As locavore options grow, farmers fear market saturation

9/21/2011 21:18:39 PM

With the many festivals that feature local foods, Oregonians can hardly be blamed if they failed to notice National Farmers Market Week this summer. Organizers proudly proclaimed that the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has grown from 4,093 in 2005 to 7,175 in 2011.

In Oregon, farmers markets have never been stronger. Statewide, there are 127 markets, and the Portland area has 57, some open year-round. Sales at the city's flagship market have climbed year over year even in the middle of a recession.

But elsewhere, all is not so rosy. Farmers in pockets of the country say the number of farmers markets has outstripped demand, a consequence of a clamor for markets closer to customers and communities that want multiple markets.

Some farmers say small new markets have lured away loyal customers and cut into profits. Other farmers say they must add markets to their weekly rotation to earn the same money they did a few years ago, reducing their time in the field and adding employee hours.

John Spineti of Twin Oak Farms in Feeding Hills, Mass., started selling tomatoes and squash at farmers markets in the early 1970s and saw his profits boom as markets became more popular. But just as farmers markets have become mainstream, Spineti said business has gone bust.

"A small pie"

"It's a small pie. It's too hard to cut it," said Spineti, adding that his profits were down by a third to a half over the past few years.

Rick Wysk, who has eight acres at River Bend Farm in nearby Hadley, Mass., says his business at farmers markets is half what it was five years ago.

"You have a certain amount of demand, and the more you spread out the demand, you're making less," said Wysk, who has been selling at markets for 13 years. He believes his business is further hurt by additional markets that opened this year in nearby communities.

"We're western Mass. We're not New York City. We're not Boston," Wysk said. "We've got people, but not the population in the bigger markets."

More densely populated areas, however, seem to be where the problem is most acute. In Seattle, farmers have spent the past few years jumping from new market to new market. In the San Francisco area, there are simply "too many farmers markets," said Brigitte Moran, the executive director of the Marin Markets in San Rafael, Calif.

"We have this mentality of, oh, we have a Starbucks on every corner," Moran said. "So why can't we have a farmers market? The difference is these farmers actually have to grow it and drive it to the market."

Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports farmers markets, acknowledged that some markets are saturated. One reason is that more community groups want to open farmers markets without doing "sufficient planning to ensure the demand is keeping up with the supply," she said.

Stiff competition

In some places, new or small-scale farmers who cannot get into existing markets create their own and siphon off customers. Other communities do not have enough farmers to keep up with all the new markets that are opening, Miller said. According to federal agriculture officials, there are about 2.2 million farms nationwide; in 2006 there were 2.09 million.

To stay profitable, Miller said, farmers often sign on to a new market to hedge their bets, even if they do not know whether the market will survive. Some do not. According to a study by Oregon State University, 62 farmers markets opened in Oregon from 1998 to 2005 and 32 failed.

This summer, Trudy Toliver, executive director of the Portland Farmers Market, told The Oregonian that there were signs that the city could be approaching too many markets, but she "hasn't even heard grumblings" about it from farmers or market managers.

At the Beaverton Farmers Market, manager Ginger Rapport said: "I don't view other markets as competition. ... To me it's part of a giant web of local food production."

When Rapport started her job in 1996, Beaverton was the state's largest farmers market. It still is, even with dozens of small markets dotting suburban Portland. "The number of people who are making a commitment to shopping local is growing every year," she said. "I think it allows us all to survive and succeed and thrive, despite what one might think of as (increasing) competition."

Portions of this report were written by Katie Zezima of The New York Times, and Leslie Cole, former staff writer of The Oregonian.

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