“The decline in sales is, arguably, one result of the contemporary farmers market, which has evolved to meet the needs of a new generation of shoppers who view these outdoor markets as more a lifestyle choice than an opportunity to support local agriculture.” — The Washington Post, June 21, 2016
First, the good news: Farmers markets are thriving, attracting countless visitors who previously confined their food purchases to air-conditioned supermarkets. Now, the bad news: The farmers aren’t faring nearly as well, because many market patrons aren’t buying. Instead, they come to weekly markets to listen to live music, catch up with friends and maybe splurge on a glass of lemonade or quinoa cookie.
According to The Washington Post, sellers of fruits and vegetables say their market sales have dropped by 30 percent to 50 percent over the past five years or so, with some vendors reporting an annual decline of $50,000. One of the farmers interviewed is considering shifting his business plan to focus on restaurant sales, partly because chefs are less likely to be distracted by salsa tastings and storytelling sessions.
Virginia farmer Zach Lester says marketgoers are “shopping with the eyes, and they don’t care about the season.”
Stiff competition has further cut into farmers’ market sales: Customers can now bypass kale at the market because they can find an organic equivalent at the supermarket, or another farmers market tomorrow. As the Post reports, the number of markets nationwide has nearly doubled since 2006, a phenomenon that’s well established in Charleston. This year, Sullivan’s Island and northern Mount Pleasant were among the areas that launched new markets. Just this week, the City of Charleston announced a Wednesday night farmers market is set to open in September at Ackerman Park.
And many of the newer markets stress items other than traditional produce. For example, the Sunday Brunch Farmers Market, which last year debuted on James Island, features bloody Marys and vintage clothing sales.
Furthermore, farmers complain the lifestyle emphasis is sometimes pursued at the expense of supporting growers, compounding their financial woes. At Charleston Farmers Market, manager Harrison Chapman explains, a small group of monitors is charged with making sure that vendors don’t resell produce.
But John Warren of Spade and Clover Gardens feels there’s not enough time or expertise invested in the effort.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” he says. “(Resellers) can charge cheaper prices. I saw tomatoes at $1.50 a pound: I can’t grow them and make money.”