Ultimate Guide to Farmers' Markets

A stall at the Marylebone Farmers' Market sells farm-fresh eggs.
A stall at the Marylebone Farmers' Market sells farm-fresh eggs.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Farmers' markets are open-air or indoor markets where farmers come regularly to sell their produce, meats, herbs and flowers directly to you. In fact, farmers' markets aren't too different from roadside farm stands -- they just have a lot more volume and selection. Farmers' markets consist of numerous vendor booths, while a single farmer sets up a roadside stand.

Whether you live in the inner city or in the suburbs, finding your farmers' market is as easy as looking in an online directory (such as the one found at LocalHarvest), looking around your town for signs advertising the time and place, or asking your local chamber of commerce. Markets are typically open in the morning on designated days and attract more than 3 million consumers annually [source: Farmers Market Coalition].

In 2006, there were more than 4,300 farmers' markets operating across the country -- an 18 percent increase from the 3,700 markets operating in 2004 [source: USDA]. Recent estimates suggest more than 60,000 farmers participate each year and generate $1 billion in consumer spending [source: Farmers Market Coalition].

In this article, we'll learn the benefits of shopping at your local farmers' market, how markets operate and the nutrition programs in which many participate.

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Selling at a Farmers' Market

Consumers like farmers' markets because they can purchase fresh produce and chat with the people who grew it.
Consumers like farmers' markets because they can purchase fresh produce and chat with the people who grew it.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Your local farmers' market might be half a dozen tables set up for a few hours in a parking lot or a more permanent setup where many vendors gather in a building. But all farmers' markets are made up of local farmers who sell their produce directly to the public -- minus the middleman. You'll find vendors with booths stocked full of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy, cheese and eggs, herbs and flowers all raised and grown on the farm and very likely harvested within the last 24 hours. Some farmers' market associations -- each market has a group of stakeholders to oversee its rules and regulations -- also allow extras such as baked goods, honey, jams and jellies, maple syrup, cider, vinegar, plants and crafts.

Shopping at a farmers' market is good for you, your local farmers and your community. The locally grown fresh foods are often healthier than what you find in grocery stores, and you have the opportunity to get to know the faces behind the foods you eat. Want to know how the farmer keeps pests away or gets a higher yield? Ask him as you browse through his booth. Local farmers are happy to talk to you about their farming practices -- and maybe even share recipes.

Buying and selling at farmers' markets also helps your local economy and the environment. Buying foods from local farmers and businesses keeps revenues close to home and, in turn, provides jobs in the community. It allows farmers to earn fair prices for their products by eliminating additional processing, transportation and other middleman costs.

When farmers who are within a limited radius from your town sell you their foods, the miles your food travels before it arrives on your plate -- known as food miles -- are reduced. Farmers' markets also make a good venue for community education about nutrition, diet and food preparation.

The local foods at the farmers' market may or may not be organic. In a 2002 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey of 210 farmers' markets, 1,416 out of 4,681 participating farmers were organic growers [source: USDA]. Some small organic farms don't apply for organic certification because the cost of certification isn't financially possible for them. But you may find that a farmer's offerings are organic -- even though they don't carry the label -- when you ask about his or her growing practices. (For more information about local versus organic foods, read Is it better to buy local or organic food?)

Next, let's find out who sells their goods at farmers' markets. And what else can you do at a farmers' market other than buying produce?

How Farmers' Markets Operate

Farmers' markets offer a lot more than fresh food. The Farmers' Market Fall Festival in Los Angeles sports a pig race.
Farmers' markets offer a lot more than fresh food. The Farmers' Market Fall Festival in Los Angeles sports a pig race.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Although your local farmers' market may seem rather informal, every market has a business plan. Markets are managed by a small group of leaders who form that market's association and outline the market's rules and regulations. These leaders may be the vendors themselves or a combination of vendors and community members.

One of the first decisions the leadership will make is who can and cannot sell goods at the market. This decision is usually based on what types of foods will be sold and what the criteria for "local" is. Ninety-four percent of all farms are considered small farms. Farmers who manage their own operations and make less than $250,000 annually are considered small farm operators [source: USDA]. Small farms are the center of vendor membership at farmers' markets, but many markets also allow local crafters and artisans to set up shop. The rules are as individual as each community.

Potential vendors typically apply for space at the farmers' market. They let the leadership know about their products and their products' quality as well as any other detail the association requests. Vendors pay fees for membership and space and acquire any permits or licenses that may be required by local laws. Physical liability insurance in case of accident or injury is either provided by the market or purchased by each vendor, depending on that market's established rules.

The rules and regulations also establish the kind of activities allowed at the market. While food sales are the staple of most farmers' markets, some communities turn their markets into festivals. It's not unheard of for farmers' markets to have cooking demonstrations, music, local crafters and artisans selling their products. Many patrons attend simply to enjoy some people-watching.

Farmers' markets are not only spring to fall operations -- you can enjoy the foods and festivities year-round in some communities. Winter markets are similar to summer markets but are held indoors. For example, the Bloomington Winter Farmers' Market in Bloomington, Ind., is held in a school gymnasium on Saturday mornings. The products at a winter market reflect the vegetables and crops that are in-season, including hearty vegetables such as potatoes, winter squash and parsnips as well as herbs, dairy and even goods such as wool or alpaca fibers.

Winter markets aren't the only variation to the farmers' market. Farmers' markets are also available online, allowing you to order directly from wherever you might be located. Virtual vendors offer the same types of goods as traditional open-air markets.

Next, we'll learn how farmers' markets help us meet our daily nutritional needs through farm-to-school and farmers' market nutrition programs.

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Farmers' Market Programs

Marketing also makes for a fun family outing.
Marketing also makes for a fun family outing.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

While farmers' markets are independent enterprises, the government, specifically the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plays a supporting role. The Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) division of the USDA has three key roles in ensuring farmers' markets succeed operationally and financially, including research, outreach, and facility development. AMS also coordinates the farmers' market at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and supports a handful of other markets at federal offices in other states.

AMS lends a hand to local and state governments and nonprofit agencies by reviewing food market facility plans, from design to renovation and construction, estimating cost and projecting market patronage.

Additionally, AMS acts as an information clearinghouse by researching and reporting on emerging trends in farmers' market operations, practices and marketing strategies, as well as circulating findings to vendors, market managers and any interested parties. With the North American Farm Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA), AMS supported the establishment of the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC). While NAFDMA goals include helping family farmers increase farm income through the innovative direct marketing ideas (farmer-to-consumer, minus the middleman), the FMC advocates specifically for farmers' markets.

In an effort to increase farmer-to-consumer market opportunities, the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) was created under the 2002 Farm Bill. The program offers one-year grants, up to $75,000, to eligible farmers, local governments, nonprofit agencies and other entities for establishing, expanding and promoting farmers' markets, roadside stands, CSAs and other farmer-to-consumer direct marketing opportunities.

Recently, FMPP grants have also been used to implement Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards at vendor stands. EBT cards are the electronic version of food stamps and are provided to low-income families and seniors by the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). EBT cards bring fresh, nutritious foods to people on federal assistance -- a relatively untapped market in the farmer-to-consumer business.

There are two federal assistance programs working in conjunction with farmers' markets to provide fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers to low-income families and seniors. The Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) provides special coupons to its participants which are used to buy produce at participating markets. In 2006, 14,259 farmers, 2,896 farmers' markets and 2,136 roadside stands accepted FMNP coupons, resulting in more than $22.4 million in revenue to farmers [source: USDA]. Low-income seniors may be eligible for similar coupons through the Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). In 2006, 14,575 farmers, 2,911 farmers' markets, 2,323 roadside stands and 260 CSAs accepted SFMNP coupons [source: USDA].

For more information about organic foods and farming, locavores and where to find your local farmers' market, visit our list of resources on the next page.

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Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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