Coronavirus Crisis and Opportunity for Farmers Markets
Updated: May 5
Opening day at the farmers market each spring signals a new season of hope for many small and mid-sized farmers. It also signals an imminent end of their customers’ winter fasts from really fresh and flavorful farm produce. This spring, the coronavirus crises has put both in doubt. “Social distancing” is simply not compatible with the social gatherings that typify farmers markets. Year-round markets in some areas have closed while others continue to operate under conditions of strict biosecurity. There is no certainty about how long this crisis will last and whether restrictions of public gatherings will be relaxed with the approaching of summer. It’s also unclear how the coronavirus crisis may affect consumers’ attitudes toward farmers markets.
Within every crisis, however, there is opportunity. A crisis is simply a point in time when people are forced to make decisions that will fundamentally affect their future—for either better or worse. I believe this crisis represents an opportunity to create a fundamentally better future for farmers markets in particular and for the local food movement in general.
According to USDA statistics, the number of farmers markets in the U.S. grew rapidly during the 1990s and early 2000s, more than doubling during any ten years period. The number of farmers market grew even faster after the Great Recession of 2008, increasing more than 50% in three years, between 2009 and 2012. Since 2012 however, there has been a marked slowing in growth in farmers markets, with numbers increasing by less than 12% between 2012 and 2020. Common conversations among farmers at my winter speaking events has been that attendance and sales at farmers markets are no longer growing, and in some cases, are declining. With respect to sales, the latest USDA Census of Agriculture indicated a “decline” in “direct to consumer sales” between 2012 and 2017. Much like people with weakened immune systems, farmers markets seem particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus crisis.
So where is the opportunity? I believe the coronavirus crisis could motive farmers to establish “online” farmers markets. Many already have online purchase options, and with the current uncertainty, others will have a strong incentive to follow. Software for online farmers markets is readily available on the Internet. Some examples are LocallyGrown.net, Harvest to Market, and https://thefarm2door.com. This doesn’t suggest farmers markets should abandon promoting direct contact between farmers and their customers any longer than is necessary to cope with the current crisis. The face-to-face contact between farmers and customers and other opportunities to socialize account for much of their popularity. Online connections and transactions will simply provide a convenient and economically viable alternative when needed. An online option would also allow farmers markets to deal more effectively and efficiently with rain-out days, late springs, and early falls.
Over time, the growing popularity of online farmers markets and local food sales could fundamental change the food system—for better, rather than worse. Online sales in general are already changing the nature of retailing, including food retailing. Online grocery sales in the U.S. were estimated at more than $28 billion in 2019 and forecasted to reach $59 billion by 2023—about 6% of total food sales. Amazon.com has entered the online food market with a number of options for online grocery shoppers. Increasingly, CSAs and local food hubs are using online platforms to make products of local farmers available to local customers. An explosion of online farmers markets this spring would simply be part of this larger trend in food retailing.
Online retailing coupled with home delivery would completely bypass mainstream food distribution and retailing. Perhaps most important, there are no readily apparent “economies of scale” in online aggregation and distribution of food. In fact, those who have tried it for national or large regional markets have encountered significant difficulties. For perishable food products in particular, online sales, assembly, and delivery linking “local farmers” with “local customers” could be much more efficient than current regional and national initiatives. In addition, local consumers have an opportunity to connect person-to-person with local farmers, ensuring the integrity of their food through personal relationships of mutual trust.
Online sales also make it possible to “network out,” rather than “scale up,” which can increase economic efficiency without compromising ecological and social integrity. Riverford Organic Farms in the UK, for example, delivers about 47,000 food boxes a week by filling customers’ online orders with products from local farms in their own areas. Riverford has also been able to accommodate the needs of both small farmers and larger independent growers while maintaining the confidence and trust of their customers. Farmers markets, both in-person and online, could complement and contribute to emerging large online food networks—rather than compete.
Farmers markets have always been the places where many consumers discover the taste and develop a preference for fresh, nutritious locally-grown foods. Farmers markets have always been places where farmers could connect with new customers and with other local farmers, and could find their unique place as farmers in their local food community. Adding an online option, for greater resilience and convenient when needed, would not replace or significantly change these important and unique functions of farmers markets.
The coronavirus crisis—with its unavoidable inconvenience, suffering, and even death—could provide the opportunity and motivation that small and mid-sized farmers have been needing to begin reclaiming the American food system.
Note: A fuller discussion of the local food movement, with statistical references, can be found in my March, 2020 Economic Pamphleteer column: Local food: Another food fad or food of the future? Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development. https://doi.org/10.5304/jafscd.2020.093.005 .