Farmers markets are sprouting up everywhere these days, a testament to the growing popularity of buying locally produced fruit and vegetables at the peak of freshness for a reasonable price, say experts in the business.
In New York, the number of farmers markets has nearly doubled in the past 10 years, from 235 in 2000 to 460 in 2010, said Diane Eggert, executive director of the Farmers’ Market Federation of New York. The same is true across the United States; markets increased nearly threefold between 1994 and 2009, from 1,755 to 5,274.
Within Schenectady County alone, there are five: the Greenmarket at City Hall on Sunday; the Schenectady County Farmers Market on Tuesday at the Ellis McClellan campus and on Thursday at Schenectady City Hall; the Upper Union Street Farmers Market on Saturday; and the newly opened Rotterdam Farmers Market on Saturday.
Farmers markets also opened this month for the first time at Saratoga Hospital and in the town of Halfmoon in Saratoga County.
There are markets in Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Rensselaer and Schoharie counties as well.
“They are popular with people because of the quality and variety of food they are getting and for the opportunity to socialize with neighbors,” Eggert said.
Steve Feeney, of the Schenectady County Department of Economic Planning and Development, has worked closely with the Schenectady Farmers Market Association to support its two sites in the city.
“Farmers markets have become a low-cost outlet for farmers to reach customers. They are directly selling to consumers. That is one reason for the growth in it,” Feeney said.
The state has helped push their growth by allowing certified farmers markets — three or more vendors selling at least 80 percent locally grown products — to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer, an electronic debit card system, on-site for food stamps. Certified farmers markets also can participate in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.
The number of markets statewide using EBT has grown from 86 in 2002 to 183 in 2009, Eggert said.
Deanna Nelson, of Karen’s Produce in Montgomery County and secretary of the Schenectady Farmers Market Association, said coming to a market requires a different mind set.
“We are not supermarkets. Our products become available at different times of the year,” she said. “Each market targets a different group of people.”
Right now, vendors are selling plants and early-season produce. Later, they will sell fresh-picked fruit, corn and other products.
Bertha Kriegler of Schenectady has been coming to the City Hall market every Thursday for almost 10 years.
“I love the farmers market. The produce is fresh and the prices are reasonable. I can’t wait for the fruit,” she said.
Kriegler uses the farmers market to supplement her supermarket shopping.
Betty Beran of Scotia started visiting the City Hall farmers market about three years ago.
“We came out of curiosity; now we come every week we can,” she said.
Beran likes the market’s “healthy” plants and its convenience: “The produce is wonderful.”
While the demand for farmers markets seems endless, the supply of farmers to stock them isn’t, said Eggert: “We have not reached saturation. People are willing to travel to visit them. The only issue is finding enough farmers to populate the markets.”
Dale Baker of Don Baker Farm in Hudson, an 85-year-old family farm, has been selling fruit and plants at farmers markets since 1990. He and his family participate in four farmers markets three days a week in Albany County, in the Catskills, in Hudson and in Schenectady County.
“I could do farmers markets every day, but I can’t,” he said, since he has to spend some time on his farm once in a while.
Susan Wojturski is president of the Fulton-Montgomery Farmers Market. Her family owns Natural Bridge Farm in Montgomery County, a third-generation nursery selling flowers and other plants. She attends markets in Fulton, Montgomery and Schenectady counties.
“I want to get my product out there,” she said.
Skip Renaud, chairman of the Hamburg Street Merchants Association, said his group had no difficulty finding vendors when it launched Rotterdam’s first market this summer; it had 10 vendors on Saturday.
“My phone has been ringing off the hook,” Renaud said, referring to vendors seeking entry. The merchants association screens vendors to ensure they are local farmers selling local produce and have liability insurance. Other farmers markets have boards consisting of farmers who determine the vendors.
Feeney said Schenectady County has not had any problems finding vendors.
“Usually, we have more vendors looking to get into the market than we have space. Well-established markets tend to attract vendors because of the market conditions,” he said. “But it seems everyone wants a farmers market and there may be some difficulty in attracting vendors.”
Even though the number of farms in New York has decreased — from 136,000 in 1950 to 36,000 in 2004 — people still want to farm, said Erica Frenay of Cornell Cooperative Extension. The extension has started a new program to help people become farmers, called the Northeast Beginning Farmers Project.
“We started this because we saw a huge demand from people who wanted to be productive with their land. We provide a centralized effort to help start-ups,” she said.
Frenay said she sees a direct connection in the growth of farmers markets with the growth in the beginning farmers program. “Our program has gone hand in hand with growth in farmers markets. We are seeing a large growth in micro farms, which generate $1,000 to $10,000 in revenues annually,” she said.
Micro farmers want to sell their products at farmers markets, Frenay said: “They see the only way to be viable in farming is to do direct marketing, and farmers markets are easier to get into than other enterprises.”
Farmers markets are easy to get into, provided participants meet minimum requirements, said Nelson. The key requirement is they carry liability insurance, usually with $1 million coverage. Vendors also have to have a tax identification number to collect sales tax and they must undergo inspections if they sell food or have certifications if they sell plants.
Many farmers markets require vendors to pay booth and participation fees. Nelson said some vendors balk at these requirements.
Also, many farmers markets require a certain percentage of the products sold to be locally grown or produced. The Schenectady Farmers Market Association and the Rotterdam Farmers Market mandate 80 percent local. This prevents people who are not farmers and others from buying wholesale and reselling, Nelson said.
Few local farmers markets sell product at wholesale, Eggert said: “Small farmers can’t survive at wholesale.”
So while the pricing may be similar to that offered at a grocery store, farmers markets “offer a wider variety of product picked at the peak of ripeness when the flavor is best,” Eggert said.
Nelson said she enjoys the markets, and not because she makes a lot of money at them.
“I figured out I make about $3 per hour doing this,” she said. “I do it because it’s in your blood. There is a satisfaction in knowing you put in a good day of work.”