August 2020 Impact Assessment
The Farmers Market Coalition is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to strengthening farmers markets across the United States so that they can serve as community assets while providing real income opportunities for farmers.
The Farmers Market Coalition is driven by three complementary goals. We call it our triple bottom line. Farmers earn fair prices for the fruits of their labor by selling directly to consumers. Consumers gain access to fresh, nutritious, local produce. Communities regain a figurative “town square,” experiencing the many positive outcomes of foot traffic and animated public space. Throughout the USA, farmers markets are achieving these goals. Some are doing it better than others. While we too are dazzled by the bigger markets which assemble hundreds of vendors and thousands of shoppers, size is not our only measure of success. Sometimes, it is the smaller farmers market operating in a challenging neighborhood that achieves this triple bottom line.
The mission of FMC is “to strengthen farmers markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers, and communities.”
Impacts of COVID-19
The farmers market sector has been negatively impacted by COVID-19 in the following ways:
- Sharp declines in organizational revenue resulting from disruptions in funding, sponsorships, and decreased vendor participation
- Increased expenses related to enhanced public safety measures, including equipment rentals or purchases (PPE, hand-washing stations), social distancing requirements, and increased staffing needs
- Increased and evolving vendor needs related to changes in marketing and technology
- Market operational restrictions resulting from changing public agency mandates, including forced redesign of typical walk-up market models and significant physical limitations not generally imposed on indoor retailers
The farmers market sector has been positively impacted by COVID-19 in the following ways:
- Rapid innovation of alternate market models and marketing platforms which may become a permanent feature of some markets, providing an additional revenue stream for these vendors/markets
- Increased sales for some markets/vendors, due at least in part to a higher demand for local food by consumers and markets’ rapid action in providing contactless purchasing opportunities
- An increase in collaboration and data/resource sharing within the sector in an effort to learn from and assist other market operators
- Higher interest in farmers markets and other DTC channels by shoppers new to DTC channels searching for healthy foods;
- Attention to the sector by new developers of platforms
Obstacles to Sector Response
Many farmers markets and market organizations struggled with capacity, funding and resource limitations pre-COVID and these challenges were only exacerbated by the increased costs and decreased revenue markets have experienced under COVID. In many states/municipalities, government guidance and policy mandates have been inconsistent (if provided at all) and change frequently as COVID has evolved, many times without consideration for farmers markets or other farm direct outlets. These changing requirements have been challenging for market operators to track, interpret, and implement. Limitations imposed at the state and local level restricting market operations, including market openings, market days, number of visitors, vendor spacing (allows for fewer vendors at market), vendor type (e.g. no crafters, no flower vendors, no food trucks), fixed entry/exit, and the basic market model (e.g. no walk-ups, drive-thru only) have significantly impacted some market budgets. Many markets are also seeing fewer volunteers and older vendors, and are facing challenges in accepting SNAP for online and other contactless market models.
Successful Marketing Adaptations in Response to COVID-19
Markets have attempted a variety of new marketing and outreach strategies in the era of COVID-19 in an effort to emphasize farmers markets as safe environments which provide essential services, highlighting their role in providing direct access to nutritious, local food coupled with support of small farmers, producers, and community. Many markets have also reported they have significantly increased their online presence and/or developed new online sales functionality. Social media is the main medium used regarding market safety measures, promoting pre-order, pick-up, and delivery services, and creative campaigns related to mask-wearing and social distancing at markets (e.g. Illinois Farmers Market Association). The number and variety of online sales platforms now in use by markets and their vendors across the country illustrates how swiftly they adapted to changing operational requirements. By necessity, these changes were made without iterative testing processes and some market operators and many vendors have struggled to develop a successful online sales presence as a result. However, many more sites and vendors have seen increases in revenue from these new sales channels and will likely retain some type of hybrid market model into the future. In August of 2020, FMC began to communicate with all of the sales platforms (i.e. Whats Good, LocalLine, Local Food Marketplace) in use by DTC operators and vendors in order to be able to present a side-by-side detailed comparison of relevant features. FMC is also exploring partnership opportunities with these developers in order to offer analysis of their data.
Economic Impact on Sector
The shortened supply chain of DTC outlets seems to be even more appealing to shoppers during a public health crisis. This event has reportedly brought new customers to markets and to farmers, particularly those seeking fresh fruits, vegetables, and local meat and dairy. This has served as an advantage for some farmers, particularly those with the capacity and flexibility to be present at markets and participate in multiple sales channels. Although there is a higher demand for local food, many small farms selling in urban and suburban markets who also rely on smaller institutional buyers (e.g. medium-scale wholesalers, restaurants) have seen those channels disappear and are now relying more heavily on farmers market sales in order to meet scale and have at least a semi-profitable season. As for market operators, the lower-capacity markets also continue to struggle with access to grant funding and other resources which further compound budget challenges. A survey performed by FMC for April and May 2020 indicates 93% of market operators report an increase in costs and 74% report a loss in income associated with COVID. A survey performed by the California Alliance of Farmers Markets found that close to 20% of market operators surveyed express concern that they may not be able sustain the economic impacts of COVID-19 over the long-term. COVID has altered the value proposition of farmers markets and markets are bearing the brunt of the intangible costs associated with the removal of some of their most quintessential features.
Impact on Sector Members
While SNAP sales have actually increased at some markets (likely due to increase in SNAP beneficiaries and funding), SNAP benefits still cannot be used online at farmers markets, disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities who may not be able to shop at markets in person right now. Markets only offering online sales also pose barriers to those without internet access, both in urban and rural communities. Smaller rural markets may not have the option to host online markets at all if their vendors and customers do not have adequate broadband access. State-level declarations (or even a federal declaration) of farmers markets as essential businesses which allowed markets to continue operating under the models best suited to their communities (with the addition of public safety measures, of course) would allow more at-risk shoppers continued access to markets. Restricting markets to online or pre-order only models also excludes some vendors who do not have the technology (expertise and/or equipment) necessary to participate. In some markets, specific types and sized vendors have been disproportionately affected due to state and local restrictions on specialty and prepared foods, flower growers, crafters, and other “artisan” vendors. New and emerging businesses have also been impacted by reduced channels, fewer market visitors, or by being shut out of markets altogether. Therefore, the role of farmers markets as business incubators has been greatly hampered by both the physical and financial limitations imposed by COVID.
Desired Data and Technical Assistance
There are several data points which market operators indicate would be helpful in assessing mitigation efforts, enabling our sector to more successfully navigate COVID-19:
- Estimates of income compared to previous years for market organizations
- Increase (decrease) in revenue over previous years
- -Increase (decrease) in operating expenses over previous years (including ability to identify COVID-related expenses separately)
- Change in market operating days this year over previous year(s)
- Change in average SNAP sales
- Change in customer visits over previous year(s)
- Change in vendor participation over previous year(s) (peak season, total vendors OR vendor sales days would all be helpful)
- Number of marketing channels used per vendor compared to previous years
- Sales per shopper this year vs. Previous
- Psychographics of shoppers
- Other direct marketing channel sales comparisons
- Specialty food store data comparisons
- Civic-level data comparisons
Not surprisingly, market operators are most concerned with assessing changes in revenue and expenses over previous years. Coupled with this, identifying those additional costs which are directly related to COVID including what markets have spent on additional staff/staff hours (paid vs. volunteer), PPE, other public safety equipment and supplies, and new software or other costs related to shifting market models or design. It would also be worthwhile for market organizations to have some way of evaluating state and local support for their markets. These relationships are crucial in seeking guidance for COVID-related challenges and for establishing guidelines for future disaster-related scenarios.
There has been a significant need for technical assistance in our sector as a result of the quick response and pivot required of thousands of markets across the country in response to COVID. In working with hundreds of market operators over the last six months, FMC has identified several areas where the sector would benefit from more formal technical assistance programming. These include:
- Assistance with budgeting templates for market organizations and vendors
- Assistance with market design (alternate models, integrating online + walk-up or other hybrid models)
- Analysis of market vendors channel selection, technology choices, and product viability.
- Assistance for network leaders in market capacity-building
- Market operator leadership development
- Market organization and market operator networking strategies
- Fundraising strategies
- Anti-racism, DEI training for food systems work
There is a deep need and desire within the farmers market sector to build capacity at the market-level, both with respect to the markets themselves and for the market operators as leaders. Farmers market staff are often overworked and undercompensated, an issue magnified by COVID as staff are asked to work longer hours with fewer volunteers, all while managing new market layouts, new sales platforms, and shifting public safety concerns. There is also a real need for market organizations to build multi-tiered relationships with policymakers and regulatory entities to change the perception of markets as temporary events.
Effective data collection and reporting is integral to influencing policymakers and effecting policy change and yet most markets continue to struggle with this. The difficulty of data collection for the almost 9,000 farmers markets and the variable number of vendors per market has been illustrated by this pandemic as aggregate data is minimal and mostly only estimates or anecdotal. Since FMC has been actively engaging in data collection training and resource development for markets for close to a decade, both in supporting other platforms for data collection and in use of its own software platform, Farmers Market Metrics, we hope to see a marked increase in the data collected both in its quality and quantity and continually search for partners to undertake pilots. The cultural shift brought on by COVID has altered the way in which markets are able to engage with their communities. This is a change which is difficult to quantify but also a key value of markets and one which market operators have struggled to preserve in some form. COVID has disrupted the connections between farmers/producers, market operators, and the communities they serve.
Contact Information for FMC:
Darlene Wolnik firstname.lastname@example.org
Diana Broadaway email@example.com