For Christi Electris and David McAnulty, shopping at farmers markets is practically routine. Electris lives in Brookline Village and brings her two-year-old daughter, Elena, along on Thursday afternoon forays to the market on Centre Street for produce and meat. On Sundays her husband, Igor Veytskin, accompanies them to the winter market in the arcade at Coolidge Corner. The family has been going to the Brookline markets since Elena was a baby; previously Electris shopped at the farmers market in Union Square when she was a graduate student living in Somerville.

The young mother delights in the number and availability of farmers markets in the city of Boston. Electris also understands their value in teaching her daughter about eating locally. “I want Elena to grow up knowing about where we get the food she eats,” Electris said.

McAnulty has been shopping at the Copley Square Farmers Market since it opened in 1984 even though he lives near Allandale Farm and also has a garden. Because he’s experienced the problems home gardeners encounter, McAnulty appreciates the quality of the produce at the Copley Square market. “I don’t bother trying to grow heirloom tomatoes,” he said.

McAnulty and Electris both work for Tellus Institute, a research and policy organization on Arlington Street in Boston; a favorite summer outing is a walk over to the Copley Square market to buy lunch. McAnulty notes that one of the biggest changes in vendors at the Copley Square market in recent years has been a shift towards prepared foods. He has a list of favorites, from artisanal cheese and crusty bread to homemade ravioli.

For decades, farmers markets have targeted customers like Electris and McAnulty—urban professionals, frequent shoppers willing to spend significant dollars for locally-raised and -produced food. Ironically, though, new growth at many markets today is coming from the other end of the economic scale.

“Low income shoppers with SNAP cards (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) represent a big potential,” said Jeff Cole, executive director of Mass Farmers Markets. “If Massachusetts farmers market could capture even 10% of the state’s SNAP sales, that would represent an average of $55,000 per market.”

Even at the Copley Square market the growth in revenue from SNAP benefits has been noticeable. Last year customers with SNAP cards and Bounty Bucks, spent $66,839 in an average 74 transactions a day. Bounty Bucks, a program that doubles the value of SNAP dollars up to a maximum of $20, is run by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

In today’s slow-growth economy, it’s no wonder farmers markets are seeking new customers wherever they can find them. Not only are they trying to pry shoppers away from their supermarket habits, they’re also competing with one another for customers.

At the opening of the summer farmers market season last year there were 21 new markets opened, including 10 in Middlesex and Worcester Counties. That brought the total number of farmers markets in the state to 254, an increase of more than 55% in five years.

“The growth in numbers of farmers markets has outpaced the growth in numbers of shoppers” Cole said “and as a result, some markets are suffering.”

One of the markets that opened during the growth spurt is in Westminster, a small central Massachusetts town near Wachusett Mountain. “It seems as if within the last five years, almost every small town that didn’t already have a farmers market set out to have one,” said M.L. Altobelli, chair of the Westminster Agricultural commission. The Ag Commission, as it’s known in Westminster, oversees the farmers market. “There has been an explosion in numbers of farmers markets and now we’re coming into the refinement phase,” Altobelli said.

While the growth of farmers markets has been a plus for food shoppers, it’s been a mixed blessing for farmers who vie to get into high traffic markets like Copley Square.

“Our waiting list for vendors is a mile long,” said Ben Sommer, manager of the Copley Square market that sees about 18,000 shoppers weekly.

Other markets go begging for vendors. “We get calls and emails all the time from new markets, and I’m always having to say no because we don’t have the capacity,” said Judy Lieberman, co-owner of Brookwood Community Farm. “We started at the Milton Farmers Market—I live in Milton and feel a connection to the community, but last year we had to withdraw; we were stretched too thin.”

Brookwood is tiny in comparison to other farms selling at markets in the Boston area. It grows vegetables on about six acres divided among three sites, one within the Blue Hills Reservation, another on the Bradley estate owned by the Trustees of Reservations in Canton, and a third site on a private estate in Milton. Part of the farm’s mission is providing urban communities with access to affordable fresh produce.

“We are trying to keep it local and to connect directly with consumers,” Lieberman said.

Brookwood partnered with the Mattapan Food and Fitness Coalition to start a bike-pedaled farm stand in Mattapan that sells a variety of greens, from collards to callaloo, at prices below cost. The farm also grows vegetables sold at the Bowdoin Geneva Farmers Market in Dorchester and at the Roslindale Village Main Street Farmers Market.

The growth in farmers markets has been a big boon to farms with the capacity to expand along with them. If you’re a regular at Boston area markets you know Stillman Farm, the bounteous vendor, with mounds of salad greens and beets of many colors, bushel baskets of potatoes, broccoli, and beans. For more than 30 years Glenn Stillman has been selling fruit and vegetables grown on his 144-acre farm in New Braintree at farmers markets throughout Boston. His first site was on City Hall plaza.

“I was on the lower steps—in the desert,” he recalls. “We didn’t have tents then, just umbrellas that whipped in the wind. Those days were lean; we didn’t make a lot of money.”

Today, Stillman Farm has better space at City Hall plaza—near the curb and under tents—and also sells at 14 other markets. The amount and variety of produce has increased too; by Glenn’s estimate “about 1,000%.”

“We’re growing a lot more salad greens and mesclun mixes. We now have six to eight different Asian greens as a result of interest by our customers,” he said. Diversity has been a mainstay of the Stillman marketing plan, which also includes robust CSA sales.

“We grow practically every vegetable it’s possible to plant, including 13 varieties of eggplant and a dozen varieties of melon,” Stillman said.

A second Stillman generation is following in their father’s footsteps, farming in the neighboring town of Hardwick and selling their products at markets throughout greater Boston. Glenn’s son Curtis grows fruits and berries and daughter Kate raises cows, pigs, lambs, chickens and turkeys. Kate is a regular at the Copley Square and Brookline markets where she’s cultivated a loyal following of customers.

Christi Electris is one of them. Not only does she chat with Stillman at the market, “I’ve emailed her questions and I always get a response,” she said

The ability to make that valuable, one-on-one connection with customers is vital in the increasingly competitive arena of farmers markets.

“Some farms hire people to sell, but anyone can take money,” Stillman said. “ I think it’s about connecting with the customers, learning their names, knowing what they like.”

Ambience is another important factor. The Westminster market, for example, sits atop Meetinghouse Hill on a broad expanse of green lawn, one of the most scenic market sites in Central Massachusetts. At one end of the field is a bandstand topped by a cupola. Performances by area musicians add to the market’s homespun atmosphere; so do fragrant wafts of wood-fired pizza from a vendor’s portable oven.

Aesthetics are important in drawing customers, Altobelli says. And getting people to the market is an overriding concern. “More vendors applied this year, but we have to be careful; we don’t want to dilute the ratio of customers per vendor,” she continues. “The growth in number of customers has been slower than number of vendors.”

Not having enough room to grow plagues other markets. “Our biggest challenge is we hit the limit of our space,” said Leo Keightly, manager of the Waltham farmers market.  “A shock went through the market last year when all of a sudden vendors became very aware of who had what space. We had to make clear to the vendors that this market has a nice ambience; we will lose that if people start arguing over space and it will hurt everyone. After a week or so they all got on board.”

At the Harvest New England Farmers Market conference in Sturbridge this past February, Jeff Cole told a market managers’ workshop that, “it’s important to use your vendors, but also to listen to your vendors as well as your customers.” When Cole asked how many of them were having problems attracting new customers, a majority of the audience of market managers raised their hands.

Another perennial problem is reselling; it’s been an issue since farmers markets first opened in the state. Glenn Stillman remembers in his early years at City Hall plaza, a vendor was terminated for bringing in produce from out of state and claiming that he grew it. In Westminster, Altobelli recalls the corn war when she was market manager a few seasons ago.

“We’re a few weeks behind the Pioneer Valley when it comes to produce ready for the market,” she said. “Our customers see corn from the valley at roadside stands or in stores before our vendors have it. So we allowed some off-selling. If you don’t meet some of the expectations of customers they aren’t going to come back to the market.” When the off-sellers continued after vendors at the Westminster market brought in their own corn, a battle ensued. The climax was a faceoff with vendors and customers screaming at each other.

“It was awful,” Altobelli said. “The Ag Commission finally got everyone in the same room and we hammered out rules. Now you can bring in corn from the Valley but as soon as any local vendor has it, you can’t sell Valley corn. If a vendor has some for sale he or she has to alert the market manager.”

In the Central Massachusetts town of West Brookfield, market manager Amy Dugas sympathizes with farmers’ struggles, but they also try her patience.

“In these economic hard times, farmers are really feeling the pinch and they’ll push the envelope a little,” she said.  “I get tired of having to act like a parent when vendors misbehave.”

Dugas is discouraged that some vendors don’t seem to understand that the success of the farmers market is a team effort. “Some are only in it for themselves,” she said. “You’d think they would understand that things work better if we’re working together.”

If she sounds a little disillusioned, it’s because Dugas has volunteered thousands of hours in pursuit of her dream of a thriving farmers market on West Brookfield’s picturesque Common.

Born and raised in the neighboring town of Charlton, Dugas moved to the state of Washington for graduate school, married and lived in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, famous for its year round, weekly farmers market.

When she moved back to Central Massachusetts, Dugas was surprised at the lack of community support for farmers markets and the bureaucratic hoops she had to jump through to try and start one. “It took me about a year of contacting town offices and meeting with the selectmen before we could open the market,” she said. In the process she got help from two local women; the three are now the core volunteers who manage the four-year-old market. Problems with vendors are just some of the challenges they face.

“Our biggest issue is how to get more shoppers. We’re competing against peoples’ ingrained habits,” Dugas explained. “They’re so used to going to the supermarket for everything.”

Dugas often wishes she could hail the mom-driven SUVs as they drive by the farmers market after picking up their children at school. “We have about 25 people who come every week and about 25 more who shop every other week; quite a few people only come occasionally,” she said.

In Worcester, when the farmers market in the heart of the city’s low-income, Main South neighborhood struggled to attract customers, the managers’ solution was to drive the market to them in a van stocked with produce.

Last summer the Regional Environmental Council, the non-profit organization that manages the market as part of its food justice program, launched the mobile market with a lot of help from the community. The van was a retired service vehicle donated by the Worcester Regional Transit Authority, and funding came from several other community businesses and foundations as well as a USDA farmers market promotion grant.

The van made nine stops weekly throughout the city, including a family health center, elder housing and rent-subsidized apartment complexes.

“This summer we’re adding five stops to the mobile market and an extra day,” said Anthony Gardner, farmers market coordinator. The van is being outfitted with solar panels to power a refrigerator and freezer inside so meat and eggs can be added to the product mix. “We’re also adding a grill so we can do cooking demonstrations,” Gardner said.

The mobile farmers market accepts SNAP benefits and has an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) machine to process them as well as credit card transactions. SNAP and vouchers from the Women Infant and Children (WIC) program represent 50% of the sales at the Worcester Main South markets.

Competition is ultimately good for everyone involved in producing and consuming local food, says David Webber, coordinator of farmers market for the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. “We want more people to eat local, whether it’s from a farmers market, a CSA, or even buying from supermarkets that carry local produce.”

The process may be painful, Webber acknowledged, but competition demands that farmers adapt and evaluate which markets work for them. “They need to be smart about where to focus,” Webber said. “Market managers should be creative and use whatever means available, including social media, to reach customers,” he added.

For their part, customers need to support their local farmers markets. “People think of farmers markets as these picturesque events like something painted by Norman Rockwell,” says Dugas, the West Brookfield market manager, “but we are businesses, and if we don’t think about how we’ll make a profit, we won’t survive.”

 

Margaret LeRoux writes from Central Massachusetts where she also is a regular customer of four farmers markets.

MARGARET LEROUX is a regular contributor to Edible Boston who writes about local food and the people who grow, prepare and appreciate it.