It's National Farmers' Markets Week!

by 2 August 07, 2015

You may not know it but it is National Farmers’ Market Week. Officially declared so by Secretary Tom Vilsack of the USDA, it runs from August 2nd-8th. With this in mind it seemed like a good time to look a little more closely at farmers’ markets and how they impact us as farmers and you as our customers. In the last few years farmers’ markets seem ubiquitous. There are often several within the same area in the same week. This was not always the case. There was a time when a small-scale farmer had very limited access to the public and instead went through a wholesaler who purchased their products and sold them to a distributor, who ultimately sold them to the grocery stores and finally the public. This still goes on but within the last 15-20 years there has been an increase in farmers’ markets making it possible for small-scale farmers to eliminate the middle man and sell directly to the consumer. Between 2002 and 2007 direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales which are defined by the USDA as farmers’ markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture), increased by 17%.(1) And farms that utilized DTC sales channels were more likely to stay in business than those that did not.(1) This is a marked shift but according to a USDA report it is difficult to draw broad conclusions based on current data. From personal experience however this change has benefited many local, small-scale farmers and their families, as well as the customers they serve. The increased popularity has also led to more complexity. Farmers’ markets today are usually fairly involved affairs with dozens of vendors selling a variety of products; from produce, to meat, to handmade soaps, and a market manager overseeing the whole operation. This too is somewhat new. It was not uncommon in the past to have one farmer set up on the side of the road selling to whoever stopped by. It’s kind of a chicken and egg thing: did the increased number of markets give rise to more small-scale, farmers or did more farmers give rise to more markets? That is a question for another day but there is no question that an increased interest in food; where it’s coming from, and its production methods have led to a flourishing of both small-scale farmers and markets. When my husband and I were thinking about starting the farm it was our aspiration to have the majority of our sales be through farmers’ markets where we would have direct communication and relationship with our customers. A large part of this decision was due to my having grown up on a produce farm and orchard where, during my teenage years, farmers’ markets would become a very important part of my family’s business. Over the past 15 years the number of farmers’ markets has nearly tripled (according to the USDA) from 1,755 in 1994 to 8,476 in 2014.(2) My family’s farm directed benefited from this escalation in popularity of local food and markets. Having this experience: attending markets, seeing their growth and potential lead directly to the business model for Copicut Farms. Our plan to go straight to the customer through markets opened several opportunities for us but also threw a few challenges our way. However, we chose to see these challenges as opportunities as opposed to limitations and worked within that framework to create our business. Our decision to raise pastured eggs, pastured, hand-butchered chickens, as well as expanding into pastured-raised, humanly butchered hogs was in direct response to our distribution method. Having had the experience of selling at markets as a teenager, I realized that there was a lot of curiosity on the consumers’ part about production methods and farming practices. Knowing that we would be interacting with each customer and answering individual questions made us realize we needed to have a philosophy we could stand behind and that could stand up to scrutiny. Every choice we’ve made ties together; from the concern for the health of our animals, pastures, and land, to our DTC distribution system, to the health and satisfaction of our customers. In a significant way this connects back to our ability to sell directly at farmers’ markets and get to know our customers and community to whom we are ultimately responsible.
(1) “Trends in Local and Regional Food Systems” USDA, Report to Congress,   http://www.ers.usda.gov/media/1763057/ap068.pdf
(2) http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/chart-gallery/detail.aspx?chartId=53464&ref=collection


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