An unexpected drag on farmers markets

People go to farmers markets for many reasons. The jovial, wholesome atmosphere makes people feel good about their communities, and offers an opportunity to catch up with friends, and appreciate the hard work put in by area farmers. And sometimes, we even want to buy a little food. But this is becoming an increasingly rare act, according to a recent Washington Post article.

“For some growers, farmers markets just aren’t what they used to be,” notes the headline. Zach Lester, a Virginia grower who sells at DC’s trendy Dupont Circle market told the Post he was down $50,000 a year from a decade ago, when he did about $200,000 in sales. This decrease comes in spite of the fact that the market is more popular than ever.

The culprit, I assumed, would be the influx of young, hungry farmers stealing market share from the aging lions who built the movement. Indeed, census data from 2012 suggests the sub-population of farmers selling directly to consumers at farmers markets is on the rise-despite a decline in the overall farmer population. So I was skeptical about where Lester thought the root of the problem lay.

He didn’t blame the competition for his woes. He blamed the hipsters for sucking the oxygen out of the market.

Sipping on their lattes, deep in conversation, they care more about the scene than the cilantro. They might purchase a breakfast taco, but no basil. Maybe a pint of strawberries, but no rhubarb. And in their unhurried schmoozing they clog the aisles like arterial plaque, impeding the flow of serious shoppers looking for actual produce. When you factor in the strollers, sometimes two abreast, and perhaps an impromptu reunion from the previous night’s jam band concert, it’s a recipe for gridlock. And that’s if you can even get to the market in the first place, because parking absolutely sucks. The serious produce shoppers, according to the Post, would sooner just go to the store than deal with the festive throng. And the millennials, statistically, are more likely to go out to eat.

My home town of Missoula, Montana, provides a laboratory of sorts for testing the idea that hipsters can suffocate a farmers market. For years, the Missoula farmers market was agonizingly strict about which items could be sold. Basically, only raw plants were allowed. No pickles. No hot food. No meat. Not even a hide from a farmer’s own sheep. Despite these rules it was a nice market, and everyone loved it, even though we all complained about how nice a smoothie would be, or a slab of local bacon, or a tamale.

Being the only game in a decent little town, our little market was booming. It got so big that another one appeared nearby, also on Saturday, to get in on the action.

The new market was billed as an outlet for local meat producers who couldn’t sell at the original market. For this reason-and not because of the bustling singles scene-everyone called it the Meat Market.

From the get-go the Meat Market was a showcase for the free market. The hot food, cold smoothies and frozen meat were seasoned with live bands, decorated with died wool, and graced with the feeling that this was what the old market “wanted” to become, if only the folks in charge would have let it. At the very least, the Meat Market was everything that we, the shoppers, could have wanted. It was a diverse, festive atmosphere rooted in farm-fresh produce, but not shackled to it.

This left farmers with the decision of which market to sell at. Some jumped ship for the friendly shores of the meat market. Some set up stalls on both shores, while others decided to go down with the ship, rather than join the face-painting crazies down the street.

The once booming plant market was suddenly an empty backwater, while the action shifted to the Meat Market. You could almost hear the cheers and laughter drifting over. The free market had spoken.

Fast forward a few years, and the plant market, amazingly, is still around. I still go there, in fact, to get certain items from vendors I’ve long patronized. And I’m not alone. The market, which we left for dead ten years ago, now offered a surprisingly valuable commodity: a peaceful, pleasant shopping experience.

The Meat Market is bigger, with more vendors, and a lot more choices of produce and other stuff. But it’s more crowded. And, especially with kids in tow, more work.

“It’s more of a social event than a shopping event,” agreed one grower at the Meat Market who’d jumped ship from the other one. And like many who had done the same, he was questioning his choice.

Another farmer, had never heard the word “hipster,” but thought it was perfect. “They are here for the scene, for the coffee and breakfast sandwich or whatever.”

His loyal customers had followed him over to the Meat Market, but now he says they have to get there early to avoid the craziness. “I walk around and check the market because I have help now. Sometimes you can’t move. People with strollers; four people having a conversation, which is fine, but it’s frustrating. And if you’re a customer that wants to go to the farmers market and get some food, you’re like, ‘nah.’

“They hate the crowds. I can’t believe how many people bitch about the crowds. The regulars show up early. The casuals go to the Good Food Store.”

But aside from such speculation, the proof is in the profits. One farmer, who runs produce stands at both markets, said that he does twice the business at the plant market than he does at the Meat Market.

And every grower I spoke with, at both markets, agreed with Zach Lester that the socialites who treat the market like a Grateful Dead revival tour are bad for business. Unless you happen to be selling donuts or pot.

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