When I was a boy, my grandfather used to take me to the farmers market when he went to buy vegetables and lunch meats. In the 1950s there were still lots of farmers markets in Pennsylvania cities and towns. In fact, the farmers markets we went to – there were two separate markets in Harrisburg – were large brick buildings with huge windows and lots of permanent rows of stalls.
With the expansion of trucking, cold storage, and super markets, farmers markets lost popularity – during the 1960s right on through to the 1990s. Then in the mid-90s a new concern for environment, global warming, food quality, and food in general reversed the farmers markets decline. According to the US department of agriculture there were only 1,755 farmers markets still in operation in the US in 1974. Today there are five times that many and more starting up every year.
Shopping local does several things. First, if there is a local farmers market where a farmer can sell directly to a supportive public, the farmer’s profits increase four-fold. Generally wholesale farming only returns 20 percent of the final sales price of the food back to the farmer. At a farmers market the farmer usually captures about 80 percent of the final selling price of his or her food.
Basically, farmers markets are a vehicle to connect rural farmers with urban and suburban food buyers. There are rural areas too far from a city or town to allow for anything but commodity market farming; farmers markets don’t service those areas – or at least not very well. Since many farmers markets are only open for four or five hours, one day a week, the farmers must be located within a hundred miles of the market to make it all worth the trip.
Technology Gets The Word Out
Buying trends are at the very core of farmers market success. The way people think about purchasing food determines where they go to make the purchase. Cost, food quality and food provenance all play into the buyer’s mindset. Here’s the key point, food selections are a mindset.
Think about it for just a minute. If you come home and your spouse tells you you are having pizza for dinner and dinner is going to be in an hour, you’ll be disappointed if, when you arrive at the table an hour later, you find a bowl of vegetable soup. Your mind has prepared for pizza and it doesn’t matter how delicious the vegetable soup is, it isn’t pizza. Your expectations have produced a mindset.
It’s that same type of mindset that surrounds most food purchases. People become accustomed to what they expect about food and make their purchases accordingly. So, because food is tied to a mindset, then the way people communicate about food is significant, because communication can influence mindset.
Farmers markets have learned about this connection between communication and mindset. Back in the late 1990s many farmers markets began to experiment with email lists. That was long before the days of laptops, cell phones and tablets so often the lists were built by gathering email addresses from shoppers at the market on paper forms. It was tedious work requiring double data entry: first when the shopper entered their name and email on the form and then when the market personnel re-entered that information into an email account.
But, from building those lists, farmers market managers learned how to prompt their market attendance and promote their vendors. Pictures and helpful information became essential parts of the link between communication and mindset. Farmers market managers began to experiment with how to encourage their followers to come to market and buy more fresh food.
Of course, email lists were just the start; soon most farmers markets had websites and used videos as well as social media to reach out to their audience and to expand that audience. It is very common now for farmers markets to have a social media manager, a website developer and an email marketer on staff. Sometimes it’s the market manager alone who does all the digital communications, but more often than not, its a team of market volunteers.
Community In The Making
Market managers quickly learned that digital tools like email, social media and websites are part of an equation that fits together with community building. The farmers market is far more than just a market. It becomes a habit for regular attendees and they become a social community of sorts. People run into each other at the market and chat about their week’s activities: social bonding occurs that is facilitated by regularly attending the farmers market.
Once a market manager realizes how this community building fits into the markets success equation, he or she usually begin to include events at the market. Some managers hire local musicians to come and play at the market. My wife once had a band of thirteen year old guitarists come play at her market. It didn’t turn out as well as she hoped because they weren’t experienced enough as musicians to know how to play their tunes at a lower sound level. Loud music at a farmers market doesn’t work for the vendors because they can’t hear their customers speaking to them across the table.
In any event, all sorts of activities become additional vehicles for market managers to entertain and encourage the market’s followers to attend and bring their friends. Some markets are very creative with their events. I’ve seen nutritionists come and prepare organic salads and other food dishes. I’ve also seen jugglers, chess players and balloon artists. A cleaver market manager figures out what draws people with money in their pockets to the market, and then brings them back by using events. In time the events, the online communication and the market’s pleasant atmosphere produce community among the farmers market visitors.