Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tough times at the Farmers' Market

An interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today about the problems facing some farmers' markets in the Bay Area. The growth of farmers' markets has been one of the great success stories of the last few years, prompted largely by increasing public awareness about and concern for the quality and origination of their food.

Marin currently has 12 farmers' markets (a list is here), with the biggest being the Sunday market at the Civic Center, and other new markets are planned, such as the one proposed for Marinwood Plaza. But as the WSJ reports, there are not enough customers to support all the markets, so income for the farmers is falling to a level where it is not worth their while setting up their stalls. The problems caused by an over-saturation of farmers' markets in Marin were highlighted last week in an op-ed piece in the Marin IJ by the Marin Agricultural Institute, which organizes farmers markets in Marin.

The WSJ reveals that there is (or was) good money to made at farmers markets:

Amber Balakian, a fourth-generation farmer from Balakian Farms in Reedley, about 20 miles south of Fresno, has experienced the deteriorating economics firsthand. Her family sets up shop at the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers' market on Saturdays. While they used to ring up sales of $10,000 per trip, there are so many other markets drawing visitors away that "now we make half that" at the Ferry Building market, she says.

This past year, Ms. Balakian, 24 years old, drove more than 200 miles each week to a one-year-old market held in a Whole Foods parking lot in Mill Valley. The market started at 9 a.m. each Friday, so Ms. Balakian often arrived the night before and spent the night in a hotel before selling the tomatoes, peaches and carrots her family grows on its 75-acre farm. On a good day, she sold about $3,000.

But Ms. Balakian recently tried selling at farmers markets in Pleasanton and Los Altos, where "we didn't make enough to cover our expenses," she says. She adds that she sold "maybe $500" in produce at the Los Altos market.

Let's hope that we keep supporting our local farmers' markets. But as organic and local produce catches on with mainstream supermarkets, and additional permanent organic markets open (such as the new Whole Foods in Mill Valley and Novato), we may see fewer farmers' markets operating in Marin in the future.

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