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

Progress 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

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:

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 will conduct 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 analyze the surveys to determine trends, preferences and needs of “today’s” local food shoppers. Using the survey results, publications will be prepared for journals and give Extension, market managers and farmers a better understanding of current customer buying trends. Finally, the project team will use 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
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 will go on the Farmers Market Federation of NY website, http://www.nyfarmersmarket.com/sare-consumer-survey/ behind a wall. To access the toolkit, participants will need to register with complete contact information, role they play with farmers markets, and anticipated use of the toolkit. This information will be utilized for follow up to learn the outcomes of using the toolkit.

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 listserves, 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

 

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
Proposed Completion Date:
March 31, 2020
Status:
In Progress
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.

 

The series topics include:

  • 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
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
Proposed Completion Date:
May 31, 2020
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Not yet begun

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
Proposed Completion Date:
February 28, 2021
Status:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Not yet begun

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:
In Progress
Accomplishments:

Not yet begun

Milestone Activities and Participation Summary

Educational activities and events conducted by the project team:

Beneficiaries who participated in the project’s educational activities and events:

3 Extension
3 Researchers
3 Nonprofit
8 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities

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
Activities for farmers conducted by service providers:
  • 1 Published press articles/newsletters
  • 18 Webinars/talks/presentations

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.
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.