The explosion of farmers' markets across the country and especially in California - has meant that there are many more was than there were 10 or 20 years ago, some without enough farmers or customers to stay vital. At one point, I counted 20 markets in San Francisco during the high season.
That's why it wasn't that much of a shocker when the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture came out with a comprehensive report on local and regional food systems that showed a decline in farmers' markets sales in certain parts of the country between 2007 and 2012.
Still, no one was expecting a 40-plus percent drop in sales in Los Angeles County, as Russ Parsons reported in the Los Angeles Times, since it's arguably the country's center of all things farmers' market (with the Bay Area as a close second).
It's harder to get a grip on the situation here because sales figures are collected by county and the Bay Area is broken into so many of them. The report shows that some counties, including San Francisco, Marin and San Mateo, had a decrease in direct-to-consumer sales (which includes farmers' markets, CSAs and U-picks) of over $123,000 between 2007 and 2012, while others, like Sonoma and Santa Clara counties, had an increase of at least $1 million over that same period. Meanwhile, Alameda and Napa counties sales showed little change.
Yet, after checking in with a few Bay Area farmers' market managers, it seems things aren't as nearly as dire as the report makes them out to be.
"We were scratching our heads," says Susan Coss of CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture), which operates three markets at San Francisco's Ferry Building. Those markets are thriving, she says. "Our first question was, 'Where are they getting the numbers?'"
CUESA and many other market operators don't collect sales data; instead they charge a flat fee for stalls depending on the size and location. The exception is for vendors of prepared food, which have a sales-based surcharge.
"We know anecdotally because we hear what farmers are saying in terms of sales going up or down, but we have no hard data," says Coss. "The back story is so much of the farmers' market is a cash business, so God only knows who's reporting what on their taxes."
In the case of prepared food vendors, where they do have data, Coss says, "We've definitely seen growth there. You can look at how farmers' markets have been evolving. They're not pure produce-driven markets any more."
Ron Pardini, executive director of the Urban Village Farmers' Market Association, which operates nine Bay Area markets including Old Oakland and California Avenue in Palo Alto, says "Honesty, I don't feel sales are down. Our markets are bustling. More than ever."
But, he adds, "If you talk to some of the seasoned veteran farmers that have been going 20 years or so, their sales are down for sure. I think it's a function of just saturation. There are obviously far more markets than there were back then. They're doing twice as many markets and making half as much money."
There used to be fewer farmers doing direct sales, and only a handful of regional markets, so farmers could hit maybe one market a week; now they're spread thin and competing with a lot of other people.
Both Pardini and Coss acknowledge that the smaller neighborhood markets that have launched in recent years probably aren't doing as well as the popular urban ones. As a reaction to the glut, Pardini's organization hasn't added a new market in years.
"Our mission statement is to help the small family farm," he says. "We're not helping them by opening new markets."