Summer Dive into Data

As I mentioned in my previous post, I am on my way to Oregon to join the FSLN National Gathering Monday – Thursday this week. While there, I’ll be meeting up with inspiring leaders who can share ideas for how I can better serve the front-line direct marketing producers, market and CSA organizers, and my own FMC team.

On the first leg of this many-phased trip, I read two recent research papers, 1 on farmers markets and 1 on consumer interest in local food, and immediately found some very interesting information I can use in various projects. I’ll share some here in the hope it is also helpful to others.

The first was a research paper by John Metz and Sarah Scherer published in 2021 titled “The Rise and Decline of Farmers Markets in Cincinnati.” This is a great, well-researched paper for anyone wanting to understand the history of that region’s markets, and also for those interested in data on market closure factors in the area.

Methodology

They did site visits, interviewed managers, and recorded data on products sold, businesses location and gathered other information from informal conversations with vendors. They also consulted another unpublished local survey. (Twiss. Green Umbrella 2016)

Market organization

For this study, the researchers defined farmers markets as having 2 or more farmers selling their own goods (using the USDA’s loose definition) and added the stipulations that farmers at these markets must have ¼ acre or more in production for local sale. They also excluded sites that were the actual production site, defining those as farm stands. They defined Saturday markets as different markets than those that had weekday markets operating at the same site, resulting in 37 sites operating 42 different markets.

Numbers

The Greater Cincinnati market grew from 21 in 2004 to 41 in 2012 with a “25 increase in 2005 and a 35% jump between 2009-2010.” The number peaked in 2012 and then fell 17% (n34) by 2018.

From 2005-2018, 42 new markets opened but 25 closed in same period for a 60% reduction.

During the 2005-2018 era, 71% of the closed markets operated 3 or fewer years. In contrast, 1975-1989 era, 32% (n7) of the 22 closed in the first 3 years.

Vendor-Led and Community-Led

The authors classify markets by its decision-makers, with “Farmer-Focused” and “Consumer-Focused” (or, in the language of a report they cite by Gantla/Lev from 2015, Vendor-Led (VL) and Community-Led (CL)*. I prefer the Gantla/Lev language so I’ll use that here).

Metz and Scherer concluded that the founders’ vision for the market created and continued the market’s decision-making structure. That is in line with the Market Eras Research that I have shared and continue to refine.

Among the Vendor Led markets, 11 of 13 were begun by farmers or Extension. The authors define this type as existing to primarily provide farmers with venues to sell produce. The VL markets had fewer vendors than CL markets (a mean of 6.8 vs 19.4) and the only items that were not produce tended to be jams, jellies, relishes, and baked goods prepared by the farmer vendors. Market managers had fewer responsibilities since these markets tended to offer fewer activities and rarely to conduct data collection (sales, visitor counts, or shopper surveys.) None of the VL markets had a website during the period studied.

12 of the 13 were managed by volunteers, often running more than one. So of the 13 markets, there were only 7 managers. Most were over 60.

Among the Community-Led markets, only 2 of the 24 were started by farmers. These markets had slightly varying goals for their existence including providing healthy food to neighbors, helping farmers make a better living, but also included community development goals as well.

These markets had many types of prepared foods and usually had music, and other activities. Half of these markets also had crafts but allowing crafts is also definitely a subcategory among CL markets as the other half did not allow them at all.

Many of these markets did collect sales (7), shopper counts (12), and shoppers surveys (10) at some point in the time period studied although few did it consistently: only 3-5 of the 37 did consistent data collection in the period studied. And only 3 managers reported collecting daily sales data with another 4 estimating sales annually.

13 of 24 of the CL markets were managed by volunteers although 2 of these volunteers did receive a (small) stipend or the market waived the manager’s vendor fee. Of the 11 that received some sort of serious compensation, only 4 were full-time and had other responsibilities besides managing the market. The researchers analyzed that 6 of those 11 received between $17-$23 hour.

20 of the 24 managers were under 60.

All managers for both types identified as white and 31 of 37 as female.

This research’s conclusions as to why the Cincinnati markets closed:

  1. Farmers markets exceeded current consumer demand
  2. The unexamined assumptions and unconscious biases of market operators who were white reduced the markets appeal to Black, Indigenous/Native people, and communities of Color.
  3. New technology in food retailing that encouraged payment options and online shopping was (is) still difficult in farmers markets
  4. Shortage of farmers
  5. Poor management of market

One thing they did NOT find as a cause for closures among this area’s markets was internal competition from other markets. Their analysis suggests that of the markets that they studied, few of those that closed were within the competition range of other markets. They also note that the number of “Tailgate Markets” closing from 1985-2004 was matched by the number of “Non-Tailgate” new markets opening.

Such a valuable report! I appreciate how it was organized and the core data it offers. They cite our Pittsburgh market report from 2019 which is not surprising as the analysis is presented in a similar fashion. Their conclusions also reflect many reports that rely on historic data from farmers market eras and the characteristics of market types –  including the VT report from my colleague Jean Hamilton that they also cite.

Essentially: markets struggle if they are not organized collectively, if they do not fight for farmers to remain at their center, if they cannot keep a consistent, paid management team, and if they do not employ realistic methods to analyze the external and internal factors that impact their existence.

All of that shows the type of deep support we need funders to start to offer market organizations – which means beyond program $$. The program partnerships are extremely welcome but they come with the expectation of a lot of added work that is not always supported. We need funders and policymakers to understand the underlying mission and operations of each organization and form long term partnerships to maintain and expand those. To make that happen, market operators need to share these reports, collect their own and stop hiding the hard work they and their vendors do.

Footnote *Institution-Led is Gantla/Lev’s 3rd category and defined as markets run by larger orgs that do more than operate farmers markets.