Locally-grown produce is in demand, and farmers markets are extending selling seasons across the U.S. As locavores seek regionally produced food year-round, the number of winter markets increased 38 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Traditionally, patrons who shop at farmers markets have paid for produce using cash or market tokens. That is now changing, as more farmers markets prod vendors to accept credit cards at their booths. For example, shoppers will soon pay a $2.50 fee for the privilege of using market tokens at the Portland Farmer’s Market. According to market’s 2013 Vendor Handbook [PDF], vendors are urged to “gain independence with their sales” via payment technology that “connects your cell phone to a merchant account, allowing you to accept debit/credit cards at your booth.”
When you put those two trends together — year round markets and the growth in mobile payments — the local farmers market suddenly becomes a much more attractive option. The GoPayment Blog recently spoke to Gwen Sparks, public affairs manager at the USDA, about the rise of off-season farmers markets.
GoPayment: What trends do you see in year-round farmers markets?
Sparks: More farmers markets have been extending their operations into the months of November through March. Markets that operate for one or more days between November and March fall within the USDA National Farmers Market Directory’s definition of a “winter market.”
Market produce vendors have been utilizing various means of season extension, such as hoop houses, high tunnels, and greenhouse production to provide fresh local produce to their customers for more months of the year. This allows market vendors to build stronger relationships with customers, retaining and bolstering their customer base.
How do restaurants fit into the picture?
Restaurants, like individual customers, also benefit from the extended season adopted by many farmers market vendors. Restaurants offering fresh local produce can do so for more months of the year, further differentiating their establishments, while retaining customers who prefer to patronize restaurants offering fresh, locally grown produce. Farm-product vendors benefit by building stronger relationships with restaurateurs.
What are the challenges in off-season operations?
[One challenge] is providing the customers with enough product mix for them to shop at the farmers markets. The variety of produce that farmers may have available can depend on the region, and whether they are using alternative growing methods to extend their growing season during winter months. Consumers sometimes shop at winter markets looking to purchase local produce that they find at summer markets. So, part of the task may be helping consumers to understand what is available locally and seasonally.
What types of produce or products keep those markets open and entice customers to shop in colder seasons?
The types of produce available are usually very specific to the region and the farm vendors that sell at a particular market. If greenhouse production is used, then the products may be very similar year-round. During the winter market season, vendors may sell a variety of value-added products: canned fruits, jams and jellies, preserves, sauces, and cider, for example. There also may be an increased number of bakers, craft vendors, and vendors offering prepared foods in an effort to build a repeat customer base of shoppers.