Farmers’ markets fighting through growth plateau
The number of farmers’ markets operating nationwide has grown exponentially since 1994, when the Agricultural Marketing Service counted 1,755 farmers markets, to 2018 when the count was 8,687.
However, market growth has all but stagnated since 2016.
Farmers’ markets are hard work for farmers, and may not bring in enough of a customer base to remain viable.
Some regions have too many markets competing for customers and farmers.
Other forces seem to be changing the marketplace for small farmers, too, and getting their food into the hands of local customers — no matter the venue — is becoming increasingly difficult.
Sherry Dudas of Honeybrook Organic Farm in Pennington has noticed changes over the past several years.
Her husband, Jim Kinsel, is a pioneer in the Community Supported Agriculture model of farming, and has been operating the farm since 1991.
Honeybrook Organic Farm was the first of the Garden State’s CSA farms, and was once the largest Certified Organic CSA in the nation.
Now, nearing retirement, Jim and Sherry are selling two parcels of preserved farmland they own, and are worried not only about finding an appropriate buyer, but about the state of health of small farms in the Garden State.
The farm will continue to operate on the original farmland, leased from the Watershed Institute, as well as privately owned, permanently preserved farmland, which they lease.
“We are looking to downsize the acreage we farm as Jim’s in his 60s, I’m in my 50s, we have no children or other family who want to take over the business,” Dudas said. “Any employees who may have looked promising to transition the business to are much more interested in starting their own small farms and not taking over ours.”
At Honeybrook Organic Farm, CSA sales have been the farm’s primary marketing channel since its inception.
While their extensive membership hit its peak of 4,000 members in 2016, those numbers are declining again this year.
Alarmingly, plenty of farms in the region, once eager to establish CSAs and compete with Honeybrook’s primary customer base — a concern a mere five years ago — are now closing up shop or eliminating the CSA model.
“We know of at least four other vegetable farmers selling farmland in New Jersey due to retirement or semi-retirement. Also, most every farmer we’ve talked to about tailgate farmers’ market sales have been talking about how they are not as viable as they used to be for at least the past two years,” Dudas said. “CSA memberships are down, and at least some CSA programs are probably now defunct.”
In 2012, the Census of Agriculture showed that 12,617 farms reported selling products via CSA, slightly up from the 12,549 in 2007.
Dudas, like many other farmers, is wondering why the resurgent national interest in local food, which gained ground through grassroots efforts and numerous farm-to-fork initiatives over the last two decades, and which is arguably very much a part of mainstream cognition, isn’t translating into increasing farm gate sales?
“What is going on?” Dudas said. “I know that on a national level, imports are increasing — so that may be a factor.
In New Jersey, there’s a plethora of agricultural organizations growing new farmers, but the energy for growing new consumers of local farm products has not been as robust.”
More farms seem to be competing for the same customers.
And as CSAs tend to attract families with children in her experience, Dudas also attributes some of the decrease in CSA memberships to families aging out, along with a delay in child-bearing in today’s younger generations.
She speculates that the emergence of home delivered meal kits, promoting locally-grown, natural or Certified Organic ingredients, which are shipped in a box to the doorstep — along with recipes — for effortless meal preparation, has also taken a bite out of the local farm stand.
“We’re all then sharing the same pie, but it’s cut into smaller and smaller slivers,” Dudas said. “I think all of these factors have contributed to the decline in support for CSAs and farmers’ markets and a related erosion of financial sustainability for farmers where direct-farm marketing is their sole vocation.”
Natural Foods Go National
The reasons behind the perceived decline in direct-market farm customers haven’t yet been well-researched.
But foods defined as local, or those who claim to be produced with a quality which distinguishes them from the mainstream agricultural production sector, are now found on supermarket and other mass marketers’ shelves.
Yet many of those labels, capitalizing on this interest in organic farming and local food, might be misleading consumers.
Alan Lewis, of Natural Grocers, spoke at the recent Real Organic Project Symposium, focusing on the changes which have occurred in the organic and natural grocery sector, where small companies once thrived outside of the large corporate marketplace.
Once independent natural brands are now owned by larger corporations.
Small independent companies, once the mainstay of this sector, have been bought out, and exist primarily in name only.
Today, Lewis said, there are only two main distributors serving this marketplace, further consolidating it.
No matter how you sell your food or value-added products, and no matter your production methods, farmers are increasingly being forced to compete on the national scale.
Attempts by agribusiness corporations to make anonymous products appear to be a part of a transparent, if not “local” food system, along with the loss of competitors in the distribution chain, has led to the commoditization of local, natural, and certified organic foods, Lewis said.
Increasing options for consumers to purchase food which is perceived to be superior to conventional product is taking a toll and creating a climate where local food, despite its prominence in the mainstream conscious, isn’t living up to its promise to farmers.
It’s no wonder that direct-market farmers are struggling to capture and hold consumer support at the farm gate.
(Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Country Folks Grower and has been edited for length and reprinted with permission.)
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