“I saw someone paying with a credit card at the farmers market. What's up with vendors moving past cash?”
Farmers markets in the United States as we know them today began about 37 years ago in California, with legislation that allowed farmers to sell directly to consumers without having to size, pack, and label their wares in standard commercial containers. The approach worked so well that farmers started to grow produce especially for farmers markets. Over the years, individual growers and market managers have excelled at reaching out to consumers, offering new services, products, and, yep, technology to make eating seasonally and healthfully easier and more convenient. It’s fair to say that the increasing desire among shoppers to “buy local” wouldn’t have happened without the proliferation of farmers markets. The handful that took root in the late 1970s grew to about 1,755 markets by 1994. Twenty years on, there are 8,268, according to the USDA; the number nearly doubled from 2008 to 2013.
Card Service Machines and Mobile Payment Technology
States throughout the country have implemented market programs for introducing card service machines that accept debit and credit cards, and you’ll see many vendors processing a customer’s card through an iPad or iPhone app. They’re happy to oblige; I don’t know about you, but if I’m using a credit card, I generally buy more, especially from pastured-meat vendors. Their supplies are often limited, and I can toss those extra lamb chops, steaks, or packages of bacon in the freezer.
Many farmers markets and growers have created Facebook pages to keep customers in the loop. It’s impossible not to “like,” let alone love, the Santa Fe Farmers Market, for example, for posting on Aug. 30, “The market today is absolutely BURSTING with unexpected delights. Dahlias the size of your head, peppers that look like they're dipped in rainbows, and melons that taste like flowers. So wild! So tasty!” I follow farmers markets all over the country just for the vicarious shopping and eating experiences.
My idea of Farmville is following growers such as Tim Wilcox—@kgfarmer on Instagram—whose images of the Kitchen Garden farm in western Massachusetts have taken me through the year. With so many farmers tweeting about what produce they’ll be bringing to market, I have the luxury of planning a menu in advance or even when to set my alarm clock. This fall, say, if I know Eckerton Hill Farm will be selling radicchio tardivo at my local farmers market—the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City—I’ll make sure to get there bright and early or restaurants will have nabbed every last head.
The term “online directories” may sound dry, but it’s made a big difference to small farms that sell at markets or through a CSA (community supported agriculture), especially if they don’t have the wherewithal to build their own website. When they take advantage of the free listings on sites such as localharvest.com and that of your state department of agriculture, it puts them on the radar, making it easier for customers to find them. If you’re traveling and want to find a farmers market in an unfamiliar city, go to the USDA National Farmers Market Directory, where you can search for markets by zip code, geographic proximity, product availability, payment method, and whether the market participates in federal nutrition programs such as the USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
SNAP Payments and More
As of Sept. 5 of this year, 46,556,434 Americans in 22,688,097 households receive benefits from SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Many markets have secured a license for equipment to process SNAP benefits. Customers can redeem their benefits by swiping an EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card at a market terminal in exchange for paper scrip or tokens.
Often overlooked in the USDA’s list of eligible food items, by the way, is “seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat.” That means SNAP customers can also buy vegetable seedlings for gardens. To build awareness, market vendors will often display a “Food Stamps Grow Gardens” poster from SNAPgardens.org.
Lots of farmers markets are a no-frills cluster of produce stands, but many have morphed into community centers and education hubs that feature on-site cooking demos, tastings, recipe contests, cookbook signings, talks by master gardeners, live music, and more. This year, the Ball canning-jar manufacturer partnered with the Farmers Market Coalition to provide canning classes at 50 markets nationwide. Harvest fund-raiser dinners—which bring together local chefs, market growers, and their patrons—have also become popular. Just looking at the lineup for the Sept. 25 dinner hosted by the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, right outside Chapel Hill, N.C., makes me hungry.
Farmers Markets on Wheels
Mobile farmers markets are geared toward bringing fresh, local, affordable produce to people living in food deserts—underserved urban neighborhoods and rural towns in which fast-food restaurants and convenience stores supplant grocery stores and other sources of healthful food. They take various forms, from a former newspaper delivery truck repurposed by design students at the Maryland Institute College of Art to decommissioned school buses. Here’s a shout-out to just a few—and to the activists, farmers, government employees, taxpayers, grant writers and givers, and others who make them possible: Arcadia’s Mobile Market (Washington, D.C.), Fresh Moves (Chicago), Fresh Truck (Boston), Freshest Cargo (San Francisco Bay Area), Garden on the Go (Indianapolis), and the Mobile Farmers Market from Real Food Farm (Baltimore). While it's easy to pigeonhole mobile farmers markets as a subgenre of trendy Johnny-on-the-spot food trucks, I say, wait just a minute. Remember bookmobiles? As someone who grew up in a literary desert, I’ll never forget what a difference they made.
Heirloom Seedlings and Cutting-Edge Seeds
A number of vendors sell not just heirloom vegetables but seedlings, so customers can start their own gardens. One of the first farmers I came across who supplied heirloom plants was Jimmy Williams of Logan’s Garden (formerly Hayground Organic Gardening) in Los Angeles and coauthor, with Susan Heeger, of the home-gardening book From Seed to Skillet. You can find him at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. Tomato breeder Brad Gates of Wild Boar Farms in Napa Valley, Calif., uses heirloom genetics and natural mutations as a foundation for breeding bicolor and striped tomato varieties that combine striking beauty with great flavor. His out-of-stock seeds will be available in November, so mark your calendars. Williams’ and Gates’ are just two examples of the plant nurseries out there that have expanded the range of what farmers markets sell. Consumers know that they’ll find things that simply aren’t available at supermarkets.
Most shoppers at a farmers market are more interested in quality than in price, but many vendors increase sales by setting a lower price for boxes or flats of produce during peak season, when customers are interested in home canning or freezing vegetables and fruits.
Farmers market managers and individual growers with a distinctive identifying logo raise money and product visibility through the sale of tote bags, T-shirts, postcards, and bumper stickers. Shopping with a tote from the pioneering Davis Farmers’ Market (established in 1976) slung over your shoulder, for example, will give you instant cred with market growers all over the country. Once you unload that bag on your kitchen counter and look at your haul—those tomatoes! a sweet-smelling melon! enough berries to make the best pie ever!—you will feel incredibly fortunate.