Down to the Market

    by CLC Staff

    There are few things more delightful than a Saturday morning amble through the rows of tables at the local farmers market. It’s especially true in the fall, with the crisp clear skies of Carolina blue warmed by a cozy sweater and the aroma of coffee wafting through the season’s bounty.

    While we’re still a ways away from sweater weather, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Thomas Vilsack proclaimed August 6-12 earlier this month as the first congressionally approved “National Farmers Market Week” in recognition of their impact, growth, and the many contributions they bring to American life.

    These include their role in providing greater access to healthy food, preserving farmland, promoting sustainability, enhancing social cohesion, and stimulating local economies. “When food is produced, processed, distributed and sold all within the same region, more money stays in the local economy,” says Anne L. Alonzo, formerly of the USDA and now on the board of Feeding America, a non-profit that works to end hunger. “This leads to economic development and job creation.”

    A 2016 study from the University of California found that for every dollar of sales, farmers who sell their product directly to the public are generating twice as much economic activity within the region, as compared to those who do not. Similarly, the 2019 National Farmers Market Managers Survey showed that of the vendors who sold their products directly to consumers, 67% increased overall production, 33% increased the number of workers employed on the farm, 77% diversified the types of agricultural products they grew, and nearly 40% were able to sell imperfect products that would otherwise go unsold.

    A 2015 report to Congress found that new farm businesses that sold directly to the public survive longer than new farm businesses that strictly sell wholesale. And a study from Cambridge University found that growers selling locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned; those who do not sell locally create only three. For a deep dive on the impacts of farmers markets, please see Dr. Phillip Warsaw’s The Economic, Social, and Environmental Impacts of Farmers Markets: Recent Evidence from the US.

    The number of farmers markets around the country has more than quadrupled in the last 30 years, going from 1,775 in 1994 (when the USDA began keeping track) to more than 8,700 in 2019, according to the department’s Farmers Market Directory. Direct-to-consumer sales at farmers markets totaled $711 million in revenue.

    From smaller operations to our four state-run regional farmer’s markets, North Carolina boasts nearly 300 farmers markets across the state (there’s even an app from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to help you locate all of them) which offer everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to meat, homemade pies, crafts, eggs, flowers, dairy products, and pretty much everything in-between.

    “Farmers markets are one of the most visible, identifiable, and accessible parts of North Carolina’s local food system,” says the comprehensive NC Farmers Market Study, conducted in 2020 by Raleigh’s Community Food Lab. “They bring together small farmers, local businesses and a community of shoppers seeking healthy food and a way to contribute to their local economy. While overall sales at farmers markets hardly hold a candle to the billions of agri-food dollars generated in NC each year, farmers markets support the survival of thousands of small farms in our state, and create places where community itself is built and nurtured.”