- Farm Business Management: market study, marketing management
- Sustainable Communities: community development, local and regional food systems
“Sustaining Farmers Markets that Serve Low-income Consumers” was designed to explore the conditions and constraints that farmers face when participating in farmers markets in low-income areas. The recent proliferation of farmers markets and subsequent competition for farmers has created a number of sustainability challenges for farmers markets located in these areas including high rates of vendor turnover and overall lack of vendor commitment. The goal of this research was to uncover farmers’ perspectives on their decision-making to inform market managers of key factors associated with (1) recruitment and retention of farmers for markets located in low-income areas and (2) farmer participation in on-site Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) redemption programs. Three low-income, urban areas were selected as case studies. Between 2010 and 2012, twenty-seven interviews were conducted with farmers selling at six different farmers markets, two markets in each of the three low-income areas. Five of these farmers markets had EBT programs in place. Three main themes emerged during this research. First, based on their experiences with EBT both at farmers markets that were research sites and in other markets, farmers have a positive attitude regarding EBT. Second, farmers have a positive attitude about EBT programs in farmers markets because they are simple and convenient. Third, farmers believe that when a farmers market accepts food assistance benefits it attracts new customers therefore expanding the market’s customer base. Many farmers indicated that EBT programs and the acceptance of a wide variety of food assistance benefits were essential for the sustainability of farmers markets in low-income areas.
A farmers market is a public and recurring assembly of farmers or their representatives selling directly to consumers food and products which they have produced themselves. In addition, the market may include a variety of vendors as determined by market management (MIFMA, 2011). Farmers markets are credited with providing a vast range of benefits from promoting small and mid-sized farm viability to strengthening communities (Abel et al., 1999; Ross, 2006). Considering these benefits and the growing popularity of locally grown foods, the six fold increase in the number of farmers markets across the country is not surprising (1,755 in 1994 to 7,175 in 2011) (USDA, 2012). The growth trend has been similar in Michigan with the number of farmers markets growing from 90 in 2001 to 280 in 2011 (MIFMA, 2012).
Along with this growth, however, have come challenges which tend to be more pronounced in low-income, urban areas. These markets often struggle with high rates of farmer turnover and general lack of vendor commitment (Alkon, 2008; Fisher, 1999). To mitigate these two issues, market organizers seek ways to expand a market’s customer base with the thought that increasing the number of shoppers will increase sales and lead farmers and vendors to more regularly participate in these markets. Research indicates this assumption is true. The number of customers present has a significant positive influence on vendor participation in a farmers market (Hofmann et al., 2009). One way to increase the customer base is through improved access which is where Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), as a mechanism of access, becomes important. EBT is an electronic system that allows a recipient of food assistance benefits to authorize the transfer of his or her government benefits from a federal account to a retailer’s account, such as a farmers market (Montri et al., 2011).
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) transitioned from paper coupons to EBT between the early 1990s and mid 2000s. During this time, redemptions in farmers markets dropped dramatically. One reason is because farmers markets as open-air venues often do not have electricity or access to a landline telephone line necessary to use the technology provided by each state’s EBT contractor. Additionally, farmers markets have had to create a different model to accept SNAP through alternative redemption systems thus developing more complex systems that require the capacity to offer such a program. At the practitioner level, market organizers, managers and policy makers have published how-to guides and case study reports to implement EBT programs at farmers markets (e.g. Montri et al, 2011; Wasserman et al., 2010). By contrast, the peer-reviewed literature has primarily focused on consumers specifically addressing nutrition education and the impacts of food assistance programs (Anliker et al., 1992; Balsam et al., 1994; Dollahite et al., 2005; Johnson et al., 2004; Just and Weniger, 1997). Nevertheless, little is known about farmer experiences with EBT programs at farmers markets. Gaining a better understanding of farmer perceptions and preferences will help researchers and practitioners develop programs that work for farmers and contribute to the overall sustainability of farmers markets.
The purpose of this project was to explore the conditions and constraints that farmers face when participating in farmers markets in low-income areas. This research sought to uncover farmers’ perspectives on this experience. It aims to inform market managers of the key factors involved in (1) recruiting and retaining farmers for markets located in low-income areas and (2) improving farmer participation in Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) programs managed by farmers markets.