Too many heroes?

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Farmers markets have gained traction in recent years as cooperative locally based venues where small farmers can sell their goods to consumers, while getting people acquainted with where their food comes from and cutting down on the amount of energy used to harvest it. The number of such markets has soared, increasing in number by 17 percent according to the U.S Department of Agriculture; going from 6,132 such markets around the nation to 7,135 in the past year alone.

Massachusetts is one of the states with the most, having as many as 255 peppered throughout town squares and parking lots throughout the Bay State. But have these alternatives to a world of agribusinesses and corporate grocery store giants, begun to crowd each other out? In other words in some areas are there more vendors selling goods at more of these markets in a given area then there are customers to keep all these markets profitable?

Being someone who lives in Western Massachusetts it is hard to not find a sign for at least one weekly farmers market at least once every three towns (and that is not counting the small stores or the roadside kiosks that are also peddling these agrarian wares).

A recent piece on explores the subject:

The problem is that customers are being spread too thin.

“They’ve been the mainstay of our business for the last 13 years, but now we’re barely holding our own,” said Rick P. Wysk, of River Bend Farm in Hadley, where asparagus, other field crops, flowers and fall ornamentals are grown for four area markets.

The sharp increase in the number of markets “has spread out the demand,” he said. “We used to do twice the business at some markets because now there are so many. In my opinion, the growth hasn’t been good.”

The farmers markets are established through a cooperative process among farmers and local communities. Theoretically, they should be a boon to consumers, who are able to get locally grown produce that is so fresh it may have been picked that morning, and farmers, who receive more of the profit by cutting out the middlemen from sales.

That is what drove the growth in markets initially. About 100 farmers markets operated in the state in 2004. Now there are nearly 260. That has mirrored the growth nationally. In 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 1,755 farmers markets nationwide, and in mid-2010, there were 6,132.

Jeffrey D. Cole, the executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, a nonprofit group that works with farmers and communities to foster the markets, said, “Yes, there are definitely markets in the state where the customer counts are lower because there are more markets surrounding them.”

“So we are very concerned about the growth in the markets and the potential to outstrip the demand,” he said.

A glimpse of this map shows just how these markets are crowding each other. The Boston area is awash in a deluge of fresh produce as we can see. Much of the population of the state lives in these areas, where there is also a heavy concentration of white upper-class highly educated residents and college towns such as in Cambridge (where according to the Masslive article). Western Massachusetts has a similar population in communities such as Northampton and Amherst, as well as a smattering of small farms around the Pioneer Valley that provide a great deal of the crops grown locally despite its small share of the overall state’s population.

Its surprising just how many though are concentrated in the eastern part of the state, a part that few would ever associate with small farming.


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