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Why Markets Fail by Marilyn Firth

- by Leanne Fenez

Why Farmers’ Markets Fail by Marilyn Firth

The success of a farmers’ market is a hot topic amongst farmers’ market managers. We talk a lot about the elements of success, and we watch carefully as new markets open, and either thrive or fail.

Every new farmers’ market opens with optimism and enthusiasm. Every existing farmers’ market begins their season with an expectation of success. The number of farmers’ markets in Manitoba has increased exponentially in the past decade. But for as many markets as we’ve seen open in Manitoba, we’ve seen at least as many slowly dwindle and fail, or simply disappear off the farmers’ market landscape within a year or two. Some seem destined for success: the location looks good, the organizers are dedicated, the potential is strong. And still they fail.

Why do farmers’ markets fail? And what can that teach us as we strive to improve the health of farmers’ markets in our province. Farmers’ markets hold a common goal that supersedes competition between markets. We need to understand how to make our markets succeed so that we can encourage Manitobans to make markets their “go to” for regular shopping. We must cease to be the “special occasion” outing and become the place where people stock their shelves each week. Without that, all our farmers’ markets are destined to remain limited in size and scope, and our desire to support local producers will be stunted.


Discovering why farmers’ markets fail is something of a seek and discover. As Executive Director of the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market, I have been keeping a keen eye on farmers’ market development in Manitoba for a decade. But there are few studies to support anecdotal observation. There is only one study we know of that actually examines farmers’ market failure, and it’s an American study reviewing farmers’ markets in Oregon State. There is very little evidence-based information about farmers’ markets in Manitoba. The most recent Manitoba study, commissioned a decade ago in 2008 by the Farmers’ Market Association of Manitoba (now Direct Farm Manitoba) identified 15 farmers’ markets in the province (though there were likely more even then). We know by current membership to Direct Farm Manitoba that over 45 farmers’ markets operate in Manitoba today. That indicates very positive growth in the number of farmers’ markets in the past decade. However, anecdotal evidence also tells us that many farmers’ markets failed in that same decade. The question is, why?

The Oregon study identified 5 main reasons why farmers’ markets fail. Some of these reasons have been identified amongst Manitoba coordinators during casual conversations over the years. Others were not. The study noted that while many issues around failure were most prevalent amongst newer farmers’ markets, some lead to the failure of markets over a decade old. The markets studied ranged in size from five to ninety vendors, and reviewed only markets not supported by a city or chamber of commerce, since these markets are often financially supported despite elements that would lead to failure under more rigorous financial constraints. Fifty-three markets were included in the study.

Three of the identified elements for failure are connected, and related to farmers’ market administration:

Reason #5, – High manager turnover

Of the markets that failed, all identified manager turnover in their final year of operations, and multiple manager turnovers during their years of operation.

Reason #4 - Low or no pay for managers

Many new farmers’ markets rely on volunteers, or pay their managers a small stipend. An experienced market manager is ideal during development and early growth. However, most markets, especially those not run by a city or chamber of commerce, open on a shoestring, The Oregon study also identified that volunteers and low-paid staff suffered from burnout as the market grew. It’s a vicious cycle where growth can lead to the demise of a market if the value of the manager is not, or cannot, be recognized with adequate financial compensation

Reason #3 - Inadequate support for administering the market operations.

In an effort to attract vendors, many markets open with low or no vendor fees. While this may seem like a smart way to initiate a market, the reality is that every market needs an income stream to grow, whether that is for promotional activity, market manager support, or the cost of operational materials and space. A key recommendation of the Oregon study: organizers for new markets need to understand how their market will reach financial stability before they take the leap into launching the market.


Reason #2 – A shortage of farm products.

This item is related to all farm products, including fruits, vegetables, meats, plants, and farm produced goods like jams, jellies and pickles. As much as craft items enhance a farmers’ market, locally produced food is a must for a farmers’ market to succeed. 100% of the markets that closed indicated that they needed more farmers and/or farmer products, at their markets.

Reason #1 – Size of the market.

Of the markets that failed, all were small in size and unable to grow due to a variety of reasons. Here in Manitoba, discussion with vendors at our market tell us of the importance of this element. For a market in a large city, with so many competing draws for customers, people simply will not take the time to attend a market that is too small. Watching farmers’ market activity over the past decade, I would suggest 20 to 25 vendors is the minimum for a large city market. Markets in smaller communities can thrive with a smaller number of vendors for a number of reasons: the commitment by the community to support their families and friends; the lack of competition for local products at nearby stores, and the community gathering aspect of a farmers’ market.

While these five reasons were identified as core to market failure or success, there are many other elements that can help a market grow.

Tied to size of market is the issue of vendor distribution. One of the most difficult jobs for a farmers’ market manager is ensuring that there is enough of certain products to attract customers, while ensuring that vendors don’t encounter so much competition during the market that they cannot make enough money to cover the cost of attending the market. This is a topic for a whole other article.

Location is key. While many think that an urban location is important for farmers’ market success, many markets have proven this is not the case. More relevant are three other elements: ease of public access, parking, and vendor access. These three elements are so important they can’t be overlooked. People need to be able to get in and out of your market with ease, whether that is by car or public transit. And vendor consistency at your market can rely on how easily they are able to bring their products to your market.

The value of the “community gathering space” cannot be underestimated. While all the other items listed are important, farmers’ markets are held dear in their visitors hearts because they make the effort to provide an enjoyable space for community gathering. Whether it’s through encouraging conversations between customers and producers, workshops and demonstrations, live music, picnic tables, or farm displays, creating a fun and lively space will help your market flourish. It’s been an interesting discovery with our newly developed winter markets that a common visitor complaint is that we don’t have room to offer a place to sit down with a friend and enjoy a coffee and danish. The public aspect of farmers’ market is something that sets it apart from the grocery store. At the store, you can find many of the local products you find at the farmers’ market. But you don’t find the people and you don’t find the atmosphere. Those two elements are what make a farmers’ market special.

Sources:

When Things Don’t Work: Some Insights Into Why Farmers’ Markets Close, Special Report 1073, Oregon State University

This Little Farmer Went To Market: An Economic Impact Study of the Member Markets of the Farmers’ Market Association of Manitoba, Dungannon Consulting Services