Living in one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions has its perks. Sacramento residents can stroll through a farmers market and buy fresh fruits and vegetables—and meet the farmer who grew them—year-round.
By all accounts, the popularity of farmers markets is on the rise, not just in Sacramento, but nationwide. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are 4,800 farmers markets in operation, an increase of almost 400 markets since 2006.
California is home to about 520 certified farmers markets, featuring the produce of nearly 3,000 farmers. Sales are up, too. California’s farmers markets took in $163 million in 2007 (the latest figure available), up from $114 million in 2002.
"We’re seeing increased demand, increased participation from younger people and families. You see a lot of baby buggies at the farmers market. People are realizing that food is an important part of their lives," says Dan Best, of Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County.
Farmers markets are celebrated for providing foods at their peak of ripeness and flavor. Ripe produce generally does not ship well, which means that farmers who supply grocery stores must harvest the produce long before it is at its prime, or throw the best of the crop away.
Despite the increased popularity, farmers markets face a steady stream of challenges, both economic and social. One of the biggest challenges is still consumer demand. Even though sales are on the rise, farmers markets account for less than 1 percent of agricultural sales in the state.
“If we build it, sometimes people don’t come. People have to want fresh fruit and vegetables for their health and well being," says Best, who has been involved in farmers markets since 1980—first as a farmer and later one of the driving forces behind the establishment and expansion of farmers markets in Sacramento. “You can provide access in any area, but if there’s no demand, anything we do fails.”
The farmers and the markets try to reach out and educate consumers about the benefits of eating fresh, locally grown food. “People will take more time to pick out the right crème rinse than vegetables,” is how Best puts it. “We’re dealing with three or four generations of non-cooks. So we try to teach kids about eating fresh fruit and vegetables, that they’ll be better athletes, they’ll be stronger. We try to appeal to their self esteem.”
Best also credits the environmental movement with contributing to farmers markets’ popularity, noting that customers are showing more interest in locally grown and organic food. “People are looking for a sense of trust that they can get face to face. The Slow Food people, caterers, and people who revel in the taste of food, they have always gotten it. They’ve always wanted to make the connection. Senior citizens also made the connection because many came from agrarian roots and they remember what a tomato tastes like."
But it’s not just the customer base that is changing. The farmers are, too. They are realizing that selling directly to consumers can be a boon to their bottom line, as opposed to selling to stores or distributors, which each take a portion of the profits.
According to Shermain Hardesty, director of the Small Farms Program at the University of California, Davis, “We may be maxing out on the capacity to generate more customers to farmers markets, but they are a great way for farmers to get started. They perform an important purpose. They provide a chance for farmers to interact with consumers and get their feedback, plus they can interact with more experienced farmers.”
"In the early days," says Best, "some farmers came to the markets out of desperation, to avoid going under. A lot of the farmers are coming now because they’re smart, they know they need to add in a direct marketing percentage as a safety net. Some still sell to wholesalers, but there is a risk because unsold produce can be sent back or destroyed. Some of the farmers do only direct marketing, and skip the wholesaler."
Another challenge faced by the farming community is cost. Small farmers’ profits are eroded by the increasing costs of farm equipment, labor, land and gas prices and transporting their produce to the market. Farmers often drive hundreds of miles to participate in the markets, coming from Fresno, Monterey, Stanislaus, and San Joaquin counties. At the same time, the cost of food has not kept pace. In fact, consumers are spending less than ever on food, about 10 percent of household spending compared to 18 percent in 1966.
One indicator of the stress on farmers is the loss of farmland acreage. According to the USDA’s Census of Agriculture, California had 27.6 million acres of farmland in 2002. That number dropped to 25.4 million acres in 2007.
“It’s still a challenge to save family farmers, small farms that have to compete in an economic system that’s based on large-scale farming operations,” says Best.
Best’s sentiments are echoed by Hardesty. “California has lost farms on the urban edge, in places like Rocklin and Elk Grove. It’s hard to compete with larger operations on a price basis.” But, she adds, “Sacramento has done a great job of offering reasonable prices to consumers. A lot of people say you pay more at a farmers market, but I would challenge that statement. You get more mature, more flavorful food, particularly tree fruits. Once you taste a tree-ripened peach, you’re not going to want to go back and buy the rock hard ones at the grocery store."
Sacramento’s farmers markets not only compete with local grocery stores for customer’s dollars, they also compete with Bay Area farmers markets for what is essentially the same pool of farmers. The farmers can sell produce at significantly higher prices at those markets.
“The only way we can compete is to bring in a lot of customers to sustain the market,” says Best. "We are here to sustain farmers, not to provide a food exhibit. The farmers actually have to make money."
There’s the issue of convenience, also. According to Hardesty, going to a farmers market means consumers may have to make more than one trip to do their shopping. The challenge, she notes, is “How can we get more local food to consumers while dealing with the fact they’re time-pressed and need convenience?”
To increase traffic and exposure, three of Sacramento’s seasonal weekday markets (Cesar Chavez Plaza, Roosevelt Park, and Downtown Plaza) are operated jointly with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. The Downtown Sacramento Partnership brings in vendors who sell hot foods, and the markets are intended to attract nearby residents and office workers who can walk over to a market during their lunch breaks.
“Farmers markets are a great opportunity. We love them,” says Lisa Martinez, Director of Marketing and Outreach for the Downtown Sacramento Partnership.
“We are trying to activate the public spaces that are sometimes under-utilized. Farmers markets are a meaningful way for people to interact, and they offer a unique experience.” She adds that the downtown farmers markets can draw up to 3,000 people during the peak season.
Although Best prefers a more "purist" approach to the markets, he acknowledges that the hot food vendors draw the pedestrian traffic. "Hopefully, every dollar that passes through that marketplace will end up in the farmer’s pocket. We’re not here to be a party, we’re here to be a farmers market. We’re trying to do a serious program to maintain the viability of our local, California farmers and provide tree-ripened, vine-ripened food to a customer who appreciates the person who raised them."
He adds, "We’re also here to create that connection between urban and agrarian, to start reacquainting people with the concept that food doesn’t come on a grocery store shelf; people have to make a living growing and providing food.”
One of the advantages of making that urban-agrarian link, according to Best, is that it can create a sense of respect for farmers and farm workers.
"It’s a good job to be a farmer and a farm worker. It’s not a low-esteem position. You’re providing food for people to live and at a price they can afford. It takes skill to do a good job, professionally and safely. It’s a hard job. Every customer should walk in a farmer’s shoes for at least a week. They get up at 3 a.m., they pack, they drive to the market and set up. They deal with the public all day, and sometimes people insult them. Then they have to break everything down, pack up and drive home, and they still have to farm. Then the next day, they start the process all over again.”
When asked what the future holds for farmers markets in Sacramento, Best says, “Our philosophy is to save farmland and family farmers, and to promote the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables among children. That’s our future, not only our customer base but the future of our society."
For locations and schedules of Sacramento’s certified farmers markets go to http://www.california-grown.com/Market-times.html.
All photographs by Jonathan Mendick. Photograph 1: Dan Best with his daughter, Danielle, at the Downtown Plaza Farmers Market.