Farmers Markets Show Resilience in Times of Supply Chain Issues

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by Jenna Shea Photojournalism
Vendor at farmers market putting radishes into a bag.

Most of us have no idea where our food comes from, much less all the segments of the chain that have to be coordinated to get us that food. Farmers markets offer the opposite to shoppers – a short route from farm to the market, direct relationships between farm and consumer, and full transparency along the way. If you get to the market early enough, you can even see the farmer unload product – labor that goes otherwise unseen in the “big” food supply chain.

The “big” food supply chain faces a range of challenges and vulnerabilities for a range of reasons: it is tasked with aggregating products from tens and maybe even hundreds of different producers, runs on long trucking routes managed by many transportation partners, requires complicated data flows, and has to accommodate a range of temperature needs during transport – just to name a few! Farmers markets are shielded from some of these challenges because they offer a simple alternative: instead of operating a complicated supply chain, why not just connect people to the closest food sources in their own regions? Farmers markets are essentially pop-up grocery stores; but unlike grocery stores, they aren’t bound to carrying a specific set of products, don’t rely on long national transportation routes, and don’t have to pass through bottlenecks at ports – farmers market resilience is born out of the basic simplicity and common sense of the model: facilitating direct transactions between farmers and shoppers.

A point of resilience for farmers markets is their ability to “source” from multiple farmers. The presence of multiple farmers gives farmers markets some redundancy in offerings, providing resilience in the event of a disruption – if one farmer’s crop fails or another’s truck breaks down, there will still be many farmers at the market. Also, each farm has their own distribution method, rather than consolidation – while farmers lose some efficiency in sharing transportation here, it helps shield farmers markets from the vulnerability of putting all the eggs in one basket.

What obstacles, if any, are holding farmers markets back?

Farmers markets suffer from the greenwashing of the very authenticity they embody; large chain retailers poach and repurpose the “farmers market” brand to sell commodity products that have traveled through the long supply chain – the very chain that exploits farmers.

Farmers market operators are logistics specialists in their own right – they manage an incredible amount of complexity related to vendor load-in/load-out, shopper traffic flow, and safety requirements just to open the doors to the market each day. Market managers need to be properly compensated for this work, but are often underpaid for their efforts.

Farmers markets also need access to affordable, scale-appropriate transaction technology. While some markets still operate on cash, we live in an era of mobile wallets, ApplePay, Venmo, and more – research makes clear that people buy more when using credit cards, and farmers need more widespread access to technology that can support multiple types of transactions for the convenience of their shoppers.

Vendors at farmers markets are often small businesses, who struggle to reach profitability through the Farmers Market retail channel alone. They often need to diversify into other channels, such as Community Supported Agriculture shares (CSAs), wholesale, or online sales, but lack the efficiency to do so alone as individual farmers. Many farmers markets across the nation and the world have historic roots in serving as a wholesale outlet and a retail outlet – local grocers would often drive their truck to the market before opening hours and negotiate directly with farmers. The key here is the word “direct” – as large chain distributors have taken over, grocers and other local wholesale buyers have delegated their purchasing to middlemen instead of purchasing at markets, and farm profitability has been affected. As cities and regions, we need to think about ways that we can leverage the flexibility of farmers markets and the direct support of multiple regional farms, who are incorporating the best of organic and sustainable practices, to create resilient wholesale outlets that will help anchor farm profits.