What Makes a Good Farmers’ Market? | Civil Eats

What Makes a Good Farmers’ Market?

Living in Washington, DC, I enjoyed dropping by the Dupont Circle Farmers’ Market every Sunday. The market has a robust feel to it—a sense of fullness, bounty, and dynamism.

The producers proudly display their wares under banners describing their nearby locations and sustainable practices. The shoppers browse eagerly, asking questions and loading up their bags with fresh, local food.

All Markets Are Not Created Equal

I took the quality of this and other DC markets for granted, so I was surprised when I moved to a suburb and found the farmers’ markets there a pale imitation of those I used to enjoy.

In many cases, it wasn’t clear whether the sellers were from local farms, or even from farms at all. They could have been reselling produce from the local grocery. Inquiries tended to bring vague responses.

Searching online for the markets’ rules helped little; there didn’t seem to be any comprehensive guidelines imposed to ensure the quality of these markets.

What Is a Good Market Anyway?

In contrast, a visit to the website of FRESHFARM Markets, the nonprofit organization that runs most of DC’s farmers’ markets, immediately turned up the rigorous, specific rules guiding their 11 markets in the Chesapeake Bay region.

FRESHFARM has established a strong framework for creating markets that contribute to the local food economy and provide opportunity to the region’s small farmers.

“We know that our farmers’ markets have made a difference to our farmers and producers,” Bernadine Prince, co-founder and co-executive director of FRESHFARM, informed me. “Without the economic engine of FRESHFARM Markets [many of them] would not have continued farming.”

And of course the markets also benefit eaters, who can shop with confidence that their dollars are supporting local farmers and a thriving regional foodshed.

Recipe for Market Success

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I asked Bernadine and her co-founder and co-executive director Ann Harvey Yonkers about how they have made their markets so successful.

–Producers Only

The most important element, they told me, is their producer-only rule, which states that growers and producers may sell at market only products they grow, raise, or produce themselves.

“This is the key to guaranteeing authenticity, quality, and freshness, and to knowing the farmer who grows or raises your food,” they wrote in an email.

–Local Focus
They make sure the markets support the local food economy by restricting their farmers and producers to the Chesapeake Bay region, or within about 300 miles from their markets.

FRESHFARM conducts a farm visit before each new farmer is accepted as a vendor, which ensures transparency and accountability.

–Good Management
“Keeping markets thriving takes lots of good management,” Bernadine and Ann commented. FRESHFARM Markets open and close with a bell, and follow regular hours and seasons. FRESHFARM staff counts everything from customer numbers to farmers’ sales figures.

A market master oversees every market. Every producer must have general and product liability insurance, and must submit information about their processing facilities.

–Events and Service Ethos

FRESHFARM markets feature events such as chef demos, kid’s activities, and food drives. Farmers can donate fresh product to community food banks and emergency feeding programs.

To promote wider access to good food, the organization matches some of the federal food aid dollars (such as food stamps) that low-income customers spend there.

Market as the New Town Square

Ultimately, high quality markets like those run by FRESHFARM succeed because people get something from going there beyond a simple bag of produce.

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“Farmers’ markets are the new town squares in America where people have many conversations and feel and act like citizens, neighbors, and friends,” wrote Bernadine and Ann.

How to Start a Market

Establishing a sustainable market is a big—but worthwhile—undertaking. Start with the support of the community and an understanding of the city bureaucracy you’ll need to navigate. If possible, secure financial support from a foundation or other funder.

Bernadine and Ann point out that there are many resources available. The Farmers Market Coalition maintains an online Resource Library listing best practices of farmers’ markets across the country, including FRESHFARM’s. The Market Umbrella offers tools for evaluating the impact of farmers’ markets. For example, their SEED survey helped FRESHFARM understand the impact of its markets on local communities.

Whether you decide to start your own market or just shop at one, it’s important to realize that good markets are made, not born. Hard work goes into establishing and maintaining quality markets. And thank goodness intrepid souls like Bernadine and Ann are taking that on, as quality markets are key to the continuing viability of our local food landscapes.

Katherine Gustafson is an award-winning writer, journalist, and editor whose articles, essays, and stories have been published in numerous print and online media, including The Christian Science Monitor, Johns Hopkins Magazine, The Huffington Post, and Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her first book, 'Change Comes to Dinner' -- about good news in sustainable food -- was published in 2012. She lives with her husband and daughter in the Washington, DC, area. Read more >

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  1. Farmer Jim
    Too many farmers market vendors are frauds. The only way to know is to question them...and question and question and question them about their farms and their practices and their products and their employees...and EVERYTHING. Then, after questioning everything in excruciating detail you should decline to purchase any produce that looks too perfect or is too cheaply priced. Be sure to explain/complain loudly so the vendor understands your issues...plus it is a valuable public service to other shoppers within earshot. You don't want to encourage mediocrity by purchasing indiscriminately. A real farmer at a good farmers market is enough of a food snob to respect you for walking away empty handed...and secretly despise you for purchasing too quickly or too cheaply. In the end, intense shoppers make good farmers markets by holding farmers' feet to the fire at all times.
  2. MeShell
    I would like to find a local farmers market that sells their local food, not shipped in from another country. We reside in the Tampa, Florida area...should anyone know of a good one. Thanks in advance!
  3. Armando
    I'm recently working at a new certified farmers market in a underserved community and it is hard to bring people out. They don't understand the concept of it. We do have a matching fund, entertainment, chef demos and activities. What else can we try for it to succeed.
  4. Bob
    I agree too many farmers market vendors are frauds and question them over and over again about their farms and everything. I did this to one vendor and a market and he got mad at me told me he gets his stuff from more then one farm and was not going to tell me what farms.. So I wont buy from his stand.
  5. Farmer Margie
    In St. Pete or Sarasota, look for the Worden Farm booth at the farmers market. They sell what they grow- Fresh, Local, and Organic produce from their farm in Punta Gorda.
  6. Farmers Markets are growing in popularity ever year. Consumers are presented each new year with new markets. As a local grower and a representative of locally grown food we concentrate our SAMM (Sprout About Mobile Markets) to areas of town that have no Farmers Markets. Our model brings the Famers Markets to the neighborhood and are open with hours convenient to peoples day (early and late). Of the 15 plus farms that we represent all are displayed with facts about the farm and tell the story of the history of the farm and methods used. This comment speakes directly to those of you who are looking for local food outside of the traditional Farmers Markets. By presenting items from local grower our markets provide an easy shopping experience and make several farms open to the produce they grow. Please continue to support "Buy Fresh Buy Local" wherever you shop.
  7. rhonda
    I have held an event fall 2012 and am planning to do so in 13. - I have done this with no money and little help but the respons has been great and I have made connections with top chefs! Now have been invited to bring the Growers to a ACF ( American Culinary Federation ) meeting . This is wonderful due to being th largest county in Ohio and one of the most economically challenged. Having a vision and following it makes a difference! Sometimes you must do what you believe when you know the results will be positive!!!
  8. Farmer Gaetano
    Farmer Jim,

    Too many Farmers are frauds. Even those with the most authentic looking outfits and monikers can sometimes be selling anything they can reasonably label as locally grown.

    Around here we have a term "Getting Amished." It refers to slippery mkt practices.
  9. Cornelia
    To Armando: Can you offer SNAP/food stamps for people with limited funds? A local producer-only market in our area (NC) got a grant for a dollar-dollar match (buyers use their SNAP card to buy tokens worth twice the dollars they purchase.
  10. Laura Frisch
    Some here were asking about getting the public to come out. If you are starting a market or trying to grow your market, you need to get out to the public, attend village or city meetings, pass out flyers, invite local school bands to play at your market, invite the local scouts or school clubs to come out. Stop by the local churches and offer them an information table or better yet a bake sale table each week for a different community group. They make money and get their word out and all of their members attend the market. It may take a little away from the bakeries at your market, but not that much and will really increase the number of customers for your market. Offer freebies for checking in on Facebook and Foursquare...like a market shopping bag, or print your own market $$ and give it out when you talk with people. Go to all the local private and public schools inviting the families to the market. Maybe have a school day where you give out free seeds in mini pots, even a cup with dirt and a seed is magical to someone who has never planted before. Beans can grow just about anywhere! Good luck and keep trying!
  11. Strom
    I am a grower and a vendor at farmers markets, and I will attest to the fact that fraud can be a problem - although mainly at markets that are not well-managed. I am always happy to be 'grilled' about how I do stuff, and always invite people out to the farm when they ask questions. If a vendor doesn't want to 'talk shop' with you, be wary of that vendor! Most of us will talk your ear off all day long about what we do if given the opportunity. So yes, please ask questions folks, and don't feel bad about it cos we do enjoy it when people are interested in how we do things.

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