With so many farmers markets, more customers are needed

Farmers markets have become incredibly popular. In Oregon, they’ve grown from a mere dozen in 1987 to more than 150 today. The problem is that just about everyone plugged into farmers markets are already buying their sunchokes, padron peppers and arugula at them. Some local farmers are reporting they’re working more markets yet making less money, said Portland Farmers Market Executive Director Trudy Toliver.

The answer is more customers. Fresh blood. Toliver is writing a grant to the Oregon Department of Agriculture to get federal money for a broad-based advertising campaign to promote farmers markets regionally. She envisions an “eat local and support the local economy” message.

“There’s the perception that we’ve almost reached – for now – the total number of people who would be willing to shop at a farmers market,” she said. “Our collective responsibility is to increase the number of people who shop at farmers markets.”

That will help overall but different farmers markets face different challenges, said Garry Stephenson, coordinator of the Small Farms program at Oregon State University. Farmers markets are so popular everyone wants to have one in their community. But in some more remote areas there aren’t enough farmers to go around. And sometimes a market can’t attract vendors because they don’t have enough customers – a Catch-22, said Stephenson.

In other areas “destination markets” are saturated with farmers vying for customers. Another issue – in Portland – is when people bypass their neighborhood farmers market to shop at the ultra vibrant Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University, which is opening March 17.

The goal is to make all farmers markets as attractive as possible. But the bottom line, said Toliver, is that more customers are needed.

“Farmers markets are important for our economy,” she said. “People need to shop there.”

So are farmers markets healthy? Stephenson’s opinion is yes: they’ve always faced issues of balancing vendors and customers. But, he added, “Just because I said that doesn’t mean we can’t be vigilant: there has to be a limit to how many farmers markets we have.”

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