Reversing a Downward Trend in Customer Participation and Farmer Sales at Farmers' Markets

Final report for ENE18-150

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2018: $145,242.00
Projected End Date: 11/30/2021
Grant Recipient: Farmers' Market Federation of New York
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Diane Eggert
Farmers Market Federation of NY
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Project Information

Summary:

In 2017, the Farmers Market Federation of NY and their partner, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County, were hearing reports from farmers market managers and farmers, that sales at farmers markets were decreasing over the last couple of years. As well, they were reporting a marked decrease in customer attendance. One noticed that fewer millennials were at the markets than in previous years. Others commented that their sales were off, by 35% to as much as 70%. There was growing concern that farmers markets were losing their place in the local food economy. While the team had many ideas of what the causes were, no one knew for sure, and therefore, had no ideas on how to prevent the downward slide and restore farmers markets to top of mind awareness among food shoppers.

A coalition of state farmers market associations and farm service provider organizations was created to look at the problem with the goal of understanding what was happening, why it was happening and determine solutions that could rebuild farmers markets’ role in a local food economy. The coalition membership included Farmers Market Federation of NY, NOFA – Vermont, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, Maryland Farmers Market Association and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County.

The strategy outlined by the coalition was to:

  1. Conduct a consumer survey with the assistance of the Dyson School of Economic Studies at Cornell University. The survey was to be an online survey that would be held across the 4 states of the coalition. The goal was to develop a better understanding of consumer needs and desires that could be communicated to project beneficiaries.
  2. Using the results of the consumer survey, the project team, along with a marketing specialist, and an advisory team of farmers and market managers, began to search for examples, policies and ideas that farmers market managers and farmers could adapt to help alleviate the issues preventing some consumers from shopping at farmers markets. The examples and information learned were written into a toolkit to share with market managers, farmers and farm service providers. The “Toolkit for Adapting Farmers Markets to Match Consumer Trends” was uploaded to the Federation’s website, https://www.nyfarmersmarket.com/sare-consumer-survey.
  3. Using the toolkit as a guide, a series of webinars was developed to educate farmers market managers, farmers and farm service providers on the survey results and ideas that would help them to improve their markets by meeting the needs of consumers and removing obstacles to customer participation. This would help to stem the downward trend of farmers market shopping and, ultimately increase farm sale. Each webinar outlined the problem to be solved and offered several detailed suggestions on how to resolve the issues.
  4. Encourage farmers markets and farmers to utilize the toolkit to build new strategies to help the market adapt to a new generation of consumer. As well, farm service providers were encouraged to work with market managers and farmers to help facilitate these changes that would improve customer participation and increase farm sales. These changes were to be implemented in 2020.

 

A series of 6 webinars was initially held that encompassed each section of the toolkit. These webinars were conducted by the project team and our Marketing partner, Lindsay Wilcox. The webinars were not as heavily attended as we hoped, but they began just prior to the pandemic shutdown, which hampered attendance.

The COVID pandemic hit in early 2020 impacting daily life and effectively upending the project as it was proposed. Markets could not implement the programs and services described in the toolkit during 2020, as they were under severe restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID. Even farm booths were under strict guidelines which wouldn’t allow for adopting practices they could adopt that would help them achieve greater sales.

We pivoted to 2021 for implementation, adding a new round of webinars to keep the toolkit in the minds of managers, farmers and farm service providers so that it could be used in preparation for 2021. However, COVID persisted and when restrictions were finally lifted, it was too late for planning new strategies. Rather, managers and farmers concentrated on the return to some level of normalcy for market operations. Few felt they had capacity to institute anything new along with getting their past programs and services back up and running.

We did survey the participants that downloaded the Toolkit. This was over 450 farmers market managers, farmers and farm service providers. They were asked what their plans were to using the Toolkit. Most service providers were planning to use the information in both in person training with managers and farmers, as well as some one-on-one assistance to help revitalize their local farmers markets. Farmers Market managers were seeking ideas and strategies to encourage consumers to participate in the farmers markets, as well as to drive customers to become loyal customers.

With our experiences at farmers market through COVID was that there was a silver lining to COVID. Consumers learned that having a local food supply was important as they experienced shortages at supermarkets. People also appreciated the extraordinary measures that markets went through to ensure their safety. Those measures were much more in depth than what brick and mortar stores implemented. So along with the open-air atmosphere, customers choose to shop at farmers markets. Markets experienced a resurgence and farmers reported 2020 sales were their best sales in years. Customers were doing a larger portion of their food shopping at the markets so the size of each individual sale increased over previous years by as much as 27%.

This included Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) customers as well. With the increase in SNAP benefits and then PEBT added in, SNAP customers had more to spend and SNAP sales at farmers markets soared. Overall SNAP sales at farmers markets grew from 2020 to 2021 by 32%. While data is not yet in for 2021, we believe the growth was even greater. Farmers markets use a token system for SNAP transactions. Most SNAP markets ordered extra tokens as the inventory they had could not keep up with demand. GrowNYC, operating Greenmarkets in NYC, ordered an additional 55,000 tokens over their current inventory in their attempt to keep ahead of sales.

The project goal was to increase customer participation in farmers markets and to grow farmers sales and we did achieve this, just not in the way we predicted. But we are pleased that something as devastating as the pandemic had a very positive silver lining for farmers markets and farm sales.

 

Performance Target:

Performance Target for Service Providers

Utilizing a toolkit of operational templates, business and marketing strategies, 75 Extension Educators and Ag service providers will assist 200 farmers’ market managers and 350 farmers, through trainings and one-on-one support, to elevate the market’s position within their local food system. 

Performance Target for Farmers

Six farmers markets will implement aspects of the toolkit and increase participation by an average of 100 customers per week and 150 farmers increase sales by an average of $250 per week above pre-project levels.

Introduction:

Problem or opportunity

Surveys of and conversations with farmers and farmers markets and list serve discussions across the country have attested to a marked decline in customer participation in farmers markets and a decrease in farm sales. Some farmers reported up to 35%, while others reported as much as 70% decline in sales over previous year’s sales. When asked about this decline, many of the farmers indicated that they felt uncertain and uneasy about the future viability of farmers markets as a means of selling their farm products and sustaining their farms. Market managers indicated that while the decline was indeed noticeable, they felt that the slip was attributable to things that could be adjusted to bring consumers back, but they were unsure what the answers were.

Farmers were more vocal. Topping their list of issues that were impacting farmer market participation and sales were:

  1. Too many opportunities for consumers to access local food.
  2. Too many farmers markets, too close to one another, cannibalizing customers and causing farmers to attend more and more markets to reach the same customers and realize the same level of sales they previously reached in one or two market days.
  3. Inadequate promotions by markets to build market awareness and bring customers to the market.
  4. Lack of understanding of the younger generations of shoppers, as the majority of market customers were over 50.

 

Solution and approach

To help reverse this downward trend for farmers markets, this project conducted a multi-state survey of consumers to determine their preferences in shopping for local food, their attitudes towards farmers markets and general buying behavior for local food. A team from the Cornell University’s Dyson School of Economics will analyzed the surveys to determine trends, preferences and needs of “today’s” local food shoppers. Using the survey results, publications were prepared for journals and gave Extension, market managers and farmers a better understanding of current customer buying trends. Finally, the project team used the information learned from these trends to prepare a toolkit and provide training to help farmers and market managers reboot their marketing and business strategies and help them regain customer counts, put farmers markets back at the top of the their local food system and rebuild farm sales.

Educational Approach

Educational approach:

Once we were able to complete the Consumer Survey toolkit, we began a series of webinars and conference presentations to introduce the toolkit and the rationale behind the undertaking. This included a discussion of the issue that farmers markets have been in decline in terms of customer counts and therefore farmers sales were dropping. The consumer survey reached out to both market and non-market shoppers to understand their attitudes toward shopping at farmers markets so that we could find solutions that would better meet the needs of customers, eliminate roadblocks to their participation and help bring farmers markets back as a means to access fresh, healthy and local foods, direct from local farmers.

We held a series of webinars in the winter of 2020:

  • Identifying & Marketing to Your Target Customer
  • Branding and Marketing Basics
  • The 3 P's of Farmers Markets
  • Adapting Your Market to Meet Today's Customer Needs
  • Customer Attitudes Towards Farmers Markets
  • Market Programs and Services That Draw Customers
  • From the Farmers Perspective

These webinars were promoted through a series of state and national sources, including list serves, newsletters and press releases. The reach included farmers market managers, direct marketing farmers and agricultural service providers. 

At the conclusion of each webinar, attendees were invited to download the Consumer Toolkit from the Farmers Market Federation of NY website, https://www.nyfarmersmarket.com/sare-consumer-survey. In addition, each webinar was recorded and made available on the web for further viewing. 

Presentations were also given at a number of conferences:

  • NYS Farmers Market Managers Conference, March 3, 2020
  • Vermont Farmers Conference, February 15, 2020
  • Vermont Farmers Market Managers Conference, March 18, 2020
  • National Association of County Ag Agents, poster session, July 2020
  • Cornell Cooperative Extension Ag In-Service, November 4, 2020

A number of other conference presentations were planned but ultimately cancelled due to the COVID Pandemic: Massachusetts Farmers Market Managers Conference, Maryland Farmers Market Managers Conference, and a National Mobile Farmers Market Conference. 

Attendees at each of the conferences were invited to download the Consumer Toolkit. Links were provided and, in some cases, attendees were provided the toolkit on a USB drive, eliminating the need for download. Ultimately we found 482 people downloaded the toolkit. This includes farmers market managers, farmers and ag service provides.

COVID also changed how markets operated for the summer 2020. Most markets across the country dropped all social programming, events and entertainment to minimize crowds and increase social distancing. The result was that the opportunity to add new programs and events to the markets to attract new consumers could not be tested in markets across the project region. We then altered our goal and began another series of webinars to highlight key strategies in the Consumer Toolkit to help markets prepare for the 2021 farmers market season in hopes that the pandemic would be over and markets would be able to return to "normal". The new series used markets that were already implementing some of the strategies and found them to help with retaining customers as well as building new customers for their markets. The series included:

  • Marketing Strategies for Outreach
  • Market Programs that Build Your Customer Base and Add Sales
  • Identifying and Reaching Unique Customers
  • Market Integrity: Meeting Customer Expectations
  • Lessons from the Field
  • Identifying and Overcoming Customer Obstacles

This series was also promoted through list serves, newsletters and press releases to state and national audiences.

 

 

 

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

RESEARCH AND RESOURCE DEVELOPMENT
1) 4 Project partners within each state (NY, VT, MA, MD), with the assistance of the marketing consultant, will conduct outreach through social media and state partnerships to solicit survey participants and collect completed surveys about consumer attitudes toward buying local food, their preferences in shopping venues, and how these attitudes impact farmers markets from 2000 consumers with an interest in local food.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
4
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
4
Proposed Completion Date:
August 31, 2018
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
October 31, 2018
Accomplishments:

The four agricultural service providers worked with a team of researchers at Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management to create a consumer survey for the research portion of the project. The survey developed targeted 5 main categories of shoppers:

    1. Regular farmers market shoppers
    2. Non regular market shoppers, but a local advocate
    3. Non regular markets shoppers, but support market's social events/atmosphere
    4. Never shop farmers markets, but still a local advocate
    5. Never farmers markets, don’t care about local

The team outlined the information they needed to be able to understand consumer attitudes about shopping preferences when buying local. Then survey questions were developed to reach all categories of consumers, as each held valuable information to help determine what consumers do or do not shop at farmers markets. Once the questions were identified and prepared, the survey was sent to project partners to review and test the efficacy of the questions: were they understandable by the intended audience, were the possible answers inclusive, and would they yield the information we were seeking. After a few tweaks, the survey was ready for launch.

Prior to the survey launch, the project team met to determine avenues to reach all identified consumer types. The team used a mix of social media, press releases, web posts, and list serve posts to reach a wide range of audiences. A marketing consultant helped by developing a survey logo and a series of graphics to be used in social media and web posts to target the 5 consumer groups.

Ultimately the team used their contacts and partners to reach out to farmers market consumers, Cooperative Extension personnel, statewide and national partners such as Farmers Market Coalition, Slow Food USA, Agricultural Service Providers, and Chambers of Commerce offices throughout each state. 

The survey was launched in Mid-June, 2018 through Cornell University's Qualtrics account and was left open until October 1, 2018. The Cornell research team provided us with a weekly update on the numbers of completed surveys. This was shared with each of the project partners to continue to reach new audiences to complete the surveys. Ultimately, the survey was completed by 3748 consumers across the United States and Canada, with the following identified in the 4 partnering states:

NY: 915

VT: 762

MA: 513

MD: 573

 
Milestone #2 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

2) The 3 member Cornell team at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management analyze completed customer surveys to determine current customer shopping behavior and trends as it applies to purchasing local food. The Dyson team prepares an academic paper for publication based on the findings and presents findings at Farmers Market Federation annual conference.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
3
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
3
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2019
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
September 19, 2019
Accomplishments:

On October 2, 2018, the consumer survey was closed. The data was pulled and the team at Cornell University's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management began their work to sift through the information collected and prepare a report of the results, which includes the survey instrument:

Assessing the Barriers to Increasing Customer Participation and Farm Sales at Farmers Markets: Implications for Marketing Strategy
Todd M. Schmit, Roberta M. Severson, and Ekubo Sawaura 

Cornell-Dyson-eb1905

Milestone #3 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

3) The 5 project team members, with advice and assistance from the state partners, the advisory committee and marketing consultant, will develop a toolkit that includes fact sheets on consumer trends from the survey, templates for creating marketing materials, new and proven marketing strategies, market policies and practices to reflect consumer input on farmers markets, learning from competition, opportunities for collaboration, market mapping and assessment tools for opening new markets, as well as strategies farmers can employ to increase customer interest in their booth, their products and their farm, including self-promotion and customer service strategies and opportunities for collaboration with other farms.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
5
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
10
Proposed Completion Date:
December 31, 2019
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
January 21, 2020
Accomplishments:

Once the Cornell team analyzing the survey results issued the report, our project team began work on the toolkit. The writing team consisted of Laura Biasillo, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County, Diane Eggert, Farmers Market Federation of NY, and Lindsay Wilcox of CenterMost Marketing. Input and editing including our state partners, Erin Buckwalter, NOFA-VT, Devon Whitney Deal, CISA, Amy Crone, Maryland Farmers Market Association and Ginger Secrist Myers, Maryland Cooperative Extension. Each partner in the process, reached out to market managers across the states to seek successful programs, services, marketing efforts and general market practices that exemplified the concepts borne out by the survey results:

  • greater marketing efforts needed to be done to build awareness of farmers markets
  • consumers valued local food, but markets are always the most convenient means to shop for local
  • consumers valued supporting local agriculture over supporting a local economy
  • pricing concerns prevented many consumers from shopping at farmers markets
  • many consumers are intimidated by the concept of shopping face-to-face with producers
  • special events do not draw consumers to markets, but may enhance the shopping experience
  • many thought farmers markets were elitist, appealing to foodies and those with higher income levels
  • diversity of choice is important, in both product and in sellers of those products
  • many segments of the population felt excluded from shoppers, especially SNAP consumers
  • Consumers want a pleasant shopping experience, where they feel appreciated
  • consumers believe that farmers markets should be a leader in environmental stewardship

The toolkit is scheduled to be completed by early January 2020. It has gone through several editing sessions and is now in final design. Once completed, the toolkit was posted on the Farmers Market Federation of NY website, http://www.nyfarmersmarket.com/sare-consumer-survey/ behind a wall. To access the toolkit, participants needed to register with complete contact information, role they play with farmers markets, and anticipated use of the toolkit. This information was utilized for follow up to learn the outcomes of using the toolkit. Now that those registration data have been analyzed, the toolkit is no longer behind a registration wall.

Milestone #4 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

RECRUITMENT

4. All 107 Extension offices and at least 10 other Ag Services provider organizations, such as NOFA NY, NYSAWG Grow NYC and Farmers Market Coalition, across the 4 states, receive recruitment announcements via list serves, press releases, social media and email lists that invite them to register for face-to-face and webinar-based workshops about consumer survey results, toolkit contents and usage scheduled in each state. Farmers’ market managers and farmers in each state will also be recruited to participate as co-learners.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
250
Proposed Completion Date:
January 31, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
January 31, 2020
Accomplishments:

The principle project partners conducted a series of 7 webinars to educate farmers, market managers and ag service providers on the consumer survey results and each section of the toolkit. The webinars were promoted through the Farmers Market Federation of NY list serve to member markets, farmers and service providers across NYS. In addition, Cornell Cooperative Extension Educators listservs, Farmers Market Coalition list serve (national), as well as partner list serves and mailing lists in Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland were utilized to promote the project and webinars. Finally, press releases were issued to ag publications and ag organizations. Facebook posts were also used to help promoted the series of webinars.

Milestone #5 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

PRE-TRAINING ENGAGEMENT
5. 130 Extension educators and other Ag Service providers pre-register for trainings and provide data including: sales trends at farmers markets in their region, whether they currently work with farmers markets and direct marketing farmers or are willing to in the future, their intentions (and project expectations) in using the trainings and toolkit, and their contact information to allow for project partners to follow up.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
130
Actual number of farmer beneficiaries who participated:
79
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
70
Proposed Completion Date:
January 31, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
March 31, 2020
Accomplishments:

2020 was to begin the training process, with webinars, conferences and workshop presentations. However the pandemic resulted in a lower than expected attendance (lower than 50% of registrations). Conferences for farmers market managers in Massachusetts and Maryland were cancelled. A conference for Mobile Farmers Market Managers to be held in NY was cancelled. The Vermont Farmers Market Managers Conference went remote, but attendance was much less than 50%. Even attendance at webinars held post-lockdown suffered in attendance as some people were trying to settle into working remotely from home, managers were struggling to revamp their winter market operations to adhere to strict pandemic guidelines, and others were laid off and unavailable due to pandemic shutdowns.

 

Attendance Breakdown

Workshop

Farmers in Attendance

Market Managers in Attendance

Ag Service Providers in Attendance

Identifying & Marketing to Target Customer

6

33

9

Branding and Marketing Basics

12

21

6

3 P’s of Farmers Markets

15

19

10

Adapting Markets to Meet Today’s Customer Needs *

10

14

7

Customer Attitudes Toward Farmers Markets *

5

12

10

Market Programs that Draw Customers *

5

18

8

From the Farmers Perspective *

3

16

8

NYS Farmers Market Managers Conference

7

54

12

Vermont Farmers Conference

16

 

 

Vermont Farmers Market Managers Conference *

 

26

 

*post Pandemic lockdown, resulting in lower attendance

This webinar training series was recorded and is now available as a YouTube playlist: SARE Farmers Market Consumer Survey Webinar Series

Milestone #6 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

LEARNING DURING EDUCATION PROGRAM
6. 130 Extension educators and other Ag Service providers throughout the four states participate in a 2-part webinar workshop (repeated once for maximum reach) or a face-to-face workshop sponsored by each state partner. Farmers market managers and direct marketing farmers will be invited to participate as co-learners. Participants’ learning outcomes will be assessed via webinar polls and follow-up questionnaires at workshops.
a. A 2-part series of webinars will be held covering current consumer shopping trends for local food and the toolkit contents and how to apply the contents to improve farmers markets and build farm sales. The series will be repeated once to ensure the greatest reach. Participants will come away with knowledge of current shopping trends and ways to increase customer counts at farmers markets and how they can build farm sales within those markets. Extension Educators and other Ag Service Providers will be encouraged to work one-on-one with farmers and farmers’ market managers to educate and implement toolkit concepts.
b. One face to face workshop per state will be held at Extension InService trainings and repeated at a minimum of one market manager workshop per state. Participants will come away with knowledge of current shopping trends and ways to increase customer counts at farmers markets and build farm sales within those markets. Extension Educators and other Ag Service Providers will be encouraged to work one-on-one with farmers and farmers’ market managers to educate and implement toolkit concepts.
c. Extension Educators and other Ag Service Providers participating in face-to-face workshops and webinars will receive access to the toolkit housed on the Federation website through email follow-up and promotion. As part of the access to the toolkit, Educators and Ag Service providers will also receive attendance records and evaluation forms to use at their own training events and provide to project partners for follow-up.
d. Host a series of webinars for farmers market manager, extension educators and farm service agencies and farmers to showcase elements of the toolkit. the Series will feature markets where the elements have been successfully implemented, giving detail to attendees for implementation in their own markets.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
130
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
152
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2020
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
March 31, 2021
Accomplishments:

The Pandemic has eliminated all face to face meetings. Any meetings, workshops and conferences have all gone to a virtual platform. Some workshops have been postponed indefinitely, believing a virtual workshop cannot accomplish their goals without attendees being together and able to network with one another.

However, Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Ag In-Service conference did go online in November of 2020. An overview of the Consumer survey and Toolkit was presented on November 4, 2020. There were 42 Extension Educators in attendance. Post presentation, all were given the link to the white paper prepared by the team at the Dyson School, as well as links to access the Consumer Toolkit.

Beyond the Extension Ag In-service conferences, another series of webinars was scheduled that would dive deeper into each of the sections of the toolkit and utilize farmers market managers and farmers that had experience with the concepts, programs and practices described in the toolkit as aiding them to increase customer counts at farmers markets and build farm sales. The series began in November 2020 and will continue through March 2021. The goal of the series is to 1) keep the toolkit in the minds of market managers, farmers and ag service providers who have spent the last several months concentrating on their businesses and markets surviving through the pandemic; and 2) to give detail that will ease the adoption of the practices, programs, and services to build a better market season for 2021.

 

Date

Session/Description

Attendance

11/10/2020

Marketing Strategies for Outreach - Marketing your market is important to success, but often a misunderstood concept. Learn how to develop a marketing plan that will reach your target audience and grow your customer base. Participants will come away with a comprehensive marketing plan and marketing checklist to help them keep on track with their marketing efforts.

29

12/3/2020

Market Programs that Build you Customer Base and Add Sales - Market programs can be effective ways to build a customer base. But they do create extra work. This session will help us to identify programs that will help build your market and enhance your market mission. We’ll learn how to plan and prepare for market programming, as well as evaluate its effectiveness.

20

12/15/2020

Identifying and Reaching Your Unique Customer - Does your market appeal to unique customer bases? This session will look at programs that identify a specific target audience, how they pulled the program together and the impacts it has had on their market.

24

1/12/2021

Marketing Integrity: Meeting Customer Expectations - Consumers support a farmers market because there is often an expectation that the product being displayed meets certain standards. During this session we’ll hear from two very different markets on how meet their customer’s expectations on product standards, product diversity and farm inspection.

20

1/26/2021

Lessons From the Field - Hear perspectives from farmers and vendors across NYS who participate in markets who made changes to their market operations based on recommendations in the toolkit and increased their market sales.

18

2/10/2021

Identifying & Overcoming Customer Obstacles - The toolkit identified obstacles to customers and proposed some potential solutions. This session will highlight both an urban and rural farmers market and initiatives that they implemented. Learn how they designed programs and services to meet the needs of their customers to encourage continued shopping.

18

These sessions were all recorded, allowing Extension Educators, Farmers Market Managers, farmers and other farm service providers to view the webinars post- presentation. This greatly increased the reach, helping to prepare farmers markets and farmers for creating programs and policies to increase their customer reach and draw more customers to markets in 2021.

Milestone #7 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

ENGAGEMENT TO SUPPORT ACTION
7. 130 Extension Educators and other Ag Service providers will receive instructions to access the curriculum that includes contact information to project leaders for advice and assistance and a survey on how the curriculum will be utilized. The 130 service providers also receive a post training follow-up survey from each state partner to report on progress using curriculum and toolkit pose questions regarding the toolkit and its usage. Further follow-up is provided by each state partner, as necessary.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
130
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
500
Proposed Completion Date:
July 31, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
July 31, 2021
Accomplishments:

To access the written toolkit, people had to register their contact information so that we could do a follow up survey with them. We also distributed the toolkit at conferences. A total of over 500 registered and/or received copies of the toolkit. We were then able to evaluate their perceptions of the toolkit and determine how they planned to use the information:

  • Assist market managers to implement concepts and programs in the toolkit
  • Provide training to farmers markets and farmers on the information in the toolkit
  • Implement suggested programs and concepts in their own market
  • Implement toolkit suggestions on their own farm

Overwhelmingly, survey responses said they had not yet used the toolkit and the reasons stated were COVID meant they could not implement programs, trainings or services as a result of COVID restrictions. Some responses indicated that their market had to close as a result of COVID.

 

Milestone #8 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

VERIFICATION
8. Evaluation of toolkit: Throughout the project, the 6 evaluation team members will assess the impact the toolkit (designed based on survey results) has on customer counts at farmers markets and farm sales, by collecting data about customer counts and weekly farm sales pre-project, and again in follow-up after use of the toolkit.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
6
Actual number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who participated:
6
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
July 31, 2021
Accomplishments:

With markets under severe COVID restrictions in 2020, leading into the start of the 2021 season, customer counts and farmer sales data was not collected. It would be unfair to compare pre Toolkit data to that during COVID. Over a series of meetings with market managers we heard that customer counts were down, however sales for farmers were up. People were appreciative of being able to shop in an open air setting, and Covid guidelines for farmers markets was much more intense that at grocery stores. Some examples of these guidelines follow:

  • Only food sellers were allowed to participate, excluding prepared food.
  • Customers were limited to only one shopper per family
  • Limited numbers of shoppers were allowed in the market at any one time to maintain social distancing
  • Children and pets were excluded from participation
  • No social, education or entertainment events were allowed at the markets.
  • Hand sanitizers are to be available at farmer booths as well as throughout the market for customer use
  • Everyone, customers, farmers and market staff, was required to wear face masks or face shields at all times

This level of care and detail earned the respect and trust of customers and they repaid by becoming very loyal shoppers.

Once grocery stores began to show empty shelves, customers learned a greater appreciation for local food. While many foods were difficult to find in a supermarket, local farmers had a great supply at the farmers market. Local meat producers, egg farmers, as well as produce farmers rarely had shortages and enjoyed great sales as customers learned that markets were fully stocked.

The only markets that did not experience this resurgence were those set in business districts. Many businesses and offices were not staffed, but were using remote working to conduct business. There simply wasn't the population to shop at those markets located in business districts.

The evaluation team struggled to maintain customer counts and gave up trying to collect farm sales data during the pandemic. Their attention was focused on maintaining a safe environment for their customers, farmers and staff. Also, since COVID guidelines eliminated their opportunity to add new programs and services, there would be no post project sales data for comparison purposes. 

Milestone #9 (click to expand/collapse)
What beneficiaries do and learn:

9. 75 Extension Educators and other Ag Service providers respond to evaluation surveys administered by the project partners in each state to report how the toolkit was utilized and the results of implementing any parts of the toolkit. Data collected will include the number of trainings held and the numbers of farmers and market managers participating in those trainings, as well as needs for continued working with markets and farmers to grow customer participation and farm sales.

Proposed number of agriculture service provider beneficiaries who will participate:
75
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2021
Status:
Completed
Date Completed:
July 31, 2021
Accomplishments:

Unfortunately, COVID once again made it difficult for markets to utilize the lessons of the webinar series and toolkit. Many markets were able to reinstate some of the programs they conducted pre-pandemic. But were staff challenged to add new programs and services.

However, one section was put into widespread use during COVID – the online farmers market. Many markets started usage for online markets, sometimes as the only way to sell products, others were using online marketplaces as a way to continue sales to people who could not attend markets, whether they were immunocompromised or reluctant to risk being exposed to COVID. There were a number of established online marketplaces that were used, including:

  • Shopify
  • Local Food Marketplace
  • What’s Good
  • Local Line
  • Eat From Farms

Markets using online marketplaces were not part of the project evaluation team. However, anecdotally, we know that these platforms were highly effective at getting farmers products to consumers.

  • One farmers market noted that their customer based soared from 30 customers to over 400 within the first month. Others noted that the sales were very high through the online markets throughout the 2020 season.
  • One farmers market noted that they had to add staff to collect, collate and distribute farm products as the number of sales soared throughout the summer of 2020.
  • Several markets chose to publicize individual farmers online shops rather than develop their own.
  • Several markets, such as Down to Earth Farmers Markets and Cooperstown Farmers Market found their online markets were successful enough to continue operation throughout 2021 even though consumers were welcome back to markets to shop face-to-face.
  • One farmers market opened their online market pre-season to get people used to online shopping and managed a touch free distribution method. At the pickup site, cars would pull up, hold a sign in their window with their name and open their trunks. Market staff and volunteers placed their collated orders in the trunk for them. Within 4 weeks of opening the online market, their sales grow to over 400 transactions in per week.

The main drawback to online markets, other than the increased staffing and organizational efforts, was that USDA was not allowing the use of SNAP benefits in an online marketplace. Many markets found ways to work around this, by allowing SNAP customers to order goods and then pay for them at pick up so that they could still use their benefits.

A webinar held on using online farmers markets found that a number of the markets instituting online platforms to get through COVID, planned to continue with the online shopping option as they were finding this helped to reach consumers who liked the convenience of 24/7 shopping and appreciated having access to local foods. 

This push for online farmers markets during COVID helped to convince USDA that online SNAP was greatly needed and would increase sales for farmers as well as give access to healthy foods to SNAP consumers in ways that were currently lacking.

Rather than a survey of attendees, we held a discussion on the value of the toolkit during a zoom networking meeting, with 72 markets present. Many were skeptical given the struggles of just keeping markets operating through COVID. However, the overall impression was that the toolkit would provide valuable information, once they felt that they were free of the pandemic and would be able to regain normal operations. Then the need for retaining the customers that used markets during the pandemic would be critical. We encouraged farmers market managers to retain their access to the toolkit as it would still be valuable when we can finally get past COVID. 

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:

13 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
12 Online trainings
12 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participants in the project’s educational activities:

95 Extension
3 Researchers
3 Nonprofit
70 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
187 Others
123 Farmers
8 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

Learning Outcomes

Key areas in which the service providers (and farmers if indicated above) reported a change in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness::

COVID upended the opportunity for implementing changes. Instead we increased the educational opportunities to be sure that market managers, farmers and farm service providers would come back to the Toolkit with the intention of making changes to their market and farm operations based on information learned through the project, once COVID allowed.

However, we did survey those who downloaded the toolkit. Service providers were mainly interested in learning more so that they could help farmers markets and individual farmers with both group trainings and one-on-one assistance. While this has yet to occur, due to the pandemic, we anticipate that we will see these trainings and assistance once we are able to return to in person work.

The market managers who downloaded the toolkit were interested in learning new strategies to grow their customer base. While we did see a bit of action on this, mainly with online farmers markets, this was primarily in response to the pandemic rather than a result of the toolkit.

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance Target Outcomes - Service Providers

Target #1

Target: number of service providers who will take action to educate/advise farmers:
300
Target: actions the service providers will take:

1. 75 Extension Educators and Ag service providers will prepare 200 farmers’ market managers and 350 farmers, through trainings and one-on-one support, to elevate the market’s position within their local food system; through training workshops and one-on-one consultations, utilizing a toolkit of operational templates, business and marketing strategies.

Target: number of farmers the service providers will educate/advise:
350
Verified: number of service providers who reported taking actions to educate/advice farmers:
95
Verified: number of farmers the service providers reported educating/advising through their actions:
419
Verified: amount of production these farmers manage:

The farmers markets that were educated included markets with as few as 2 farmers and as many as 250. The farms ranged from those existing on as little as 2 acres of rented land to multi-generational farms with well over 100 acres.

Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:
  • 14 Webinars/talks/presentations
95 Total number of agricultural service provider participants who used knowledge and skills learned through this project (or incorporated project materials) in their educational activities, services, information products and/or tools for farmers
419 Farmers reached through participant's programs
Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

As noted throughout, COVID upended the project. As the educational piece of the project was completed, COVID hit and markets were under strict COVID guidelines and unable to implement new programs and strategies, with the exception of adding an online farmers market to help keep consumers in touch with local farmers. Because COVID was so pervasive through every part of life, service providers were not in a position to do workshops, nor help with new strategies for market managers and farmers to implement. The focus was, instead, on getting each market and farm up to speed on operating as best they could under COVID restrictions. 

We did get evaluations of the toolkit on those who downloaded the document, over 500 farmers market managers, farmers and service providers. Their comments included:

From a Market Manager:

“You are way ahead of me and I am grateful for all the help you give.  Our hardest challenge is to get the "leaders" of our community to support us.  Keep up with the data.  It truly helps.”

 

From a Market Manager:

“Continuing with related trainings - the topics never go out of style and need to be revisited regularly to keep pace with market trends, etc. COVID re-wrote everyone's playbook this year, so investing time and resources on the "basics" is vitally important.”

From an Extension Educator in the Midwest:

“We’re pursuing programming that make markets themselves profitable without having to always beg for money. On the vendor side, we’re also laser focused on vendor profitability- product pricing.“

 

Performance Target Outcomes - Farmers

Target #1

Target: number of farmers who will make a change/adopt of practice:
150
Target: the change or adoption the farmers will make:
Six farmers markets will implement aspects of the toolkit and increase participation by an average of 100 customers per week and 150 farmers increase sales by an average of $250 per week above pre-project levels.
Target: total size/scale of farmers these farmers manage:
not verified
Verified: number of farmers who made a change/adopted a practice:

0
Verified: size/scale of farms these farmers manage:

none verified
Performance target outcome for farmers narrative:

Because the scope of the project was changed from verifying changes made to maintaining the educational process for keeping the need and suggestions for change in the front of minds of market managers, farmers and service providers, there were no changes expected and verified within the time frame of the project.

Additional Project Outcomes

Success stories:

The Oneida County Public Market was a prime example of a market that chose to implement programs that would encourage people to come out to the market. They organized and operated the Power of Produce (POP) Kids Club at the market. Pre-Covid, the kids enrolled in the program continued to grow. But with the summer of 2020, this program was against state guidelines and could not operate. The 2021 season was about rebuilding the program and ensuring that parents felt safe allowing their children to participate. So the program is in the building phase.

They also added additional programs designed to bring in unique customers. To build their SNAP customer base, the market added SNAP tours through the market, led by SNAP-Ed educators. This encouraged SNAP customers that are unused to the process of using SNAP dollars at the market and, perhaps, intimidated by the face-to-face interactions with farmers. The tour welcomed SNAP customers to the market, showed them the process of using tokens to shop at the market, and introduced them to the farmers and helped them to make conversations with farmers about their products. The tours were very successful and helped SNAP sales increase by 48% in 2021 over previous years.

Another program implemented in 2021 was a Smoothie Bike. This apparatus is a fixed position bike with a blender attached. As the bike is peddled, it operates the blender. The goal is to teach nutrition by using the blender to prepare healthy snacks, to encourage physical activity and allow people to enjoy their experience at the market.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

The educational approaches were working fine and we were getting some good reviews of the Toolkit and webinar series. But once COVID hit, the rest of the project was upended. Markets and farmers were not able to implement new programs or services that would help them reach new customers as guidelines of operating during Covid prevented this. But market managers and farmers were focused on their efforts to keep the markets operational and safe, which was all-consuming. Farmers were stressed at working at markets where they were under constant potential exposure to COVID but did so to maintain their farm and families. Adding new concepts and programs was just not something that had the time nor gumption to take on.

We hope to see markets utilizing the toolkit post-project and achieving the results that would bring new customers to market and bring additional profits to their participating farmers.

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.