At first glance, those burgeoning farmers' markets that seem to bloom on every vacant patch of ground in the summer could look like the enemy to naturals grocers.
But they don't have to be foes. Instead, the markets could be friends, say naturals retailers who have learned to live with, and even find ways to benefit from, the farmers' markets in their backyards. Helping small, local and organic farms and ranches thrive and spreading the gospel of fresh, natural food and healthy eating should be everybody's goal, they say, whether it's at a small summer stand or a brick-and-mortar store.
"The relationship between retailers and farmers' markets is the classic embodiment of the concept that a rising tide lifts all boats," says Sylvia Tawse of Boulder, Colo.-based public relations firm Fresh Ideas Group.
Tawse suggests it would be to retailers' benefit to embrace the idea. Farmers markets grew from 3,706 outlets in 2004 to 4,385 in 2006—a healthy 18 percent increase, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They grew 7 percent from 2005 to 2006 alone. Total sales volume of farmers' markets reached $1 billion in 2005—about $7,108 per vendor.
In Washington, the legendary, century-old Pike Place Market in Seattle is the largest and most well-known of dozens of farmers' markets in the state. PCC Natural Markets, a food co-op with eight stores in the Puget Sound region of Washington, is involved with a couple of local farmers' markets.
"We truly don't view farmers' markets as competition," says PCC spokeswoman Diana Crane. "What's good for the farmers is ultimately going to be good for us." And, she adds, "They need more than one place to sell their stuff."
PCC works with the Issaquah, Wash., farmers' markets to host cooking demonstrations using local products at the markets. "We had an incredible feast," using ingredients found at the Phinney farmers' market, Crane says. PCC sometimes takes its Kid Picks van to the markets to encourage youngsters to rate natural and organic foods in taste tests.
Crane admits that not every farmers' market is receptive. "There are farmers' markets who don't want a [retailer] present," she says.
Fresh Ideas Group's Tawse suggests teaming on tasting fairs or organic-harvest feasts. Retailers could partner with local farmers and ranchers from the markets to sponsor events in the off-season.
Jason Bander, general manager of LifeThyme Natural Market in New York, shops for produce at the giant Union Square Greenmarket, which is just "five blocks down and two blocks over" from the store.
"We work with the local farmers there," he says. "We establish a relationship with some of these guys. We never see them as competition. We go over to the market to see what they've got. We buy a lot of stuff there. But we don't go hunting to re-price."
Bander says LifeThyme's sales drop off a little in the summer. "We share customers. They go to the farmers' market. They come here." Besides, he says with a laugh, "New York City's a tough place to get people to shop at one place. It's a real hunting and gathering mentality here." In the San Francisco Bay Area, you can't swing a reusable shopping bag without hitting a farmers' market. Alameda Natural Grocery is surrounded by them, with two in Oakland within two miles of the store, and a couple more in Berkeley. That's not even counting the huge Ferry Plaza Market as well as other markets just across the bay in San Francisco.
"We're just inundated with them," says Alameda owner Donna Layburn. But she's philosophical."It's charming to go to farmers' markets. It's fun," she says. "But we're still their local grocery store."
And Layburn emphasizes a difference between the markets and her store, which she says carries nearly 100 percent organic products. "Farmers' markets are not all organic. They're probably half and half, or less," she says. Because of that, she says, many customers choose to shop at Alameda instead of the farmers' markets.
Farmers' markets emphasize that their produce is grown at farms a few miles away, often picked fresh that morning. In California, "There are a lot of little truck farms, but they're not necessarily organic," Layburn says. "Sometimes there's a perception that they don't use pesticides."
Layburn admits that the difference between organic but not necessarily local and local but not necessarily organic "does gray the waters."
Where the store does see a drop-off is when a big crop of organic peaches or other organic produce hits the markets, she says. "But it doesn't really hurt us much. We're here all the time. And we support local farmers."
That's the common refrain of naturals grocers. Because naturals retailers do support local farmers, there's a goodwill factor with customers they can easily capitalize on. "It doesn't hurt us to tell people to go to the farmers' markets to find something that we don't have," says PCC's Crane.
By the same token, says Tawse of Fresh Ideas Group, farmers can ask retailers what they want that the farmers aren't growing, and the farmers' markets aren't offering, so that the farmers might produce it.
The rising popularity of local and organic produce has made finding sources a problem. "We can't get enough," Crane says.
Farmers' markets are in the same boat. The 88 growers who are part of Boulder County Farmers' Markets regularly sell out, says Mark Menagh, executive director of the Colorado-based group. "Farmers can't meet the demand," he says. "Retailers are seeing the success of farmers' markets." Crane and other naturals grocers emphasize that the more they can help local farmers thrive and grow, the more access everyone will have to their bounty. That's in everybody's best interest: farmers, ranchers, retailers, farmers' markets and customers alike.
"We have to find a way to coexist," Bander says.
Jane Hoback is a Denver-based freelance writer.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIX/number 3/p. 86