Debating the Meaning of ‘Farmers’ Market’

Discussion
Sep 27, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

Some supermarkets are selling fruits and vegetables in front of
their doors and describing the events as a "farmers’ market." That’s
upsetting those who believe the term should be reserved for farmers selling
directly to the public.

An article in The Wall Street Journal noted that
in June several Safeway stores in Seattle posted signs with the term "farmers’
market" above
produce displays in front of their doors. When local farmers’ market groups
complained, the signs were changed to "outdoor market." The items
included mangos, which aren’t suited to Washington’s climate. A Safeway spokeswoman
told the Journal that
the chain has no plans to call its outdoor events "farmers’ market" in
the future.

Over Labor Day weekend, about 200 Albertsons stores in Washington,
Oregon and Idaho put up "farmers’ market" signs in front of outdoor
produce stands. Despite hearing similar complaints, Albertsons kept the wording
because all the produce advertised came from local farmers. A spokesman for
Albertsons’ parent, Supervalu, said Albertsons stores may repeat the events
if they prove effective. The Journal also noted that "farmers’
supermarkets" have "popped
up from time to time in other regions as well."

While applauding local
produce sales in supermarkets, farmers’ market advocates worry about the overuse
of the name and that mimicking the concept may dilute events where farmers
sell their wares directly to the public. Farmers’ markets are said to be much
more profitable for farmers than selling directly to stores.

"These very large corporations are recognizing the power of these words
— the power of local and the power of farmer — and are trying to co-opt
them," said
Michael Pollan, who has written several books about sustainable eating.

The
problem is the vague definition. The trade group, Farmers’ Market Coalition,
defines a farmers’ market as any event consisting "principally" of
farmers selling directly to the public. But some successful ones also include
craft sellers, snack stands and buskers that appeal to a wider mix of customers.
Advocates are also seeking to stop flea markets and events dominated by produce
resellers from using the name.

There are more than 6,132 farmers’ markets nationwide,
up 16 percent from 2009, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

Discussion Questions: Do you think it’s okay for grocers to use the words
"farmers’ markets"? In what ways should supermarkets be looking to capitalize
on the popularity of farmers’ markets?

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19 Comments on "Debating the Meaning of ‘Farmers’ Market’"


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David Livingston
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Yes, it is OK to call a sterile corporate supermarket’s produce department a “farmers’ market.” Consumers are smart enough to know the difference between a real one and a corporate one.

I think the best way for the two to mix is to have supermarkets sell locally grown produce. I find that, at the farmers’ markets I go to, the prices are much higher than even at the conventional high priced supermarkets. Supermarkets can buy in bulk, attract higher traffic, and move more product. I see local local vendors sit around all day and only bring in a few hundred dollars. To me that seems inefficient. It might be better for the vendors to simply sell to supermarkets for half price and go home and enjoy the rest of their Saturday.

Dr. Stephen Needel
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Another tough one – yes, it’s sleazy, but especially where the produce is all local, hard to say they shouldn’t do it. From a community relations point-of-view, they should probably call it a local produce market rather than farmers’ market.

Charlie Moro
Guest
Charlie Moro
10 years 7 months ago

I think the more important issue is for local/regional chains to forge a partnership with local farmers. This can be more than — and should be more than — a one shot weekend promotion. Whole Foods has done a good job (as well as, I am sure, others) of identifying local farmers that they support and will, as products come to market, create and support the retail market.

Where exactly this product is being sold (i.e., Union Square or some side street parking lot) does not give automatic legitimacy to the concept of local or even “farmers” in the small intimate connotation. When I can stop buying bananas on the street in Minneapolis during the summer at a farmers’ market every Tuesday, I will be more inclined to understand the problem with supermarket partnerships with the local farmers.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

While I understand and can empathize with the concerns of the traditional “farmers’ market,” I think the opportunity is for enhanced distribution of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Instead of fighting the supermarkets, farmers’ markets need to work together in a collaborative fashion to insure that good locally grown and produced goods are available through as many outlets as profitably possible.

Steve Montgomery
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

For good or bad, the term “farmers’ market” has become more inclusive over time. I agree with David that consumers can tell the difference. That being said, I have read reports where local farmers have mixed in products they didn’t grow with those they themselves bought from a wholesale market. This certainly would not fit the purists’ definition.

True, you will pay more, but that is to be expected. The farmers’ market experience extends beyond the freshness of the product. It is a chance for people to interact with the people who actually raise the products. In our society, that doesn’t happen too often. I personally like going to the local farm stand and/or farmers’ market and purchasing my products and don’t mind the price difference. May not be the most efficient way to get products to the market, but it is more fun than going to the supermarket.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 7 months ago

One little detail – all produce comes from a farm somewhere. At least, I’m unaware of any factories in Detroit producing lettuce or string beans.

The essence of the “farmers’ market” is to provide extremely fresh produce and support local growers. As long as these two criteria are met, it seems that having these markets in front of a busy grocer is a win/win for everyone — higher sales for both the grocer and the grower along with very fresh produce for the customer.

David Biernbaum
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

The words and terms used to market “farmers’ market” fruits and vegetables should be used in an accurate way.

Dan Berthiaume
Guest
Dan Berthiaume
10 years 7 months ago

Legally, I doubt the use of a term as generic as “farmers’ market” could be restricted. For the sake of community relations and relations with local produce suppliers, retailers should probably limit their use of this term to sections that only include local produce of the freshest variety, if they must use it.

Charles P. Walsh
Guest
Charles P. Walsh
10 years 7 months ago

Interesting — looks like the good old fashioned farmers’ markets have entered the world of big business and are seeking “protection” from rival sellers (as they perceive it).

Many people enjoy shopping at farmers’ markets and are perfectly willing to pay more for their produce in return for a charming shopping experience. However, these markets only reach a portion of the population who purchase fresh produce and therefore are reaching only a portion of the potential market for their local produce.

Grocery chains that sell local produce serve to widen that market and, theoretically, increase total demand for their products.

Distribution protectionism rarely increases total volume and, in fact, often serves to slow innovation. I don’t have any objection to grocers who use the concept of a farmers’ market as long as they are selling mostly local produce, and opposition to this type of marketing is short sighted.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Only if the product comes from nearby farms.

Ed Rosenbaum
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

“Farmers’ market” to me means the produce came from a local farmer(s). I have no problem with grocers using the term as long as the produce is fresh and local.

I lived in Maryland for many years before moving to Florida. We were always anxious and excited when the local farmers opened their stands in the summer to sell local corn, tomatoes and other varieties of fruits and vegetables. Nothing tasted better than a dinner of fresh white corn, juicy red tomatoes and fresh cucumbers. My taste buds are salivating with the thought of it. This is the true farmers’ market to me and I am sure many others.

The consumer can tell the difference between fresh and transported produce. Once they sense they have been “taken”, they will not return, and sure to spread the negative word.

James Tenser
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Legal or not, it’s evident that chain retailers who callously co-opt the term “farmers’ market” for these sales events face a degree of backlash from the community. If there are no actual farmers participating, some folks will take exception, and sly competitors will take the opportunity to stir up resentment.

Why risk it, when other nomenclature can be used to achieve a nearly identical message about seasonally abundant availability of local produce? “Harvest Market” comes immediately to mind. “Best of Autumn”, “Apple Festival”, “Local Bounty” or “Cornucopia” are others.

A little creativity and sensitivity could go a long way toward making these parking lot events into a truly pleasant experience for shoppers without the taint of controversy.

Ed Dennis
Guest
Ed Dennis
10 years 7 months ago

A “farmers’ market” is anywhere I can get a real tomato. I have purchased every type my local supermarkets have ever offered and have found all lacking However I can go to a local produce market and always get decent to very good tomatoes for about one half of what the supermarket charges.

Beats me why this seems to be such a problem for chain grocers.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Definition is actually quite easy – a farmers’ market (or even a farmer’s market) – is a market of farmers. It is possessive. I know that market in the US generally refers to a store but that is actually something different. Stores and markets are not the same thing. A market is made up of multiple vendors displaying their wares. Or a place where those vendors can market their wares – geddit?

As for whether consumers are smart enough to know the difference, yes, of course they are. But are retailers smart enough to understand this and not try to pretend that they are something they are not?

And, as others have suggested, there are simple solutions that would make lots of people happy. Supermarket parking lots are ideal venues for real farmers’ markets and create win win situations without anyone having to wonder.

Herb Sorensen
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Shades of “organic” thirty years ago. And once again, the forces wanting to preserve “farmers market” as the preserve of small, local farms, are more image and anti-corporatist, than substantive relative to quality. It’s true that buying tomatoes at the supermarket is often an encounter with the factory–perfectly formed fruit, excellent appearance and largely tasteless. On the other hand, tomatoes from the farmers’ markets where we shop regularly, are of highly variable quality, often past ripe, etc. But when they are good, they are really good–and quite expensive.

Thank God for the supermarkets. And thank him again when you get lucky at a farmer’s market. (Any decent sized local produce stand gets a significant amount of stock from EXACTLY the same suppliers as some of the supermarkets.)

Mark Price
Guest
Mark Price
10 years 7 months ago

I think the real question that you are talking about here is one of authenticity and integrity. There is no question that supermarkets can drive incremental revenue by advertising a “farmers market” outside of their store. However, since farmers markets refer to locations where farmers congregate in order to jointly sell their produce and other items, this approach is clearly duplicitous.

I don’t want to be too tough on the grocers. It is clear that differentiation is difficult to achieve in the grocery business, where so many of the products and the pricing are so similar. Customer experience is one of the few opportunities a grocer has to differentiate their store in the mind of the customer. One approach would be to partner with local farms and truly create a farmers market in front of their store. This would address both the need to drive incremental revenue and the critical company value of honesty.

jack crawford
Guest
jack crawford
10 years 7 months ago

When chain stores need to rename the front of their business as a “farmers market,” their is a suggestion of desperation in their actions. The majority of people are cognizant of the fact that it is not a real “farmers market,” however, using the term will gradually demean it.

To suggest that as long as a store buys its product locally it should be able to use the name is somewhat simplistic; the vast majority of chains will continue to source their product where it is the cheapest while paying lip service to locally grown.

Ben Ball
Guest
10 years 7 months ago

Let’s make this simple by adding a clear legal definition. It’s only a “farmer’s market” if they are wearing overalls, a straw hat with a green plastic eye shade in the visor and brogans. (Check Wikipedia if you don’t know what brogans are–or just ask an Irishman.)

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
10 years 7 months ago

The term “farmer’s market” should be reserved for what it means to consumers–a market of farmers offering goods.

I think supermarkets would do better to advertise produce as “locally grown, delivered fresh, from local family farms” or words similar to that. Many years ago, Giant Food in Washington D.C. pioneered the concept of selling local produce in supermarkets and had clear signs with the names of the farms by the specific produce items. Farmer’s names were also used in advertisements.

That to me is more transparent and authentic to consumers.

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