Farmers markets nearly dead in 1971; exploding in number today

A study looking at what motivates shopping at a farmers market includes figures on the number of farmers markets over time:

Farming is back, long after Jane Pyle, in true Population Bomb thinking of 1971, said farmers markets were “doomed by a changing society” in an editorial for The Geographical Review. At the time, there were about 340 farmers markets left in the United States and many were “populated by resellers, not farmers, and were on the verge of collapse,” Pyle wrote.

Yet like Ehrlich’s Population Bomb, Pyle could not have been more wrong…The number of farmers markets listed in the USDA National Farmers Markets increased from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014.

That is quite an increase. What is behind it?

“A growing number of communities have attempted to gain control of their own economies by encouraging civic engagement that supports investing in locally owned businesses instead of outside companies,” states the study.

But that requires wealthy elites. Local food markets (i.e., farmers markets, food co-ops, etc.) are far more likely to be located in cities and counties with higher income levels.

Here is my interpretation of the findings: as farming has become an industry with large corporations and selling food products has become dominated by big box stores (Walmart now has about 25% market share among grocery stores), the farmers market gives those with the resources an opportunity to retain control of where their money goes. Americans tend to like local control and this gives grocery buyers the ability to see more directly where their money goes (directly to producers, closer to where the purchasers actually like).

Wealthier communities are also likely to see farmers markets as desirable economic contributors. The markets don’t require that much space – they can even put underutilized parking lots to use – and don’t create trouble in terms of pollution or noise. The markets can attract higher-income residents who will then associate the nicer shopping option with a higher quality community as well as possibly spend more money elsewhere in the community. As an illustration of this, look where the 150+ farmers markets in the Chicago region are located.

“City residents still yearn for the rural experience”?

Beside a story about the declining rural areas of Iowa, a sociologist talks about the link between cities and rural areas:

Even city residents still yearn for the rural experience, says Paul Lasley, the Iowa State University sociologist who founded the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll. He describes a gradual cultural blurring of urban and rural Iowa: Cities are preserving rural culture as a reaction against the “massification” of recent decades.

Consider the boom in farmers markets, he says: 7,175 nationwide this year, a 17 percent jump over 2010, as measured by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Iowa claims 237 markets.

A couple of thoughts come to mind:

1. The most noticeable place where the cities and rural areas blur is the suburbs. From the beginning, picturesque suburbs like Llewellyn Park, New Jersey had winding subdivision lanes and big lots that were meant to invoke country life. Even today, many suburbanites can fairly quickly drive to Forest Preserves or out to the metropolitan fringe where there are still some open fields.

2. Are farmers markets really the best evidence that city dwellers want more of the rural life? Don’t these simply make the rural life a caricature or another commodity that can be purchased? There have to be some other ways in which city dwellers really show an interest in rural life.

In the end, I wonder how much city residents really would want to live in rural areas or spend significant amounts of time there opposed to just visit. Surveys like the “2011 Community Preference Survey” show that roughly 30-40% of Americans would want to live in small towns or rural areas but we know more than 50% of Americans live in suburbs and 30% live in central cities (around 80% total). So if preferences don’t exactly match up with realities, what exactly do urban residents, urban or suburban, want from “the rural experience”?