Too Much of A Good Thing
Farmers Markets are hip. What used to be a weekly trek to go get fresh fruit and veggies and a loaf of bread baked that morning has become a place where you can do ALL of your food shopping. When we started Victorian Farmstead, I had to do battle with farmers market managers and the health department to convince them that we could safely display FRESH meat at a farmers market. Until we came along, if a farmers market had meat at all it was kept in coolers because it was white-paper-wrapped and frozen. Now, any market you go to will have at least one meat vendor displaying beautiful cuts of well-raised meats. You wouldn’t know about these other vendors because you only shop with us… right???
Over the past five years, the food we eat and how it is raised/ what it is fed have taken on a much higher priority in the minds of many. The farmers markets are a place where you can meet the people who are growing/raising your food and can happily answer any questions you have. Try that in Safeway.
The questions we get are typically well thought out and driven by a personal concern. We take great pride in helping families address certain dietary needs or educating someone on why “no nitrate added” bacon has more sodium nitrate than bacon made with sodium nitrate (whaaat????) So why are the farmers markets getting smaller?
Well, here’s my opinion: there are too damn many of them. If I look in our own backyard- my beloved Sonoma County- it has become ridiculous. There are so many farmers markets that none of them are sustainable for the farmers. Never mind all the politics involved in the Wednesday and Saturday Farmers Markets; they are a prime example of what I’m talking about. Just look at the logistics. You have 2 farmers markets occurring twice a week, AT THE SAME TIME, 6.4 MILES APART! On Sundays there are no less than 4 farmers markets in the morning. “Awesome” you say, “Now I have more options”. Let me show you the problem with this idea that every micro community should have its own farmers market.
The problem is that having so many farmers markets divides the customer “pie” into very skinny slices. That means that all the vendors are selling less at each market. From a vendors standpoint, that means you either take less sales or do more markets. If you do more markets you have more overhead. That means you need more sales. See why this doesn’t work? Here is a real world example: the Vets Hall Market on Saturday mornings used to average about $1500 in sales for us. Since the West End FM opened sales are down 40%. It is on a different day and I’m not even sure they have a meat vendor. But customers that live in the West End and used to make the short drive to the Vet’s Hall now make the short walk to their very own market. Great for the customers, right?
Not really. You have less choice because the farmers can’t afford to sustain this business model. And here is the really weird thing: every farmers market manager I have know has the farmer’s best interest at heart. Or they think they do. Most market managers believe that a market can only sustain one meat vendor. Yet they have 10 veggie farmers with the exact same product mix. If they spent more time considering the customer and let the vendors compete for sales, everyone wins.
The Saratoga Farmers Market is a perfect example. I tried for 3 years to get into that market, but they had a meat vendor. He had a self-admittedly poor display, frozen meat in coolers, and prices significantly less than ours. I was finally given an opportunity to sell at Saratoga. For the first several weeks we heard time and again the phrase “wow, we didn’t know there was a meat vendor here”. Saratoga has become our biggest market. And you know what? The other frozen meat guy’s sales are at an all time high too.
If I was a farmers market manager, my number one priority would be to do everything I could to make sure that my customers had no reason to go to the supermarket. If you build a market with that in mind, you can’t lose. But if you have a market with one meat vendor that only does beef, and I want chicken, I have to go to the supermarket. Now I’m walking the aisles and grabbing all kinds of stuff I could have bought at your farmers market because I’m already here, right?
I have always believed that farmers markets should have multiple vendors in every category. I would rather do a market where the customers know there is going to be meat for sale and compete for their business with other meat vendors. Then the onus is on me to win their shopping dollars. It’s what I call the one bar rule. If you open a new bar on a street where there is no nightlife, a customer has to seek you out, want the experience you specifically offer, and be willing to come back often for your bar to succeed. But if I open a bar on a street full of bars, now I have all the customers I want because everyone knows that’s where all the bars are. Now it’s up to me to get you inside my doors. Bourbon Street is not a fluke, folks.
At the end of the day, it is the vendors and consumers who lose when you have too many farmers markets in such close proximity. It creates a scenario that will put most small farmers out of business. It is not sustainable. It limits the consumer’s choice and forces them to go to multiple farmers markets, or to the supermarket.
I have $1000 that says that if you combined all the vendors at the Wells Fargo Center and the Vets Hall into one market and opened it up to any other vendors that wanted to sell, every vendor would do better than they do now. You would still lose farmers who can’t compete due to normal sales factors (personality, product mix, display. price, etc.) but they were not sustainable anyway. You now have a vibrant, exciting farmers market that consumers will flock to because of CHOICE!
I hope at some point this gets passed on to some visionary that could put something this revolutionary together. Or maybe the consumers need to demand it of the market managers. But it better happen soon. We are in danger of losing some really great farms that are not going to be able to afford to keep getting their sales split every time some community activist decides that they should open a farmers market in their micro community.