Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Farmers' Markets vs. Arts & Crafts Markets

There's been a lively discussion lately on the Cincinnati Local Foods Group about whether it's helpful for farmers' markets to include crafters. I've always taken the position that it isn't helpful -- that it's in fact counterproductive to developing a successful market -- but a lot of people don't see the harm. For farmers' markets that are just starting up and/or don't have all their spaces filled with local, sustainably-produced foods, it's tempting to invite crafters to fill the empty spaces. It makes the market seem busy and inviting to have more booth spaces filled.

I believe filling the extra booth spaces with crafters actually hurts the chances of developing the market into a thriving entity, long term. Here's why.

Yes, a full market is more inviting to potential customers. They drive past and see a full market and think, "Wow! Where'd that come from all of a sudden? I want to check that out." They park and go in, ready to shop and buy. It would seem the addition of the crafters did its job: it pulled in more customers earlier than a smaller farmers-only market would have, because it made the farmers' market seem bigger than it actually was at that point. It brought in more customers. That's good, right?

Well, not necessarily. If a customer stops to investigate and instead of the "farmers' market" she was hoping to shop at finds a few farmers but mostly crafters, she's likely to be disappointed. It wasn't what she thought it was. She looks around. She buys a few items, maybe even one of the craft items for sale (leaving less cash in her wallet to buy food items.) But now she knows: it's not really a farmers' market. Next Wednesday when she drives past, she doesn't bother to stop. The market does okay, but although it seems to attract plenty of new customers every week and most of the farmers make enough to keep coming back, few of them make enough that they want to expand their operations. And while enough farmers come back year to year that the market continues, there never seem to be enough farmers interested to allow it to really take off. There's always another crafter interested, though.

But imagine a different scenario: a potential customer drives past a small farmers' market. He can see there are only three booths, and it doesn't seem worth it to stop. The next week when he drives past, there are four booths. Two weeks later, there are five. He thinks, "Wow! It's really been growing! I should check it out." He stops, and when he investigates he finds a booth with lettuces, another selling meats, another with honey and eggs, one with apples, several offering a variety of vegetables. He shops and goes home happy, thinking, "I'll have to remember this is here every Wednesday." He tells his friends to check out the new farmers' market.

Did it take longer to get that customer to stop? Yes, it did. But the customer went away happy and intending to return. Word of mouth spreads in the neighborhood that the new farmers' market is a great place to shop every Wednesday afternoon on the square. Next year, the market attracts four more vendors because they've heard this market is thriving. The year after that, it fills up. The year after that, it has to start turning away new vendors because there's no more space, and one of the farmers suggests they start running a monthly winter market because he's been thinking of growing through the winter in hoophouses.

The farmers make money, and some of them expand their market gardens to include less common items. Customers are delighted. Leeks? At a farmers' market? Who knew? The market manager notices that many of the customers are coming from the next suburb over. Someone gets the bright idea to start a second market in that suburb on Fridays. Not all the farmers want to participate in this second market, so some new farmers get an opportunity to participate. One of them tells a neighboring farmer -- who for years has been planting mostly corn and soy -- that she should put in an organic market garden and give the farmers' market a try. The neighboring farmer tries it and has a good year, and her son (who had figured there was no room in farming for him because everyone knows small diversified farming is dead and he has no interest in growing subsidized industrial-input commodity crops) rethinks the idea of farming for a living.

This is how a local food distribution system builds. This is why I always recommend that new farmers' markets not include crafters. I believe the inclusion of crafters, in the long run, hurts a farmers' market and hurts the farmers at that market. This is counterproductive to the development of a sustainable local food system.


Mark Stegman said...

Even if a farmers market reaches capacity it is still only a place to buy vegetables, organic meats, and talk to farmers. Fun and done.
A farmers market can be an experience where you get your vegetables, starts, honey, and everything else then hang out, do lunch while listening to a local artist play a violin, browse the unique crafts and goods that are parallel with farmers markets and not sold in the big box stores.
Homemade crafts are a part of the farming lifestyle and compliment gardening culture and the consciously aware who build community and support local farms. I would love to see the union of what to me is one entity in the first place.

The sales also work two ways; there will be people who show up for the crafts and say, "I'm going to get my vegetables and herbs here."
I respect your point of view and appreciate the breakdown of your economic theory. Thanks.

valereee said...

Mark, I've actually heard from various farmers that making the farmers' market a place to hang out tends to be counterproductive to selling stuff. People buy perishables at a farmers' market, so you don't want to offer an 'event' atmosphere that makes buying food difficult. Adding things that encourage people to wait to do their shopping actually makes it harder to sell. A pleasant atmosphere is a great thing until it becomes so pleasant that it makes people prefer to hang out rather than to buy.


valereee said...

Chopped this response into two, to address your other point: people who show up to buy crafts are going to come once, maybe twice per season. (That's why you don't see weekly crafts fairs -- very, very few people would shop there more than once or twice a year.) A farmers' market needs regular shoppers who show up every week. Those who come once per season are great, and with any luck some of them will like it and come again, but in general if they're there for the crafts, they aren't really interested in becoming farmers' market shoppers.

And, yes, a farmer who crafts during the winter is great, and I respect that as part of the way a farmer might make a living. I don't object to farmers bringing their =own= crafts to market as long as their display area is primarily devoted to food. The point of restricting crafts isn't to prevent farmers from making a living. Quite the opposite.

VisuaLingual said...

As much as, in principle, offering crafts, live music, etc. adds more components to a unique "market" shopping experience, I also find those aspects of, say, Findlay distracting and largely irrelevant to my purpose for going. Then again, I do major grocery shopping at Findlay, while I know that its appeals to some people is more for its spectacle.

I have been to larger outdoor markets in other cities that feature crafts and such, but also have a very high density of food vendors. I prefer that balance. Crafts can be a nice complement to farm-fresh produce, but they should be a small component.

stef said...

i used to live in hyde park, and i was delighted to hear that there was a farmer's market in hyde park every week! the first (and only) time that i went, though, i was pretty disappointed to find that i'd say at least half of what was for sale were craft-like items, and not nearly enough fresh produce. i was pretty disheartened by it, and even though it took some finagling to find somewhere to park, i would have made it work if i would have had somewhere even MORE local (than findlay market) to go for my fresh produce every week.
when i think "farmer's market," i don't think of craft items. i think of a grocery store under tents (or what have you) where i can buy local food. however this is just my perspective....

matt said...

I think there is an assumption here that a farmer's market and craft goods are naturally competitive entities. Certainly I prefer the balance to be tipped on the food side of things, but I'm not totally convinced that simply getting rid of crafters will create the natural growth that you posit it will. In the early stages of a farmer's market I would think that small seller turnouts would be a turnoff regardless of the composition of craft to food.

I think the most important thing is the proper balance. There should definitely be high selectivity to ensure that the right kinds of hand made products (and not just crafts, but food too sometimes at Findlay) show up(more in the line of consumables, such as soaps that are natural fits for a food market) and so that those products do not overwhelm the food. A market like Findlay probably sees a large amount of shoppers there who have migrated in on the weekend for an experience and are not quite as utilitarian in their shopping, and so probably merits more craft items. A smaller community market on a weekday where it seems to be less about the culture and more about getting what you need from local farmers would be more imperative to have a strong food showing. I think especially great food showcases are lunch-time markets in dense urban areas (does Cincy have any of these?). I think the most important thing is to really ensure the strength of the farm food selection first and ensure the word is out so they have customers, and work on always keeping a proper balance with only so many craft licenses per food or something along those lines, with some craft days or weekends say once a month, and during holiday season.

Quimbob said...

Your second scenario doesn't really make sense. If the customer doesn't stop, why would more vendors show up week after week ?
People are used to supermarkets - I think they do want a variety of stuff.
Hanging around is a problem and the music is nice but the volume needs to be kept down.

valereee said...

Quim, some folks will happily shop a farmers' market even when it's small and new because they know that's how you get it to build -- you show the farmers you will support the market, they come back, and tell their friends.

Mati said...

And some people won't. Perhaps most people won't, because they're looking for a return on their time.

We're positing two farmers' markets here: one with, say, three food stalls with a decent range - produce, honey, bread and eggs - and one with those things, PLUS a few crafters. Why would our imagined customer return to one, but not the other?

More importantly, if the market is small and not yet offering the full range, so that you do have to supplement by going to the grocery store, only local foods devotees will consistently make the extra effort. If the market is a hangout spot, the ease and practicality of attending are less of an issue and more people will make the time - not because they're dedicated to a local food system, but because there are multiple rewards. I don't know about you, but chatting with friends over a cup of Cluxton Alley coffee while my daughter plays happily or makes pottery or listens to music is one of the great attractions of the Northside FM for me. I do a quick review to buy choice items before sellers run out, reserve my meat and eggs, and then noodle around socializing and planning meals based on what's available. The leisurely pace means I buy more - often talking myself into some pricey treat - and the little extras mean there's no comparison to asking my husband to pick up groceries on the way home.

valereee said...

Mati, assume this is someone who doesn't understand how farmers' markets work and =won't= go in when there are only three booths. He drives past when it's three. Again when it's four. When it's five, he finally thinks, 'it's growing. Maybe that means it's something I need to check out.' He goes in, he sees it's all farmers, he isn't disappointed, he returns.

Same for the other customer. She's also not an experienced fm customer. She also wouldn't have gone in if she'd seen only three booths. Because she sees more, she does go in -- and she finds out it's not a fm at all. It's mostly crafts. Not only is she disappointed, but she may never give it a try again -- or any other fm.

Mati said...

So if the first customer is never going in, why is the FM growing?

And why do many traditional markets have a mix?

I don't think anyone has said that FM managers should embrace an unlimited number of makers of frilly polyester-lace outfits for fake geese. But a potter, a basketmaker, soapmaker?

Segregation is an issue. Customers should be able to comprehend instantly where the farmers are vs. auxiliaries. At Findlay, the non FM vendors are in the street and the farmers under the pavilion.

As for the frequency of purchase of food vs. crafts, this is true of all mixed retail districts and stand-alones including Wal-Mart. Food vendors make more frequent sales with smaller margins, craft vendors larger, less frequent sales.

Katie said...

I lived in Ithaca, NY, which has one of the best farmer's markets in the country and it had plenty of crafters. There are even local immigrants cooking up food from all over the world.

I would say there was an equal ratio of artists and crafters to farmers to fully cooked food servers. It helped the market thrive.

It isn't just a place to buy food, it was a gathering place for the entire town. It was the place where everyone went to spend their weekend afternoons.

You could buy everything from locally made honey, to local fruits and vegetables, to fresh flowers, to handmade earings, to Tibetan food, to Japanese brush paintings to a handmade guitar.

All of these vendors were important to the town and each one brought in their own following. Someone who comes to buy a painting is more likely to buy vegetables at the Farmer's market than they are at the grocery store. People who come to buy vegetables have fun looking at the paintings.

A Farmer's market should be a gathering place for the community and a place for people to buy all kinds of locally produced goods.

Why compete for people's attention? If they want to shop locally, why make them spend their day driving to the farmers market and the craft market. Put them all under one roof.

valereee said...

Mati, the market grows because other customers, who do know how a farmers' market works, do come in. And because farmers, most of whom also understand that a farmers' market needs a long time to build, also come even though there might not be a lot of customers at first.

Anne said...


I really don't like seeing crafters at the farmer's markets - there is only so much space, and I feel like farmers are being cut out. I go to market with my food budget in my pocket, so even if I see a crafter whose stuff I like I won't buy. I think people need to understand that a farmer's market is *where you shop for your food*, not a place to stop for crafts and entertainment. I think that will be more valuable in pulling shoppers away from the mega-mart mindset.

Brian said...

There was an article in my Mother Jones e-mail subscription today on this exact subject.

Here is the link:


valereee said...

Brian, thanks so much for the link -- great piece, I'm so glad you brought it here!

One of the commenters on it is Lucy from Boulder Belt -- she's a regular contributor here and has a blog of her own here

matt said...

The Mother Jones article is rather thought provoking. Parts of it kind of feel like arguments against "selling out", like Indie bands that go big or artists that go commercial and the like. It seems like in the pursuit of larger proceeds they do in fact draw the people who make larger margins, but those people are the makers of processed and prepared foods as well as crafts, and the like, because those honestly are the things with the highest mark-up value that people are willing to pay for (and coffee..whats that, like $2000% markup for owning an espresso machine...not to belittle a good espresso).

I think while in some eyes, a busy and lucrative market may have turned "successful" but as the farmers say in the article, many of the best and most authentic experiences can be driven away. I believe a large part of this is that raw food is generally viewed as a commodity. Noone loves paying tons of money for things they buy every week, even if they love the produce itself. However people do seem to like supporting the little guy, the local producer, understanding the back stories and what makes their food special (and delicious) and filled with their concern and love for what they do. Maybe if the future trend of local farmers at Farmer's Markets is to improve, then the farmers or the market might look into building an element of the story telling of each farmer into the displays or tags for the booths. This might provide a good official back story and rich history for the people who do really care, and provide a level of comparison and transparency for the people who are just shipping in products. Certainly a lot of this could be taken care of by simply talking to all the vendors to know their story but this could be a huge educational benefit to the public and the people who aren't really connected into the local growing scene or who maybe just hadn't thought of it before (and lets face it, that's the vast majority of shoppers...maybe not at farmers markets, but if it makes a first time shopper think of these issues the next week they go to Kroger, then its done the job).

I think the markets themselves should also implement some stricter guidelines, like those of the Dane County market that someone brought up in the comments. Who do we ask at Findlay (and other local markets) about levying a little more restraint in food items? I'm not saying that markets should do away with all the other vendors, because I think there can be a place for the prepared food and certain locally produced items, but the emphasis really needs to be placed on catering to and protecting those fragile local food producers who stand on principles beyond the monetary reward, because if they all walk away, the market is lost.

valereee said...

Matt, I think this is a really astute comment. For the farmers' market =manager= there's almost a conflict of interest. The natural instinct is to try to draw the most customers. It would seem this is the best thing for the vendors, too. But for the farmers -- and by that I mean the people who are focussing on growing rather than producing value-added products -- the best thing is to draw the most buyers of raw agricultural food ingredients and NOT offer them anything that would cut into the sales of raw ingredients.

I understand the problem: if you're at a booth selling tomatoes, onions, and peppers, and you're thinking of making salsa, and you look at the booth next door and they're SELLING salsa, do you tend to think, "Here, I'll buy $10 worth of tomatoes, peppers, and onions and make five pints of salsa," or do you think, "Hey, I can buy a pint of salsa for $5 over there! I'll just spend $25 and forget about doing the work." If you don't find home canning fun and interesting, you probably go with option number 2.

So the farmer at market who isn't producing value-added products is going to lose the sale most of the time.

The person at Findlay is Cynthia Brown, but I can tell you that changing the rules to be more restrictive is a true challenge for any fm manager. You're usually talking about excluding what might be some very successful products from some of your current vendors. (Changing them to be less restrictive can also be a challenge, but in that case you aren't talking about excluding current products from current vendors.) Any change, in fact, is a challenge -- the manager of the North Market in Columbus believes their hours aren't ideal, but says that changing them is a hornet's nest he's loathe to get into.

VisuaLingual said...

That Mother Jones article was really thought-provoking, and the market outside the Ferry Building in SF is most definitely one of the least appealing experiences if you're actually trying to shop for groceries. To me, its "spectacle" aspects really take away from my enjoyment of it.

I sometimes feel that way about Findlay. I love going on Saturdays but get so sick of the competition of the crowds drawn, presumably, by the music, crafts, and special events, in addition to the produce vendors. Sometimes I go on weekdays just to avoid all that, even though I then also miss the Saturday vendors.

Donna said...

Hi Valeree,

Farmer's markets - whether in Europe or Asia, a major American metropolis or small town - are (and always have been) intersections of food and community. They are a structure that creates the experience of belonging.

Musicians, artisans, etc. have been part of the culture of farmer's markets for hundreds of years.

I agree there should be guidelines (no yard geese or tube socks), a standard of quality, and a balanced ratio, but otherwise I welcome the diversity and the opportunity to support local artists.

I've been shopping at Findlay Market for years, as well as a few other farmer's markets around Cincy. Similarly, I've lived in both NYC (shopped Union Square Market & others) and San Francisco (shopped Ferry & others).

The reasons are many, not singular.

1. Connection to community. The box store grocery experience is sterile and isolating.

2. Connection to food. Getting face time with someone that grows your food is powerful, and one of the paths to eating mindfully.

3. Flavor. Of the food first and foremost, but this includes flavor of the community.

4. Local economy. I vote with my dollar as much as possible by supporting independently owned and operated businesses.

5. Environmental. I'm not an orthodox practitioner, but aware.

My point is: intimacy, relationship, and engagement matter. As microcosm of community, farmer's markets provide a place for us to engage. They also provide a setting to bring the gifts from the margin into the center.

Though I'm not motivated by Findlay's weekend "events" (weekdays are quieter), I appreciate that there's a high school kid juggling; a blues guitarist that doesn't sing any blues; a hairdresser who discovered her bliss as a jewelry maker; people socializing over coffee and authentic Belgian waffles.

It's alive with energy and a feast for the senses.

Why not expand upon what's possible?

valereee said...

Donna, it's not that I don't want to support local artists. But here's the thing: there aren't enough farmers to go around, and the reason there aren't enough farmers to go around is that farmers have a hard time making enough at market to make it worth their while. When we add crafts/events to a market, we decrease the amount of money most of the farmers at that market will take home, making it less likely new farmers will come to market next year. Every little town wants their own market. If we want them, we have to make those markets profitable for FARMERS. Not artists, jugglers, musicians. FARMERS.

Amanda said...

I am the exact farmers market customer you described. it's called a farmers market for a reason. if I wanted crafts I'd go to a craft fair. it's misleading and I'm there for the food and when there isn't much food I do not go back.

Jeremy Dolby said...

Some of the most successful farmers we've met have opted out of the public farmers market altogether, preferring the buying club, on farm sales, CSA or a combination of these. Farmers markets, even those with mostly craftsmen, are fine places to begin to build a client base but rarely seems to provide the level of income and quality of life that many farmers (including this one) desire.

Apocalypsology said...

Jeremy, I've seen that, too -- the CSA in particular seems like a great option for farmers once they've built up a customer base.