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The Maturing of California's Certified Farmers' Markets

by Susan McCue, publications coordinator, Small Farm Center

Want a tip on how to be successful at farmers' markets? Think in terms of relationships, says Annie Main, one of the founders of the Davis Farmers' Market. "People want more relationships and more interaction, and food is the best place to start because we all have to eat."

Main, who along with her husband Jeff is featured in this issue's article "Capay's Finest"( also advises against moving from market to market for profit only. "If you jump around just for money, you're not building a relationship."

But as the number of Certified Farmers' Markets (CFMs) continues to expand in California, the pressure on farmers to sell at more markets is growing. Historically, farmers' markets provided local farmers an opportunity to sell their locally grown products to the nearby community. Farmers' markets continue to play an essential role in enabling small to medium sized growers to gain access to consumers and to create ties with their communities.

Better profit is another reason farmers continue to sell at many CFMs. Because farmers sell directly to consumers there, the customary third-party costs including grading produce, packing, shipping, distributing, and retailing are reduced. Those costs normally consume about 70 cents of each dollar spent on fruits and vegetables. Farmers earn an estimated 40 to 80 percent more on their products at farmers' markets, and receive their income immediately rather than waiting for payment from brokers.

Growth Nationwide

Farmers' markets have grown, not just in California, but across the country. The 1996 USDA National Farmers Market Directory lists 2,400 markets ( a 20 percent increase since 1994's figure of 1,755. Some estimates indicate that if locally formed markets were included, the number of farmers' markets nationwide would double.

How many CFMs exist in California? It depends on how you count them, according to industry sources. The 1996 estimate is between 276 and 300 markets. The following chart contains information provided by Southland Farmers' Market Association and the California Federation of Certified Farmers' Markets. [Designer, if chart doesn't import, figures are at the end of the story. I constructed this one using Word and the chart option. It can be manipulated in Word by double-clicking on it.]

Is Growth Slowing?

According to the 1996 USDA Farmers' Market Survey report, national fruit and vegetable sales through direct markets averaged $1.1 billion or more in the last few years, and more than a million customers visit these markets every week. But has the growth topped out in California?

Says Mark Wall, coordinator, Southland Farmers' Market Association, "In our area of knowledge, growth has slowed down, or maybe it's a perception issue ( a smaller number of markets being added to a larger base." Wall attributes the slowdown to three factors: "The good areas are taken. The people who wanted to get on the bandwagon did. And the people who were unsure about starting a market are still unsure."

However, Wall estimates that CFMs still constitute an estimated $250 million annual industry in California. "Our 20 markets (in Southland Farmers' Market Association) have grown 20 percent a year."

Davis Certified Farmers' Market ( a Microcosm

Farmers' markets throughout California operate differently. Some function within an organizational structure that runs multiple markets, some are represented by regional associations, and some operate independently. The Davis Certified Farmers' Market fits the latter category.

Famous for its love affair with the city of Davis, the Davis Certified Farmers' Market has become the unofficial heart and social soul of this small community. The market caters to a colorful swirl of UC Davis employees, students, local senior citizens, singles and families. On Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings year round, the market hits the ground running with a total of 40 farmers on Wednesdays and 65 on Saturdays. Processed food sellers and crafters also share the market. A constant presence on market days, market manager Randii MacNear weaves in and out of the crowds, chatting with farmers and patrons and checking on last-minute details.

"I've always been interested in nutrition and health foods," says MacNear, market manager from 1978-1980 and from 1984 to the present. "There were only 20 growers when I started, and it was about four or eight hours a week of work. Now it's absolutely full time and more." Somehow MacNear still manages to find time for additional industry work. She and Dan Best, a farmers' market manager from Sacramento, founded the California Federation of Certified Farmers' Markets in 1994.

Farmers that sell at the market appreciate MacNear's sharp eye for the right product combination. "I think Randii does a good job of diversifying," says Dorothy Coil, who farms two acres northeast of Lodi and has been selling at the Davis market for 17 years. Her current product mix includes specialty canola oil, tomatoes, eggplant, squash and peppers.

The Future

With this phenomenal growth comes the need for new legislation. As of January 1, 1997, each certified producer must pay a state certificate fee of $10 towards enforcing mandated county agricultural inspection and certification programs. In addition, a new Certified Farmers' Market Advisory Committee has created a system whereby CFMs and farmers can be fined for direct marketing violations. Under past legislation, these two groups could be removed from the CFM system, but could not be fined for violations.

Lynn Bagley, director of the Marin County Farmers' Market Association, says that farmers aligned with her organization are happy about the new enforcement system with regards to inspection and certification. Bagley, who was involved with the task force that created the new state regulations, comments, "In the past there hasn't been enough checking to verify that people are in compliance and are selling only what they grow. We basically got together and decided to charge ourselves to be inspected."

What additional issues does Bagley see the industry facing down the road? "We need to make an effort to get new blood into the markets," says Bagley, who regularly speaks with farmer groups and related organizations to encourage potential farmers.

Marion Kalb of Southland Farmers' Market Association thinks the biggest future issue is communication. "In the last couple of years there have been a lot of problems between farmers and market organizations. Sometimes farmers don't feel like they're being treated fairly, and at the same time I think that management has to make certain decisions that farmers may not all agree with completely across the board."

Kalb and her organization encourage farmer advisory boards and clear market rules. She also recommends regional cooperation regarding the location of markets. "I think part of the reason farmers are very frustrated is because there are a lot of markets operating in one area. When that happens, that cuts their income."

Kalb agrees with Bagley that getting new farmers in the markets is also an issue. That's why Southland always adds a certain percentage of new farmers to each new market it organizes. But, says Kalb, "Farmers traditionally want to go into markets that are really big right away. The industry wasn't built by big markets, so it might benefit some farmers who want to get into the system to agree to go to a smaller market for awhile and work their way up."

Number of CFMs in California

1978 17  
1979 24  
1980 31  
1981 49  
1982 65  
1983 73  
1984 80  
1985 94  
1986 91  
1987 90  
1988 100  
1989 133  
1990 148 150
1991 165 170
1992 179 180
1993 204 200
1994 247 240
1995 282 275
1996 276 300