Farmers’ Markets 101

What is your definition of a Farmers’ Market?

  • A trendy fad that will soon fade into non-existence like the pet rock
  • Your go-to place to purchase the Martha Stewart line of produce
  • The bastion of granola eating, soymilk sipping, organic-food craving Portlandians

May I offer another definition…

none of the above. Farmers Markets are not a voguish whimsy, nor are they filled with over-priced designer fruits and vegetables. And, although the Portland Farmers’ Market is one of the largest in the United States, it is not a stand-alone eccentricity.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the growth of Farmers’ Markets in the last 20 years has been dramatic.

Here’s what the dictionary says

A farmers’ market is a seasonal gathering of booths or stands, indoors or outdoors, where foods are sold directly to consumers by farmers. Typical wares are fruits and vegetables, herbs and flowers. Some larger markets also feature home-baked breads, cured meats, preserves, and home-made pastas—one-stop shopping for your dinner.

In contrast, public markets (such as the Pike Place Market in Seattle, Washington) are housed in permanent structures and operated year-round. (Pike Place Market is worthy of a hub on it’s own, and I’ll do that soon. In the meantime, watch the video to see real “flying fish”.)

How did this all get started?

Was it one farmer with an over-abundance of peaches? According to historians, the Egyptians began operating open-air markets over 5,000 years ago. Today farmers’ markets are operated all over the world. Many are small, with just a handful of farmers selling their produce. The largest is the Tokyo Central Wholesale Market which stretches 54 acres and contains 1,700 vendors.

Why buy at a farmers’ market instead of a grocery store?

There are so many benefits to buying at a farmers’ market; I hardly know where to begin.

For the consumer, the pluses are:

  • the middle-man is eliminated and overhead costs are drastically reduced
  • goods are produced locally and vendors sell their own products
  • foods are fresher, seasonal, and healthier
  • according to the USDA, 82 percent of food sold at farmers’ markets is labeled organic
  • there is often a better variety of foods—organic produce, free-range eggs, handmade cheeses, etc.
  • the market is a good place to meet neighbors and gain new acquaintances
  • an outdoor walk is good for you

For the farmer, the benefit is quite obvious; farmers are able to take home 90 percent of each dollar earned because:

  • goods sold are handled less and require less refrigeration and storage
  • transportation costs are reduced
  • the middleman (wholesalers, food processors, large retail grocery outlets) is not part of the chain
  • by selling in an outdoor market, the cost of land, buildings, lighting and air-conditioning is also reduced or eliminated.
  • the farmer is in control of goods not sold and can sell excess to canneries or other food-processing firms.

For the community:

  • farmers’ markets bring traffic (as in consumers) to other local businesses
  • help build a unique stamp or character to a town or community
  • increase social ties and a feeling of commonality and civic pride
  • decrease the amount of land dedicated to food storage

What you can do to have a successful trip to the farmers’ market

  • Arrive early. All goods will be at their freshest and the selection will be top-notch
  • Bring your own reusable bags. Some vendors don’t have bags, or run out.
  • Bring cash. Easier, faster, and it reduces operating costs for the farmer
  • Buy what you can use in a few days, but no more unless you encounter an amazing deal and plan on freezing, preserving, or canning your purchase