, Lyons, & Gillespie, 1995, p. 4). The New York vendors also indicated that they improved the following skills through participation in farmers' markets: "self-confidence in business, advertising and consumer relations; understanding consumer needs; and merchandising" (improving farmstand appearance/display) (Hilchey, Lyons, & Gillespie, 1995, p. 6).

Benefits to Consumers

At least six taste test studies cited by Hughes and Mattson (1995) have shown that consumers typically prefer produce sold at farmers' markets to that from other sources. Consumers cite freshness, taste, appearance, and nutritive value as reasons for preferring farmers' market produce ( Bruhn et al., 1992; Connell et al., 1986; Hughes & Mattson, 1995; Kezis et al., 1984; Leones, 1995; Thomson & Kelvin, 1994).

Besides fresh and nutritious produce, there are other benefits to consumers patronizing farmers' markets (see Table 1). Active marketing strategies can inform consumers about how produce is grown and can encourage people to seek out sustainably produced foods.

A project of the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension studied farmers' market consumer reactions to the active marketing of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) certified sweet corn. When consumers learned about the benefits of IPM practices from the farmers themselves, rather than from posters or fliers, they were more likely to seek out produce with the IPM-certification label (Anderson, Hollingsworth, Van Zee, Coli, & Rhodes, 1996). Organic farmers and others who produce their products using sustainable practices, therefore, have an opportunity at farmers' markets to inform consumers about their growing methods and their product certification status.

Many consumers also cite the farmers' market's atmosphere as a primary reason for choosing to shop there (Eastwood et al., 1995; Hughes & Mattson, 1995; Leones, 1995). Farmers' markets provide a unique opportunity for consumers to get involved in their food system by getting to know the people who produce food in their region. Many markets also feature educational displays, cooking demonstrations with unusual vegetables, and festivals that help consumers get involved in the farmers' market experience.

Benefits to Communities

Farmers' markets also bring economic benefits to the communities in which they are located (see Table 1). "They tend to draw people downtown that otherwise would not be there. Many of these people, as well as vendors, will then shop in the surrounding stores because they are convenient. The result is favorable attitudes about the downtown among consumers and vendors," (Hughes & Mattson, 1995, p. 1).

Farmers' markets in urban centers can increase residents' access to fresh produce in areas where full service supermarkets are rare. These markets also create opportunities for people who do not typically participate in food production to grow and sell food. Recent initiatives have created income-generation opportunities for low-income residents and high school students. In New York City, Cornell Cooperative Extension's New Farmers/New Markets program trains inner city residents in fruit and vegetable production and marketing. Through the program, more than ten market-farm projects have been developed and the nonprofit organizations that worked with Cornell Cooperative Extension on their establishment are supplied with food for their summer camp kitchens and city community centers, plus income from the sale of the produce (Nettleton, 1995 & 1999).

Similar projects have likewise succeeded in other cities. In Tacoma, Washington, one of the projects of the Tacoma Food System (a nonprofit organization which works closely with Pierce County Cooperative Extension) is Youth Food Employment and Entrepreneurial Development (Youth FEED). Inner city high school students grow food at a local church, sell it in a low-income neighborhood, and work at a farmers' market selling honey that they buy wholesale. The Detroit Growers' Cooperative (a project of Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems) is working with urban gardeners to market organic produce and a barbecue sauce.

What Extension Can Do

Although sales from farmers' markets make up a relatively small percentage of total food sales in the country (in California they account for only 1% of produce sales (Bruhn et al., 1992), the increasing numbers of these markets and their social and economic benefits indicate a need to foster their growth and improvement. Extension already promotes farmers' markets through the creation and dissemination of how-to publications. These publications typically include tips about having a market coordinator, developing some form of advertisement, establishing a prominent and easily accessible market location, and offering a sufficient product variety to ensure consumer satisfaction (Hughes & Mattson, 1995). A review of reasons why consumers do not shop at farmers' markets can help clarify the ways that advocates of these venues can contribute to their viability.

Consumers cite inconvenience as one of the main reasons for not shopping at farmers' markets (Bruhn et al., 1992; Connell et al., 1986; Eastwood et al., 1995; Hughes & Mattson, 1995; Kezis et al., 1984; Lockeretz, 1986; Thomson & Kelvin, 1994). To increase patronage of farmers' markets, they need to be located in areas where the greatest number of people can easily reach them. They should operate during days and times that are convenient to the most people in the area. In a study of three farmers' markets in Tennessee, consumers interviewed at two centrally located markets reported that they frequent these markets much more often than those interviewed at a market that was located further out of town (Eastwood et al., 1995). Extension educators can help connect farmers to community economic development officials to select a site that is best suited for everyone concerned (see Table 1).

Demographic surveys at farmers' markets have shown that patrons are generally white females with above average incomes, age, and education (Connell et al., 1986; Eastwood et al., 1995; Hughes & Mattson, 1995; Leones, 1995; Lockeretz, 1986; Thomson & Kelvin, 1994). Hughes & Mattson (1995) note that farmers' market shoppers typically patronize a greater number of food stores than non-farmers' market shoppers. They, therefore, suggest that low-income consumers do not frequent farmers' markets because "despite the price savings at farmers' markets, [they are] not inclined to make as many stops because of the extra time and gasoline involved," (Hughes & Mattson, 1995, p. 2).

Farmer and consumer interests could be well served by establishing farmers' markets in low-income neighborhoods (see table 1) which are typically underserved by supermarkets (Ashman, de la Vega, Dohan, Fisher, Hippler & Romain, 1993; Weinberg, 1998). As of 1995, there were 32 farmers' markets in New York City which provided outlets for 200 farmers, but there are still many communities in the New York City area that would like to have farmers' markets close by (Nettleton, 1995). As mentioned before, efforts by Extension offices and nonprofit organizations to start such markets in certain cities are already paying off for consumers, vendors, and communities. Involving those who will purchase as well as produce the foods sold at the markets should diversify the audience Extension educators reach. Traditionally, those with limited incomes, low levels of education and those who are ethnic and racial minorities have not used Extension as much as the white middle class segment of the population (Warner and Christenson, 1984).

Another way that Extension can contribute to the success of farmers' markets in low-income areas is by encouraging the dissemination of Women Infants and Children (WIC) Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) coupons. In 1993 in New York City, over 42,000 families received these coupons, generating $600,000 in sales (Nettleton, 1995). The FMNP has resulted in the growth of farmers' markets in urban areas that do not have ready access to quality, locally grown produce. This program is operated by 39 state agencies, including 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and four Tribal Organizations (USDA Food and Nutrition Service Online, 1999). Extension nutrition educators can work to increase awareness about area farmers' markets and the FMNP among the populations they serve.

Another complaint of consumers about farmers' markets is that they offer a limited variety of products. In a study of Kansas City consumers, more than half spent less than $10 per week on fresh produce and around two-thirds purchased no more than three different vegetables a week (Hughes & Mattson, 1995). Farmers' markets can cater to consumer desires for wide variety by offering baked goods, cheese, meat, eggs, honey, cider, fresh and dried flowers, jams and other preserves, and plants (Connell et al., 1986). Extension educators can aid in this effort by encouraging market vendors to diversify their offerings and to produce and sell value-added products.

Many Extension offices offer guides to the direct marketing venues in their counties, such as farmers' markets, pick your own operations, roadside stands, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms. Once such a guide is produced, educators can distribute it at workshops and inform local media about the guide so that they can publicize it. Having this guide will help consumers know where they can go for locally produced foods and will help farmers who are not currently selling at farmers' markets to identify possible outlets for their products. The guide can also serve as a way to determine which communities in a particular county are not being served by farmers' markets.

Clearly, developing farmers' markets that work for communities requires the cooperation of many different individuals and groups. In all efforts to develop, publicize and improve farmers' markets, Extension educators should seek to involve those groups who can advance the growth of such markets. Potential collaborators could include community economic development organizations, consumer groups, churches, food banks, land preservation organizations, schools, farmers' organizations, and other community groups.

Extension educators can also contribute to the improvement of existing markets by offering workshops for vendors in business management, advertising, marketing, bookkeeping, personnel management, and food preservation. Present farmers' market vendors and those that are considering selling at markets in the future can all benefit from such workshops. Extension can also help groups interested in starting a market by suggesting that they write bylaws, appoint a coordinator, decide on fees to charge vendors, and hold periodic meetings to address any concerns.

Offering workshops for consumers on food preservation or cooking can help them learn what to do with unfamiliar vegetables and can encourage them to stock up in the fall in order to preserve food for the winter. Eastwood et. al (1995) found that in areas where people are familiar with canning and freezing techniques, they tend to make more bulk purchases at farmers' markets.

Another strategy to link food producers with communities is to bring them into schools to teach children about food production. Educating children about from where their food comes will make them aware of what is available in their region. As shown in the Tacoma, Washington, example, students can also play a part as vendors at their community farmers' markets. Programs aimed at starting market gardens at schools or in community plots and then selling the produce in farmers' markets provide students with training in biology, food production, business management, and teamwork.

Farmers' markets also provide an opportunity for Extension to support its food safety programming, both by educating vendors about handling techniques and by urging them to reinforce safe handling and sanitation, preparation and storage practices among consumers. Extension educators could also use farmers' markets as a venue for food safety demonstrations.

Table 1
Benefits of farmers' markets and
Extension's Role in Promoting Them
Benefits Extension's role
Benefits to Farmers
Keep food dollars in community Facilitate establishment of new
Increased return from sales Publish guides listing all
markets in a county
Inform consumers about
production practices
Offer training to vendors in
bookkeeping, marketing,
Learn about consumer preferences Keep vendors informed
about local, state, and federal
legislation, including zoning
Enhance business and marketing skills Identify and attract more
Convenience Inform vendors about insurance
and liability coverage issues
Easy way to sell
Contacts for on-farm and in-home
Stable seasonal income source
Provide social opportunity
Benefits for Consumers
Can buy freshest possible produce Offer classes in cooking and
Get to know people who produce food Encourage vendors to sell
Can learn how food produced Attract more vendors to ensure
Can buy best tasting produce Encourage educational displays
and cooking demonstrations
Help support local ag economy Urge vendors to accepts FMCP
Farmers' market atmosphere Promote safe handling practices
Educational displays and activities
Benefits for Communities
Bring people downtown who might
not otherwise come
Work with municipalities to
find suitable community garden
and market sites, especially
in low-income communities
Provide more customers for
businesses located around farmers'
Establish collaborations
between groups that can help
the markets succeed
Help provide learning and
and business opportunities for
for high school students
Talk with area businesses to
help resolve any anxiety about
parking or competition
Provide fresh food source to
underserved areas
Help organize festivals that
showcase local food bounty
Provide business opportunities
for low-income residents
Encourage farmers to give
presentations in schools to
educate young people about
where their food comes from
Community is able to get involved
in and support the local food system


From education to advocacy, from research to advising, Extension educators have multiple roles to play in promoting the growth of farmers' markets. The impetus for new markets, however, needs to come from vendors and communities, as they will be responsible for sustaining the markets. It is, therefore, essential that Extension engage others who are interested in seeing the markets succeed and create opportunities for such groups to make the market unique in their given communities. Markets flourish when they address the needs of the community they serve. The New York City, Tacoma and Detroit examples illustrate that farmers' markets can provide good business and learning opportunities for high school students, low-income residents, and other community gardeners. Extension offices in urban areas would do well to attract a diverse array of vendors to new markets.

While farmers' markets cannot meet all the food needs of a given community, they can fulfill a valuable role in helping to support a segment of local economies. If they are well managed, these markets can provide economic, nutritive, educational, social and psychological benefits to vendors and the community.


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