Bumper Crop of Pa. Farmers Markets: Excess? Or Opportunity?
On opening day of Millheim’s outdoor farmers market, held under a pavilion on the grounds of the American Legion, Bill Callahan of Mifflinburg sold beef, pork and chickens. He is owner of a farm with the tongue-in-cheek name, “COW-a-HEN.” He’s been farming for 38 years.
“And I’ve been doing the markets – farmers markets – for approximately 20 of those years,” Callahan said. He has seen the farmers market trend expand over the past couple of decades.
“It has grown tremendously,” he said. “In particular, the variety of stuff that we have now is greatly more plentiful than what we had 20 years ago.”
Over the past couple of decades, farmers markets have been proliferating in Pennsylvania. Have they reached a saturation point? Or do the markets continue to be crucial to farmers’ profits?
Pennsylvania is listed by the Farmers Market Coalition as one of the top 10 states in the country with the most farmers markets. The state has more than 300. And many markets these days are stretching their seasons, and some even move indoors for the winter.
At the Millheim Market, most of the farmers go to two or three markets per week. Callahan said he sells 75 to 80 percent of what he produces at the markets.
“So we depend on people who come to markets for the bulk of our business,” Callahan said.
“For us, farmers markets are certainly an important piece. But it’s not the only piece,” said Megan Coopey. She’s co-owner of Way Fruit Farm
in Port Matilda, which has been in her family for six generations. Sitting in the Way Fruit Farm Café, she said farmers markets have reached a point of diminishing returns.
“There’s almost a farmers market, sometimes two, every day of the week in Centre County,” Coopey said. “So you’re then spreading that customer base amongst more market days. And it certainly is going to affect your attendance and the amount of money spent at each farmers market.”
“There’s a feeling that there are too many markets,” Brian Moyer said. He’s an educational program associate with Penn State Extension out of Lehigh County who follows farmers market trends.
“I don't personally think it’s a matter of the number of markets,” Moyer said. “It might be more the location of markets. Some might be too close to others.”
Moyer said most people who shop at farmers markets live within a 5-mile radius of the market location. And multiple markets too close together create competition.
“The other problem we may have,” Moyer said, “is that we’ve reached the population that was willing to shop that way.”
Moyer points out that not everyone can shop during limited farmers market hours. Another factor, he said, is a trend toward more local produce in grocery stores.
“They are also looking to purchase food more locally,” Moyer said, “or at least giving the perception that what they carry is more local.”
The local food trend could be double-edged. Moyer pointed out that local produce in grocery stores could compete with farmers markets. But that could create opportunities for farmers to enter that wholesale market.
Moyer says these factors have contributed to a modest downturn in farmers market profits. He notes that farmers market sales around the country started to fall about three years ago.
“From that point forward,” Moyer said, “it’s just kind of been flat. It hasn’t gotten any worse. In some cases it’s gotten a little better. But it’s been pretty flat.”
Flat or not, some farmers still get a large part of their income from farmers markets. Like Michael Arthur, of Tamarack Farm, who’s at the Millheim Market on Saturdays, selling meat, wool items and vegetables.
He says farmers markets are important to his business.
“Oh, definitely most important,” Arthur said. “That’s what keeps us going. We do some sheep and wool festivals. But as far as keeping the farm going, supporting ourselves, that’s farmer’s markets.”