Drive across America today, and there’s one thing you’re guaranteed to see more of: farmers’ markets. The USDA reports the number of registered farmers’ markets increased by 2.3% from 2015 to 2016—and that’s just the ones listed in the National Farmers Market Directory.
This increase wasn’t necessarily expected. In 2015, Treehugger author Margaret Badore speculated as to whether US farmers’ markets had hit their peak. From 2013 to 2014, the growth rate was only 1.5 percent. But after that, the number of markets continued to grow, instead of stagnating. What is driving this growth? The answer can be found in the broader state of economic affairs in the US.
Sustainability and the DIY Community
There’s increasing demand for organic foods and ethical business practices, reflecting a growing engagement with sustainability. According to Sustainable Table, more consumers are considering the “environmental, health and social consequences of industrial food production”; as a result, organic acreage is increasing at an annual rate of 15%.
In terms of demand, the USDA’s Organic Market Overview shows the market for organic food is continuing to show double-digit growth. In 2015, sales reached $37 billion, up 12 percent from 2014. And farms that conduct direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales at farmers markets, Community Supported Agricultural programs, and other outlets are more likely to stay in business than those that don’t.
Small local farms maintain their profitability, in part, through DTC sales of organic foods in a growing market. These farms spend less on land and equipment than large farms, and are able to get a good Return On Investment (ROI) through organic food sales. Simply put, organics fetch a high price because of high demand.
Most vendors at the market are part of a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) community that adds jobs to the economy. In 2015, Bloomberg reported a surprising statistic: the DIY economy had added 370,000 jobs, marking an increase of 1 million more self-employed workers in the first four months of the year. According to the Pew Research Center, three out of ten US jobs are held by the self-employed and their employees. In the agriculture sector, around 81 percent of the workforce consists of self-employed farmers and the workers they employ. The USDA’s report on the Farm Labor Survey reveals that, on average, the number of people employed by farms increased between 2007 and 2012. This was in contrast to “nonfarm employment”, which, according to the USDA, went down in this period because of the 2007-2009 recession.
Farmers exemplify a traditional form of self-employment as business owners, but another part of the picture is the self-employed worker in the ‘gig economy’. More and more Americans—particularly Millennials—are choosing to do contract work, taking on ‘gigs’ for a temporary period of time. This new gig economy has a technological twist, with workers using apps and websites that connect them to on-demand work. Think Uber, the ride-sharing service that uses a mobile app to connect drivers and riders.
The best estimate of the gig economy’s growth, reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is that “nonemployers” under the “Other” category created one million jobs between 2003 and 2013. That’s more than any other sector. The self-employed in this case are short-term contract workers. They’re freelancers, independent consultants, people who work odd jobs. The Census Bureau defines the gig worker as a “self-employed individual operating a very small, unincorporated business with no paid employees.”
Just as farmers’ markets and CSAs don’t rely on distribution through centralised supermarkets, gig workers, by definition, don’t rely on a single location and employer for their source of income. The increase in self-employment and contract work are both moves away from centralisation, and growth in self-employment and ‘gig’ work is one of the primary economic catalysts feeding the increase in farmers markets.
Behind all this is the great enabler of our interconnected moment—new technologies.
Technology at the Farmers’ Market
When you go to a farmers’ market, one thing you may notice is that nearly every merchant accepts credit cards. That’s a far cry from an old-school market where people barter, trade or pay in cash.
This is, of course, smart business in the modern world. According to Square’s guide on how to accept credit card payments, people spend 12 to 18% more when they use a credit card instead of cash. At the farmers market I frequent in my hometown, all the merchants have a mobile payment device attached to their phones.
It’s no surprise that the growth of both the DIY community and farmers’ markets, parallels the growth of mobile payment and the smartphone market. With big players like Apple and Paypal in the mix, the mobile payment industry is expected to hit $189 billion by 2019, a growth of 154% from 2014. Many purchases from small merchants wouldn’t be possible without the huge mobile payment industry. There may be an irony, or worse, a paradox here in the dependency on technologies developed by huge corporate entities like Apple. Smartphones have had an inarguable environmental impact that a sustainable farmer may not want to be associated with. But they have become an integral part of our business practices, especially so in micro and small businesses in developing countries. They increase the economic viability of small sole traders and the self-employed, enabling the vendor to cast a wider net for commerce
The benefits of mobile payments in farmers’ markets are enough to overlook any irony in their use.
The Benefits of Farmers’ Markets
Farmers’ markets provide an important array of benefits to local communities, as the Farmers Market Coalition’s infographic details.
Farmers’ markets return money to local economies, while a high percentage of profits from corporate ‘chain’ stores go elsewhere. Walmart, for one, has been implicated by Oxfam in the tax haven scandal that came to light following the Panama Papers leak. That means Walmart is not paying taxes on the profits it makes from grocery purchases. Some vendors make all their income from farmers’ markets. As the Coalition points out, “Locally owned retailers, such as farmers’ markets, return more than three times as much of their sales to the local economy. They hire nearly five times more people than non-local vendors. Workers hired by local farmers that use sustainable farming practices (such as crop rotation and cover crops) receive an education in good agro-ecological farming practice. Down the line, that means more farm start-ups and more entrepreneurial investment.
Impoverished families can use food stamps at the market, meaning the $18.8 million of SNAP cash from 2014 went right back into local taxpayer pockets. Fresh sustainable produce means better health and lower obesity rates for poorer families. Helping people to feed themselves better will place less of a burden on the health care system, lowering medical bills for poor families that can barely afford health insurance.
Additionally, there’s no doubt as to the sustainability benefits of farmers’ markets. According to the Farmers Market Coalition, which cites unpublished raw data from a survey of direct market farmers, the local and regional produce you’ll find at farmers’ markets travels about twenty-seven times less distance than “conventionally-sourced” produce. Further, 81% of these farmers use farming practices that reduce waste and promote soil health, such as on-site composting. And three out of four farmers follow practices “consistent with organic standards”.
These sustainability practices in turn benefit the consumer. According to Scientific American, soil depletion and “intensive agricultural methods” lessen the nutrient content in produce. According to authors Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss, “Those who want to get the most nutritious fruits and vegetables should buy regularly from local organic farmers.”
Bringing it home
As calls for sustainability keep escalating, expect both the DIY economy and farmers markets to continue flourishing. Can we expect complete decentralisation and the demise of supermarkets? It’s a long shot. But we can expect farmers markets and small farms to keep bringing organic foods closer to our homes, giving us more opportunities to support them.
Photograph: Chris Schrier