FREE SPEECH ZONE | Farmers markets draw crowds and—sometimes—dollars


Ah, another sunny Saturday morning at the Mill City Farmers Market. Before you can snag your first glass of freshly squeezed OJ, you find yourself pinned by a web of waving arms as people point at their intended treats, thrust cash into the hands of vendors, and swing their purchases jubilantly in front of them. If you’re not careful, you might even get speared by an errant food-sampling toothpick. Farmers markets are practically dangerous in their popularity.

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Yet if you looked at the national economic indicators, you’d think you should be able to rollerblade down the aisles. Nielsen data released for this summer suggest that the recession is not over in the mind of the consumer, as people continue to hold back on buying unnecessary luxuries and stick to basic commodities. Organic foods, the luxury of choice for the health- and eco-conscious, have particularly suffered. After years of 20 to 30 percent growth, organic food sales may have topped out this spring, growing a mere one percent. So how does a market known for its local, organic, and not exactly cheap food – including, for example, $5 loaves of bread – draw ever-bigger crowds?

Fans of farmers markets seem to be a more zealous lot than your average grocery store organic shopper. According to Zoie Glass, proprietor of Lucille’s Kitchen, her savory jams business at Mill City is growing. It’s the wholesale part of her business – where she sells to local grocers – that is suffering. Other vendors at Mill City echo her sentiment that farmers market customers are a relatively loyal bunch. Greg Barbels, one of the market’s two cheese vendors, has been with Mill City since it opened four years ago. He confirmed that his regular customers haven’t changed their purchasing habits a bit.

As valuable as those regular customers are, it takes new ones to grow a business, especially at those eye-popping 20 to 30 percent rates. And that points to a change in shopping dynamics not only at the supermarket, but at the farmers market. New customers have big eyes, but not necessarily big wallets. Barbels notes that while his regulars remain unfazed at the pricetags on his cheese, new customers are visibly turned off. Ryan Evans at the Shining Hills Farm and Gardens stand has seen the same pattern in his floral business. Although repeat customers are very supportive, his sales from one-off purchases have dropped sharply.

This reluctance of newbies to dig into their pockets hasn’t affected all vendors at the market equally, however. Adrienne Logsdon from Burning River Farm noted that business for her veggie stand was building as new customers discovered the market for the first time. Overall, the fruit and vegetable vendors at the market were pretty upbeat. It’s probably no coincidence that their products are less expensive than categories like meat, dairy, and flowers. Old and new consumers alike are prioritizing, spending on staples that don’t cause sticker shock, but holding back on items they can find a lot cheaper at the grocery store or simply forgo. Laura and Matt Tompkins, a young couple who shop at Mill City every week, admitted, “This year we’re buying less cheese, and more produce, with the economy the way it is.” Their shopping bag included a $2 head of lettuce, a $4 pint of strawberries, and…cookies. Well, you have to get something for the kids.