September 15, 2021

AGGARWAL | Is the Farmers’ Market the Farmer’s Market?

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Number 68 on 161 Things Every Cornellian Should Do is “Eat your way through the Farmer’s [sic] Market.” Thus, it has become a place nearly every student visits before they graduate. But, in the process of tokenizing this experience for our bucket list, something deeper is lost. 

A component that is actually more important, yet often overlooked, is how the farmers’ market serves the farmers themselves. While we, as students, can remove ourselves from the economic experience for the social one, we should take pause to contemplate how effectively farmers’ markets, including our own, support the farms they allege to promote.

The farmers’ market is intended to be as the name suggests — a place for farmers to market their produce. At ourst, among the many farms are an assortment of other vendors. On any given trip, you can buy cupcakes, paint, decorations, jewelry, woodcraft, and other items that we can safely assume were not grown from the ground. While this brings the added benefit of spotlighting more local businesses, it also means the term farmers’ market is a bit of a misnomer. Though this is not inherently bad, it does have the negative consequence of not maximizing its potential for the very people it was built for. 

In a Cornell study, an analysis of four states including New York revealed a trend of falling sales at farmers’ markets in the United States. They reported that shaping a farmers’ market into a “social engagement experience” brings customers who are more interested in the sights than those who might regularly contribute to the farmers’ sales. 

Anecdotally, I can attest to this phenomenon. Even though we, Cornell students, may believe we are supporting our agricultural community by visiting the Ithaca Farmers Market, we often spend more time taking pictures for Instagram than perusing the local produce.

In all fairness, we are not alone. Farmers’ markets across the country grapple with this tension between creating a socially engaging experience for customers and fulfilling the farmers’ needs. However, increasingly, the social consumer is winning out. If the focus of farmers’ markets were indeed the farmers, the ultimate goal would be increasing their sales. But, as we see at our own farmers’ market, the focus instead has become the social experience. 

In a study by the International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, customers identified that their top priorities in buying produce are the speed and efficiency of the process. If they are able to find everything they want in a predictable and seamless fashion, it would encourage them to return. Thus, to bolster local farms, the Ithaca Farmers Market should be designed and promoted in such a way that would encourage customer retention and sales of local produce. This stronger and more reliable income source would improve circumstances for farmers, yet doing so would come at a direct cost to the way it is currently designed.

For farmers’ markets to actually prioritize the farmers’ needs, they would need to be designed to give customers the ability to shop for their weekly needs. Thus, giving local farms the reliable sales they require to take home sustainable revenue. 

This could be achieved with the execution of a few key initiatives. Firstly, the hours of a farmer market make it such that compared to other grocery stores, there is very limited availability for customers to buy groceries. Given this time constraint, efficiency in purchasing produce must be prioritized. Other inefficiencies like sprawling stalls, a lack of organization and no centralized checkout also detract from customers choosing the farmers’ market as their consistent food supplier. 

Our current local farmers’ market and these proposed ideas are by no means mutually exclusive. We all stand to gain by empowering our local businesses over larger corporations. Local foods are less processed, more natural and more in tune with seasonality. They also support the environment, create a safer food supply and benefit the local economy. 

By rethinking our current understanding of the farmers’ market, we can create a better way of supporting our local economy. Shifting farmers’ markets to actually support the farmers will have very little cost to existing consumers, but many benefits to the agricultural and greater communities. We as consumers have the ability to engender this change, and our involvement in the Ithaca Farmers Market as Cornell students can be the driving force. 

Somil Aggarwal is a senior in the College of Engineering studying Computer Science. He can be reached at [email protected]. print(“Somil”) runs every other Wednesday this semester.