Ruminations on farmers markets with local vendors

Created by Aliza Kibel and Aisha Catena

Farmers markets carry locally grown foods, creating personal connections and bonds of mutual benefits between local farmers, shoppers and communities. As opposed to the large agribusinesses that dominate modern food production and create a divide between consumers and their food, farmers markets and their collectivist spirits help to rebuild local and regional food networks, facilitating an appreciation for the origins and stories of whole ingredients.

The Davis Square Farmers Market, which serves as an option for locally grown produce close to Tufts community members, is open on Wednesdays in Davis Square. The market manager, B.J. Daniel, and the assistant market manager and electronic benefit transfer coordinator, Lizzie McCarty, shared their insights on the importance of farmers markets.

“You get to see the seasons because they’re right in front of you, with fresh local produce, vegetables, fruits, right there,” Daniel said. “You see it, you smell it … your senses are alive with it it’s right there.”

When customers buy produce from small farmers, they build a more personal connection between themselves and those growing their food. McCarty explained how talking with farmers provides insight into the seasons, the land and the origins of food.

“You get to interact with the people who actually made what you’re buying. So if you have a question about the fruit, or the vegetables, you can ask the farmer that harvested [it],” McCarty said. “Lots of sharing of ideas here: different recipes being shared, different pairings across the market, which is really fun. [Daniel] started putting honey in her coffee because the coffee vendor told her to. Life changer.”

Siara, who sells products from the certified-organic Langwater Farm in Easton, Mass. at the Davis Square Farmers Market, highlighted the benefits of buying from farmers markets.

“Buying from local farms guarantees quality,” Siara said. “It’s coming from the fields to the market. A lot of the stuff was harvested this morning.”

Siara also shared how Langwater Farm’s values are community-oriented. 

“[Our] motto is that we bring produce to the people,” Siara said.

A farmers market veteran, Peggy Corbett from Peg’s Preserves in Lancaster, Mass., has been jellying since she was six years old and selling jellies for 40 years. While selling at the Medford Farmers Market, Corbett explained the communal importance of shopping at farmers markets as a means of supporting both small business and local agriculture endeavors. 

“[Farmers markets] are really important to the community because they bring local food products that aren’t shipped or bussed or flown across the country,” Corbett said. “They are community products brought to the community at affordable prices.”

Farmers markets support the economic viability of small farms by shortening the supply chain. In other words, they reduce the number of middlemen, or intermediaries, giving farmers a higher share of the consumer dollar and helping them earn higher revenue for a given crop compared to wholesaling.

At grocery chains, shoppers’ industrialized produce is shipped an average of 1,500 miles from where it was grown, with mono-crop agriculture operations eroding soil, using fertilizers and exploiting farmer labor. Grocery stores often prioritize maximum efficiency for the individual shopper, and consumers have thus lost a connection to the sources of their food — many have no clue where their food is coming from.

According to Corbett, being knowledgeable about the sources of the foods we consume should start at an early age. She highlighted the importance of educating young people about sustainable agriculture practices.

“I am a believer in food to table. I grow almost all the food to make my product. It’s important to teach children to know what you’re eating, to grow your own food and to survive off the land,” Corbett said.

Ron Manso, of Sherman and Cherie’s Beezy Bees located in Western Massachusetts, concurred that farmers markets provide valuable selling opportunities for small businesses.

“[Farmers markets] help because we are fairly small, and we’re not able to break into the larger markets with any meaningful product base because we’re just not big enough to compete,” Manso said at the Davis Square Farmers Market.

Amy Morin, of Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, Mass., also made similar points.

“We’re able to get a lot of clients that we wouldn’t be able to get in our physical store due to different locations. We do multiple different farmers markets throughout the week, so we get to see a lot of different people,” Morin said. “We can reach out to the community that way and provide freshly baked bread, [with] no preservatives, and also interact with the other lovely stores here.”

Farmers markets not only support local farmers, but on a national scale, they also help diversify food systems. While incredibly fun for consumers, farmers markets, on a more serious note, act as channels of resiliency from large-scale agriculture. Buying from diverse scales proved incredibly important during COVID-19.

Sean B. Cash, a Bergstrom Foundation professor in global nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, provided insights into the meaningful impact of farmers markets.

“What people like about farmers markets is that it’s smaller scale — you can buy things directly from the farmer. I do think that we need larger-scale things as well, but it’s a form of resilience for our food systems to be supporting things at different scales, and not just to be relying on buying cucumbers at the local Walmart and Target,” Cash said.

Cash emphasized how farmers can economically benefit from farmers markets. According to him, farmers markets are a way for growers to diversify their income, even if they participate in larger-scale farming.

“They can often receive a higher return on certain things at certain times a year by selling directly to consumers of farmers markets or through other venues, even if they’re also getting significant parts of the revenue elsewhere,” Cash said.

Moreover, when food is grown, processed, and sold within the same region, more money stays in the local economy. As opposed to buying items at grocery chains, where a large percentage of sales leave the community, and even the state, buying at farmers markets keeps money in circulation within the local community. Case studies by Civic Economics show that for every dollar we spend at a large chain, about 15 cents stays in the area, while locally owned enterprises keep 30 to 45 cents in the area.

Cash also noted how utilizing different scales of food production is necessary for resiliency, particularly in preparation for when food systems fail, like during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[With] something like COVID-19, where we had so many changes, if we don’t have different structures and different ways of accessing food, then when there’s a disruption in the things we’re relying on most, we have even fewer options,” Cash said. “Farmers markets are a way of [ensuring access to different food sources by] keeping multiple channels in play.”

Some farmers markets experienced their strongest-ever sales in 2020. During the pandemic, wealthy shoppers increased their local food consumption. Surveys and media reports also demonstrated positive trends in the number of food-insecure people shopping at farmers markets. A survey by the Farmers Market Coalition found that in the summer of 2020, more than 40% of farmers markets saw an increase in payments using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits compared to 2019. Particularly during the pandemic, farmers markets have become important tools for reducing food insecurity.

Aside from their positive community impacts, it is important to note how many consumers and managers of farmers markets tend to fit the demographics of being white, female, wealthy and highly educated. This is true even for neighborhoods that are not predominantly white. Even when federal food assistance is expanded, most shoppers are still white. This majority-white demographic in farmers market consumption and leadership has been revealed to attract prospective homeowners and renters who want to live in sustainable neighborhoods, which increases housing market competition, and may contribute to green gentrification and the displacement of low-income households of color in urban areas. Thus, there are many calls for farmers markets to open in historically marginalized communities, specifically lower-income communities and communities of color, with targeted efforts to engage communities of color as vendors and shoppers. The goal of these proposed markets is to increase representation, benefiting both consumers and producers. 

“There are sometimes great gains to be had by having certain things [produced] locally,” Cash said. “But I think the larger gains are often about supporting food production at different scales and having that connection to where the food is grown, who’s grown it and being able to try different things that might be regionally specific, important to your local history local culture … and just enjoying the fun of what is local.”