In 2007, PPS invited five experts to join Steve Davies, director of our own markets program, in a frank discussion about what the future holds for public markets. With the markets renaissance going strong for more than twenty years, our panel examined the new challenges public markets face today and explored what’s next for these important community institutions. Since it now seems that every city coast-to-coast has at least one farmers market, what’s left for the markets movement to accomplish? In a word, our panelists unanimously responded: “Plenty.” We are pleased to share highlights of this freewheeling conversation in this edition of Making Places.

Have markets reached a saturation point?

As more immigrants from Asia and Latin America settle in American towns and cities, they are bringing their own traditions to markets like this one in Lynn, Massachusetts.

The growth of markets has been so rapid in the past decade, skeptics often claim that the wave has already crested in some parts of the country. Not so, replied our panel.

Looking at markets as one monolithic trend misses the mark since there are so many different types of markets, said Howell Tumlin, executive director of the Southland Farmers Market Association in Los Angeles.

“The sheer diversity of it all makes it healthy,” Tumlin remarked, noting that some of the early pioneers of the current movement are still alive and kicking. “Most impressive to me are the ones started by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition back in the 1970s–still running and still at 10-12 vendors, still serving the food access needs of their communities.”

In Tumlin’s native California, the idea that markets have hit a saturation point is disproved by the numbers. “It’s a myth,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of small farmers in California are not selling at farmers markets, and 95 percent of communities still don’t have farmers markets.”

“This all bodes well for the future expansion and health of the public market movement.”

Demographic trends, meanwhile, point toward the continued growth of public markets nationwide. Existing markets are getting a big push from the growing numbers of immigrants in all parts of the country, who bring new products, energy, and dollars to the table.

“As more Asians and Latinos are immigrating to this country, they are bringing their own market traditions,” said PPS’s Steve Davies. “There is a great expansion of markets in diverse neighborhoods, where new arrivals are shaping the markets around their own cultures. Markets are places where all of these cultures, in fact, really come together.”

“This all bodes well for the future expansion and health of the public market movement,” Davies added.

The future of markets in low-income communities

Farmers markets are widely viewed as an effective means to promote nutrition and good health in communities that lack access to fresh food. But a nagging question is how markets in low-income communities can fulfill this mission while sustaining themselves financially.

The East New York Farmers Market, pictured at its new site, supports urban agriculture and provides much-needed fresh produce to surrounding immigrant communities.

One market that seems to have found an answer is the East New York Farmers Market, a Brooklyn-based project which serves a large immigrant population hailing from throughout Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Russia. This thriving market began as a single stand where local residents sold produce they had grown in community gardens. Today the market is one of the most successful in Brooklyn, and local community gardeners have been joined by truck farmers from outside the city.

A key lesson for markets in poor communities everywhere is to start small and let things grow gradually, noted Sarita Daftary, who manages the project. The East New York Farmers Market began with just community gardeners, who lived in the neighborhood, and who drew in friends, family and neighbors to establish a solid clientele, which has made the market more attractive to established growers. Now both the community gardeners and the full-time farmers routinely sell out at the market.

In a sign that the East New York market is as healthy as ever, it expanded again this summer, relocating to a nearby site with more room. Now it fills up a whole block, on-street, next to a garden and community center. “We will have a lot more space and this will help us grow our market,” explained Daftary.

Read more about innovative markets in low-income communities.

How to strengthen urban-rural connections

Our panelists shared their first-hand observations of how markets create vital economic and cultural links between urban and rural communities, and how those relationships will evolve in the coming years.

The Flint Farmers’ Market helps sustain the viability of local farms.

In Flint, Michigan, the farmers market used to set its hours according to the schedule of the auto factory that dominated the community. When the plant closed, the market, along with the rest of Flint, went through some lean years. The local Ruth Mott Foundation stepped in, funding improvements like cultural events at the market and bike paths to the site. Foundation officials saw the market as a vehicle for achieving its core goals of beautification and public health in Flint, but they soon noticed that its benefits spread beyond the city of itself.

“We realized that it’s tied to the whole region,” said Jeff Mansour, a former program officer at the foundation, who now works at the Harvest Foundation in Martinsville, Virginia. “As the market became more of a destination, farmers were making more money and were able to stay in business.”

The market took another step forward four years ago, when a non-profit organization took over its management. Today it is building a new base of customers, serving as a social, cultural, and economic anchor for both rural and urban communities around Flint.

“It is one of the greatest assets of Flint,” explained Mansour, who noticed that the market has been a stabilizing force as the region copes with the loss of manufacturing jobs. “We know that we are going to be a smaller city, but the market will still be a place which brings people together.”

“As long as there are direct markets, there will be farms.”

Ron Binaghi, who runs Stokes Farms in Old Tappan, New Jersey and has been part of New York City’s Union Square Greenmarket since its inception in 1976, said the market has created a direct connection between what urban consumers want and what sellers grow.

“Now it’s customer-driven,” Binaghi said. “I only grow what customers ask for; if it doesn’t sell, I don’t grow it anymore.”

The Union Square Greenmarket’s large customer base has allowed Binaghi to expand his farm and become profitable enough to resist development pressures that have swallowed up other farms in northern New Jersey. Still, the incentive to cash out can be overwhelming; he noted how a neighboring farmer recently sold his acreage for $4.5 million.

The viability of family-run farms will depend on the willingness of new generations to take over, said Binaghi. But making the transition to new ownership can pose problems. “If I try to sell my business, the space at Greenmarket doesn’t go along with it,” he said. The market, located on Parks Department land, confers no transferable rights.

Though his 22-year-old son is “very interested in taking over the business,” Binaghi believes that attracting new growers will continue to be a significant challenge for many other farms in the region and other large metropolitan areas. “Most people won’t go into farming unless they’re born into it,” he said.

In spite of those obstacles, Howell Tumlin, director of L.A.’s Southland Farmers Market Association, sees markets as a way to attract newcomers to farming. “Young people are starting to farm closer to the city; urban farms and gardens are on the rise,” he said. “As long as there are direct markets, there will be farms.”

Connecting new farmers to land near cities is a challenge itself. “Cracking the nut of land availability is still pretty tough,” said Sibella Kraus, president of Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit.

To overcome barriers to land access, SAGE is championing the development of “Urban Edge Agricultural Parks”. In an “AgPark”, the property owner makes land available to the farmer on the condition that it be kept open to the public. Kraus describes them as “part parkland and part working agriculture.”

“On one hand they provide land access for farmers,” she said, “and on the other they provide public access and education.”

SAGE has several pilot AgParks underway, including one on 18 acres of land owned by San Francisco public utilities and another on a 300-acre plot in San Jose. Finding farmers to work the AgPark land has not been difficult, said Kraus, who sees most of the interest coming from “recent immigrants and young people who have an ecological commitment.”

To ensure a healthy economic outlook, new and old farmers alike must expand their operations to include other “direct marketing” opportunities, the panelists emphasized. Markets should be just one outlet in a broader, diversified customer base, along with farm-to-school programs, home delivery, or large wholesale markets intended for bulk purchasers. But the promise of such efforts will stall without the right policies in place to support local farmers.

“We need legislation to change how schools source food–we need to focus locally,” said Binaghi by way of example. Current federal and state regulations, for instance, prevent many school districts from specifying where their food comes from, making it illegal to buy only local produce. Taking these regulations off the books would be a common-sense first step toward policies that support local growers.

Read more about the connection between farmers markets and local food systems.

Making markets a year-round attraction

Many cities–including New York, Chicago, and Boston–are looking to launch new, year-round market halls. But can they make it work? The potential rewards of permanent market facilities are great, but the financial risks are also substantial. And, as our panelists noted, great care must be taken to preserve the intangible quality of authenticity as markets make the transition from grassroots-driven, temporary open-air events to permanent indoor sites requiring major real estate investment.

The push to build permanent facilities has been inspired by the rebirth of historic market halls, which made an exciting comeback in recent years. About 100 indoor public markets, like Baltimore’s Lexington Market and Cleveland’s West Side Market, have survived the stiff competition from supermarkets that began in the 1930s. Today many are thriving thanks to renovation and reinvestment, and their resurgence complements the simultaneous growth of farmers markets.

Many historic market halls like Cleveland’s West Side Market, built in 1902, are going strong today, but building a permanent structure may not be the right choice for today’s new markets.
“Farmers markets are building more and more permanent facilities as they seek to expand their seasons and products sold–they are adding sheds, retail stores, shared-use commercial kitchens, meeting spaces,” Davies explained. “At the same time, the historic public markets are seeking to link themselves more to local food systems, supporting and encouraging local farmers and producers.”

The level of investment required to launch an indoor market is high, he added, so the best way to approach the task is in gradual stages, establishing a high level of success at an open-air level before investing in physical infrastructure, whether a shed or indoor hall.

In addition to financial hurdles, indoor markets run the risk of appearing “Disneyfied,” Tumlin cautioned. “That’s true,” said Ron Binaghi of Stokes Farms. “That’s why some of the [Greenmarket] farmers are nervous about our moving into something more permanent. We don’t want to lose the special feeling of the outdoor market.”

One place where an indoor market has successfully complemented an existing outdoor market is the landmark Ferry Building in San Francisco. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market began as a one-time event in September 1992, establishing itself as a weekly outdoor market the following spring. In 2003, the neighboring Ferry Building–just renovated–became home to the “Ferry Marketplace,” where local specialty foods merchants display their wares.

In the beginning, many growers who sold at the outdoor market bristled at the new Ferry Marketplace. “The farmers were really skeptical,” said Sibella Kraus of SAGE. “At first they felt they were being used, but the outdoor market has stayed strong.”

Today vendors inside and outside complement one another’s businesses. During market days, the farmers selling outside act as a big draw, boosting the sales of indoor merchants.

Read more valuable lessons for markets looking to make the leap to year-round facilities.