Farmers Markets: Harvesting Dollars Is Not So Easy
Senior Editor, CNBC
For 63-year-old Phil Jones, the fresh food movement is more a labor of love.
"Local markets and farming? It's not a great way to make money," says Jones, who has a 13-acre farm in Chelmsford, Mass., and travels to four farmers markets a week.
Jones and his family switched to food production five years ago after growing flowers for two decades.
Besides the local markets, Jones shops his lettuce, tomaotes and cabbage to other venues, like the local Hilton Hotel restaurant. He's also digging into savings to keep farming.
Jones is focusing on new bio-nutrient dense type of crops— crops that have a higher ratio of nutrients to calories and harvesting them with a method that replaces nutrients taken out of the soil in traditional farming. He hopes this new 'wave' of food will be less costly than organic growing.
"With organic fertilizers and weed control, doing organic food is expensive. Once the bio-nutrient dense way is refined, it should be cheaper. The plants would be able to take more frost then they do now," Jones says. "But until then, we're still looking to become profitable."
Farmers markets grow beyond elitist label
If profits are spread so thin, why do markets keep sprouting? That's simple, say the experts—demand keeps growing.
"Like many people, I enjoy the freshness and variety of fruits and vegetables I get at local markets," says Ron Hansen, senior associate dean at the Simon School of Business at the University of Rochester. "That love of fresh food is what's helping to drive up the number."
More fresh food markets show people are serious about changing their eating habits, says Robert LaValva.
"The growth in local markets seems to be a sign of a steady shift in the way people think about food," LaValva adds. "People come to prefer specific products sold by certain vendors."
The markets have also gone beyond the hippie label as wellas the stigma of being only high end, says Karp, who helps New York City schools acquire local grown foods.
"There are many farmers markets thriving in inner cities, in communities with the least access to fresh fruits and vegetables," Karp says. "They afford low-income residents the freshest food for eating healthy."
The increase in local markets has caught the attention of major food-store chains, according to Pat Conroy.
"We're seeing stores like Whole Foods and even Wal-Mart copy some of the best parts of local food markets," Conroy adds.
"And food store chains are buying more local produce. Heinz is even working on a sweeter tomato so they don't have to add sweeteners. This is because of the demand for good fresh food."
For farmers, the value of a local market is not just dollars and cents.
It's critical to the world and nation to have better food," says Phil Jones. "Local farmers and markets are part of that."
In the end, analysts say local farmers markets and their suppliers face an uneven future.
"They may slow down in numbers if the economy goes down and food prices go up," says Grabowski. "Those factors tend to drive shoppers to supermarkets and warehouse stores."
"I think markets will keep growing in numbers," says Steve Ford, an associate professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and a small farmer himself.
"We always shopped at food and vegetable stands when I was a kid. Now, more people than ever want good fresh food," Ford says. "The question is can someone make a living at this."