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With local food readily available, are farmers markets now out of date?

  • Larry Pletcher of Vegetable Ranch talks to customers at Concord’€™s Winter Farmers Market at Cole Gardens. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Saturday, February 18, 2017

New Hampshire’s farmers markets went through their first serious decline in sales last summer following years of expansion and growth, which has led some to question whether they need to become, for lack of a better term, a little less crunchy-granola and a little more MBA.

“It’s not a social meeting place, it’s a serious business,” argued Joan O’Connor, who manages the Tilton Winter Farmers Market, during a 90-minute workshop held Friday at the New Hampshire Farm and Forest Expo.

More than three dozen farmers and market managers showed up at the session to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the roughly 70 summer markets and 12 winter markets that operate in New Hampshire. The 90-minute brainstorming session covered such topics as publicity (almost nothing, it seems, beats an appearance on WMUR segment Cook’s Corner), the importance of consistency when luring customers, and how to deal with the hunger-abatement program called SNAP.

But the overriding theme was how changes in the state’s food scene are affecting the markets and their farmers.

“In August we saw a drop in attendance, a sharp drop. Manchester saw a 50 percent drop, Keene a very big drop, and the Seacoast markets,” Stevens said. “We thought (it was) the heat and the drought that stopped people from coming, but when the heat went away, they didn’t come back.”

“We may need to change the culture,” Stevens said.

A major difference for farmers markets these days is increasing competition from other local-agriculture outlets such as CSAs, farm stands and farm-to-table restaurants, not to mention traditional supermarkets which have begun putting local food into produce sections.

“At the grocery store they’re getting local food, they’re getting organic food,” O’Connor said. “It’s everywhere.”

Competition within the field is also an issue.

Noreen and Tim O’Connell of Butternut Farm in Milford shared a photo of that town’s farmers market three decades ago, when fewer than 10 summer markets existed in the state, and none existed in winter. People came from many miles around for the experience as well as the produce, but the explosion in markets since then has cannibalized sales as often as it has expanded them.

“Now farmers are going to different markets to make the same amount of money we used to get at one market,” Noreen O’Connell said.

The result has cut into the importance of these markets as part of the state’s resurgence of small and local agriculture.

Paul Franklin of Riverview Farm in Plainfield said that farmers markets were now less than five percent of his sales. He said he participates not so much for the income it generates but for the goodwill and publicity it fosters.

“We do it to get our name out there, as much as to rely on it for the bottom line,” he said.

Carole Soule of Miles Smith Farm in Loudon agreed.

“The Concord Farmers Market is fabulous,” she said, but otherwise spending time traveling to and from, and setting up at other markets may not be worth it.

Still, farmers markets can be an important source of income.

Keith Descoteaux of Still Seeking Farm in Gilmanton said that sales at various markets, particularly the two weekly markets in Laconia, generated roughly 80 percent of sales for his vegetable farm. He is among those organizing Gilmanton Own, an attempt to organize some 37 farms and artisans in Gilmanton, to create a sort of town-specific farmers market.

That may be the sort of change which the traditional farmers markets need to consider.

Other issues that came up involved ways to get farmers to show up consistently so that customers don’t face an unpleasant shortfall, the effectiveness of tools such as senior discounts and company wellness coupons, and how to attract a diversity of vendors to provide not just exotic high-margin foods but staples like bread and eggs.

Despite all the concerns, everybody agreed that the less tangible element of a sense of community is important in maintaining a market as well as attracting customers.

“Our best advocates are the people who come every week,” said one farmer.