Grown in Marin
University of California
Grown in Marin

UC researcher: farmers markets benefit local economies

July 19, 2007

Farmers, communities and individual residents are the three beneficiaries of local farmers markets, according to a University of California food systems analyst who reviewed studies of the markets and their growth.

"There was a huge rise in farmers markets in the last 40 years and I wanted to find out why," said Gail Feenstra, with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP). In 1970 there were only 340 farmers markets in the United States; by 2006, there were more than 4,385 farmers markets, an increase of approximately 150 percent. California makes up more than 11 percent or almost 500 markets, half of which are open year-round, she said.

"Farmers benefit from the ability to sell smaller and variable quantities, and learn the skills they need to increase their business," she said. Her article "The Roles of Farmers Markets in Fueling Local Economies" in the newly released Food for Thought issue of the journal Gastronomic Sciences, reported that direct marketing venues such as farmers markets helped farmers sell their products in local communities for higher prices than they could get from wholesalers. Annie and Jeff Main, two of the founding farmers of the Davis Farmers Market, who Feenstra interviewed, noted how essential the market was to them.

"When they started their organic farm in 1975, they found that wholesale markets were virtually inaccessible to small farmers," said Feenstra. "The Davis Farmers Market offered them a consistent marketplace where they could sell their organic produce at retail prices. Unlike other marketing outlets, the farmers market tolerated fluctuations in quantity and varieties throughout the season, and became a place where they could learn the skills they needed."

Feenstra said the total gross receipts farmers receive at farmers markets, although modest by comparison to supermarkets, are still significant. Her 1999 study of California farmers markets estimated total annual sales at approximately $140 million. She noted that the Davis Farmers Market averaged $2 million in annual sales in 2006 for its year-round weekly market (eight hours of sales per week).

Communities that support local agricultural production systems and food marketing as part of a diversified economic development plan have greater control over their destinies, Feenstra said. An important way that communities support and benefit from farmers markets is through social interaction.

"The social benefit that farmers markets bring to communities can't be overestimated," she said. In her interviews with market patrons, she found farmers markets to be a major source of interaction, both between farmers and their customers, and among the market visitors. Feenstra cited research that shows farmers markets not only encourage economic transactions on their premises, but also bring customers into town where they make purchases at other businesses.

Individuals said they benefit from patronizing farmers markets by their ability to purchase fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meat, and value-added items including baked goods, olive oil, jam and salad dressing. Customers Feenstra interviewed expressed positive feelings about buying food they believe to be clean and safe from farmers they know.

Low-income and elderly community residents receive particular benefits from farmers markets, Feenstra said, where they are more likely to find healthful, affordable, nutritious food or ethnically appropriate foods than at retail food outlets. Many markets accept food stamps or vouchers from the Farmers Market Nutrition Program or the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. Feenstra noted that farmers markets have become the foundation of local food systems for low-income clientele and some ethnic groups in many regions of California.

"At this point in history when we see cracks in the health of our environment, economic and social systems and declining natural resources, concerns about the future of long-term energy, and rising obesity rates, creating and sustaining local food economies with farmers markets as an important component, may be both an admirable goal and a necessity," Feenstra said. "The markets are important exchange networks that offer farmers, consumers and communities opportunities to participate in and strengthen the local food economies in unique places."

The journal article is available in Italian and English at http://www.unisgjournal.it/.

Feenstra has written extensively on farm-to-school programs and farmers markets throughout the United States. Her article on farmers markets in Gastronomic Sciences is available online at http://www.unisgjournal.it/index_eng.htm.

Her research on farm-to-school salad bars is available as a free download at http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/cdpp/farmtoschool/index.htm.  Her work on regional marketing is also available at http://www.sarep.ucdavis.edu/cdpp/foodsystems/MarketingReportFinal_5_10.pdf. 

SAREP is affiliated with the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

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