Arizona farmers markets face future uncertainty

Jack Lemons Super Natural Organics
Jack Lemons crouches among his produce (Photo by: Kaleigh Shufeldt / Arizona Sonora News)

The Bisbee Farmers Market is an eclectic mix of locals and visitors roaming through stands of fresh vegetables, meat, leather goods, painted gourds, and homemade pistachio brittle.

A table at the edge of the market is brimming with baskets of green beans, sugar snap peas, carrots, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers and potatoes. Jack Lemons, co-owner of Super Natural Organics, stands among the produce selling to Bisbee locals and visitors.

While Lemons business is doing well, farmers markets around the country are experiencing an economic downturn.

Lemons and his business partner sell their produce at farmers markets in Sierra Vista, Green Valley and Tucson. Traveling and selling at the markets supports two families, along with the workers that help plant, weed and harvest, Lemons said.

Jack Lemons assists a customer at the Bisbee Farmers Market (Photo by: Kaleigh Shufeldt / Arizona Sonora News
Jack Lemons assists a customer at the Bisbee Farmers Market (Photo by: Kaleigh Shufeldt / Arizona Sonora News

Lemons said selling at farmers markets is a viable source of income, however according the 2015 “Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems: A Report to Congress,” farmers market growth and sales have plateaued.

In 1994 the national count of farmers markets was 1,755, according to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. By 2014, there were 8,268 farmers markets across the United States.

2002 to 2007 saw a 17 percent increase in the number of farms that sold directly to consumers and a 23 percent increase in sales, according to the report.

These numbers contrast the data from 2007 to 2012, which reported only a 5.5 percent increase in farms that sold directly to consumers with no sales increase.

Over the last 10 years there was a great deal of interest, communities wanted to buy locally, said Sarah Low, economist in the rural economy branch at the USDA Research Service. However, the number of farmers markets has peaked and will probably decline.

Selling at farmers markets requires a lot of labor, said Steve Russell, local foods director at Local First Arizona. Like Lemons, many farmers sell at more than one market, driving to various towns in a specific area.

According to the report 85 percent of local food farms have a gross cash income below $75,000.

Farmers that sell at farmers markets aren’t doing very well, Low said.

“Farmers like to farm,” Low said. Traveling to markets in a week is not sustainable. It is a lot of work to go to the markets, especially because they sell at more than one and spend their entire day driving, Low said.

Vendors selling eggs (Photo by: Kaleigh Shufeldt/Arizona Sonora News)
Vendors selling eggs (Photo by: Kaleigh Shufeldt/Arizona Sonora News)

In 2002, when farmers markets were gaining momentum and spreading across the country, three women started the Bisbee Farmers Market to provide local food for the town.

People that “make money here, spend money here,” said Laura Smith, manager of the Bisbee Farmers Market. The market helps the economy, Smith said. When vendors come to town they stop at other local stores and spend their money.

People are becoming more aware of what they put into their bodies, Smith said. Helping the community wasn’t the main motivation, “it’s just what happens.”

“Farmers markets offer a higher rate of return on investments,” Russell said. Local food producers are more sustainable because they recirculate money. They tend to source locally, buying products from other local businesses.

While there is disagreement on the actual economic benefit of farmers markets, it is clear that money spent at a market is going be circulated in a community.

A local farmer will buy something at a local coffee shop; the coffee shop will then spend that money locally. The money spreads through other businesses, Low said.

Due to this, businesses near farmers markets are usually the ones that benefit, Low said. There is “a very small positive impact from farmers markets.”

Farmers markets have been around for years because people believe they are beneficial to their health, the economy and vendors.

While, the report to Congress only relates to local food vendors, Low said, local artisans could ultimately benefit the economy. The handmade crafts attract more people not interested in the local foods, Low said.

There are 86 farmers markets in Arizona, according to the USDA farmers’ market directory.

“There are probably too many farmers markets,” said Stephen Vogel, agricultural economist at the USDA Economic Research Service. There is competition among farmers markets due to the spread in both rural and urban areas.

Farmers markets will “always exist,” Vogel said.

People want them in their town, however they might not always be the most viable option, Vogel said. The market that generates the most money will be the one that survives.

Kaleigh Shufeldt is reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at kshufeldt@email.arizona.edu 

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