“For me, the farmers market is just a place to buy tomatoes.” This from a friend and close colleague at City Hall. “If I don’t like the price there, I can get them somewhere else.”
My friend is not alone in his belief that farmers markets are no more than another place to get produce, an alternative to the grocery store.
But if you support farmers markets, there’s a big problem with that perception: If you’re comparing an open-air market to a supermarket in merely tomato terms, the market will always lose.
The grocery store is usually cheaper with a better selection not just of tomatoes but everything else too, offering a wide range of food and household products under one roof. Grocery stores make all these products cheaper through sales, coupons, rewards points, while making them easy to purchase by credit and debit cards along with food stamps and other government benefits. And talk about convenient — outside, the store offers plenty of free parking. Once inside, you’ll find carts and baskets awaiting you. At checkout, there’s an unlimited supply of free shopping bags, paper or plastic.
Finally, more and more grocery stores these days offer not just organic, but also local produce.
Meanwhile, back at the farmers market, the main selling point is that the tomatoes are certainly local, though they may or may not be organic. However, once the morning’s supply is sold out, shoppers are out of luck. And forget about convenience. You may not have to bring your own bag, but you better at least bring plenty of small bills, because vendors prefer exact change, please.
If you just to grab a few tomatoes and go, there’s not much reason to get excited about a farmers market.
The Real Purpose of a Market
People who love outdoor markets know that they’re much more than sources of produce. As the Project for Public Spaces explains the benefits of public markets,
Public markets are not just places of commerce. Successful markets help grow and connect urban and rural economies. They encourage development, enhance real estate values and the tax base, and keep money in the local neighborhood. Public markets also offer low-risk business opportunities for vendors and feed money back into the rural economy where many vendors grow, raise and produce their products.
Resilience guru John Robb has argued that the farmers market should be the new town square, a democratic space that unites the community, a place where citizens meet not only to shop but also to socialize, listen to music, share news and discuss the events of the day. The Project for Public Spaces adds that markets bring together diverse citizens and help revitalize downtowns and neighborhoods alike while promoting public health.
But, in today’s tough economy, I want to focus on the economic impact of city markets.
The Original Economic Development Tool
Open-air markets have been the basis for great cities since the dawn of civilization. In centuries past, much as towns were known for their cathedrals or universities, so they were also known as “market towns.”
After being displaced by grocery stores after World War II, farmers markets are now on the upswing. The trend is certainly supported by an increased market for organic and local food. But that’s only part of the story.
Open-air markets are really growing because they fill a real need in their local economies. They are the ultimate bottom-up economic development tool, giving ordinary people a way to do commerce without the need to rent a storefront, outfit it with furniture and other needs and pay monthly utilities.
Offering a path to entrepreneurship with a low barrier to entry makes the American Dream available to everyone. It also may be a powerful tool to help communities across America lift themselves up out of the Great Recession, no matter what happens in Washington or on Wall Street.
Prosperity, opportunity and community. Three benefits of farmers markets that make your local organic tomatoes taste even better.
– Erik Curren, Staunton Food Policy Task Force