Historically, farmers market managers find it valuable to count their customers at markets, for a variety of reasons. The coronavirus (COVID-19) has added to the importance placed upon the collection of this data. Customer counts may be particularly important in urban farmers market settings where foot-traffic can result in high numbers of visitors, and where the number of visitors can potentially fluctuate drastically. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, market managers relied on manual counting methods. While this method has low up-front costs, it is labor-intensive.
During 2020, FRESHFARM, an organization that manages farmers markets in the Washington, D.C., area, piloted a relatively low-cost device that counts the number of pings from mobile phones as they connect with a Wi-Fi network. This technology does not reveal any of the phone owner’s identifying information, nor does it collect data from phones. Instead, these counts provide a way for farmers market managers to estimate the number of visitors and their length of stay at the market. With this technology, managers do not need to expend effort while the market is open to collect this information. The devices are small, light, and require only a credit-card sized Raspberry Pi computer, USB adapter, battery pack, and thumb drive.
FRESHFARM successfully piloted this technology at several of its markets in the Washington, D.C., area. Further, the Farmers Market Coalition staff plans on working with partners to pilot these devices in 2021 at farmers markets in Michigan and Mississippi. The devices are still being developed and tested. However, they appear to provide promising support to farmers market operators, especially those market sites with a more complex layout or higher attendance.