Farmers Market 101: What is a Farmers' Market?

Many are surprised to hear that my job even exists. They typically aren’t aware there is an organizer behind their local farmers’ market. Perhaps it is because the idea of a small local gathering of producers is ingrained in our society’s evolution. Farmers’ markets date back to ancient times; over 5,000 years ago, when local farmers sold live animals and crops from their farms to the community. Informal “pop-up” markets like these were also prevalent in America with the first settlers. But then they faded away with the onset of urbanization and the rise of the grocery store bringing in the era of food commoditization and corporatization. To the delight of the local foodie, seasonal eater, and civic-minded folk, farmers’ markets have made a comeback – doubling over the last five years in the United States to over 8,000!

It’s a trend to ditch your big business supermarket, and shop small and local. The movement is making such a wave that you’re now seeing the supermarkets try to rebrand themselves as local, farm friendly institutions. Some even go as far as using the term farmers’ markets in their name (e.g., Sprouts Farmers’ Market). This is what I like to call farmwashing. Using marketing tricks to make yourself look like you’re connected to a farm. A bunch of hogwash if you ask me!

Unlike the markets of the old days, which were very informal, today’s markets do carry a greater deal of formality (i.e., regulation) with them. It was only back in the 1970s that California passed its Direct Marketing Regulations to once again allow farmers’ markets to rise. The regulations were spurred on by the need for farmers to find a market for their ‘second quality’ produce (produce that didn’t fit the standards of the supermarket distribution channel). As the supermarket distribution channel became more and more developed, farmers started finding themselves with more and more ‘second quality’ produce going to waste. To be sold at a supermarket, all produce must meet standard packing and labeling requirements. Meaning everything has a label (sticker), is uniform (same size and shape) and of “first quality” (non-blemished). To comply with this system and survive, farmers’ shifted away from heirloom varieties and towards hybrid seed varieties, which via plant breeding result a better yield of uniform produce (I refer to natural selection here not GMOs). Something was sacrificed along the path to greater yield. Unfortunate for the consumer, it was taste and nutrition.

Good news! The resurgence of farmers’ markets has liberated the farmer to refocus on growing for taste and nutrition by providing an outlet for heirloom varieties. At the forefront of this movement was the tasty heirloom tomato.

As an operator of farmers’ markets, I strongly believe in their benefits for farmers, consumers, businesses and the community. In my opinion, here are some of the important ones.

  1. More Money For Farmers: Farmers cut out the middleman by selling directly to consumers. This allows them to keep a greater percentage of the fair market price for their produce and also to get paid on the spot (versus waiting 30, 60 or even 90 days or more for their distribution company to pay their invoice). This opportunity keeps smaller farms from otherwise going out of business.
  2. Freshness: Do you prefer a tomato picked within the last 24 hours in your home State or one that was picked 3 weeks ago across the globe?
  3. Better Taste & Nutrition: Looks don’t matter as much at a farmers’ market. Flavor and nutritional qualities steal the show. After all, our food is meant to nourish our bodies not simply look good on the shelf.
  4. Greater Variety: The variety at a farmers’ market will always outplay the supermarket. You have the option to buy organic produce, grass fed meats, and unique heirloom varieties you may have never seen before (except perhaps in Grandma’s garden years ago)!
  5. Support Local: Shopping directly from your local farmers and food artisans supports your local businesses.
  6. Community Building: Farmers’ markets bring the community together, along with generating traffic to nearby businesses. It gives an area a unique touch unlike any other that encourages visitors to return.

Please note that the term “farmers’ market” is not a legally defined term – anyone can use it in any way they like. Here in California, our Direct Marketing Regulations legally define the term “Certified Farmers’ Market”. This means that all produce sold at the market is grown in California. It also means our farmers abide by strict laws to ensure they are growing and selling their own produce. Farmers are inspected by the Department of Agriculture, and follow specific rules for loading, transportation and storage. To hold the farmer even more accountable, you will now see each farmer’s banner stating, “We Grow What We Sell.” It’s comforting to be able to visit your local market, and trust your growers and produce.

Farmers’ markets will only continue to gain popularity as the health trend grows, and we’re excited to see what’s next. Who doesn’t love combining their community, nature and food? It sounds like a recipe for success to us!