The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 9: Aug. 19, 2010

KYPP Nugget: Farm Stands and Markets

This Week in The Columbia Paper: "Gardening with Native Plants"
Claudia draws from our ongoing Gardening with Native Plants workshop in FEP's next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper, August, 19, 2010. 

Farms and Markets: Ongoing Research & Historical Background
Bryant Farms
The Bryant Farms farm stand in Claverack has been around for over 60 years, and has just recently been refurbished by the latest generation of the family to run the farm.

As this column conveys, the present flurry of farmers' markets, farm stands, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, and other local food activity represents a vital part of our local food system with strong historic roots.

This is why we are taking a close look this growing season at these direct marketing venues as part of a Columbia County Community Food Assessment (an effort to gather research on all aspect's of the Columbia County food system with the goal of identifying needs, opportunities, and ways to strengthen it).

One aspect of this research involves conducting farmers' market "dot surveys" at all nine of the farmers' markets in Columbia County.  As you'll see below, we have tried to make these dot surveys a fun and interactive way to get feedback from farmers' market patrons, and learn more about who is shopping at farmers' markets, and what role they are playing in the food system and for local producers.

dot survey
FEP Intern Amanda assists with the Farmers' Market Dot Survey at the Chatham Farmers' Market

Other research projects include a study of the availability of fresh and local food in different shopping venues in the County, and interviews with producers, farm stand owners, farmers' market managers and other key players in the local food system.  Stay tuned for the results of these and other Community Food Assessment research projects this fall and winter.

Gleanings from a 1939 Study on Roadside (Farm) Stands – Available in the FEP Reading Room

We were fascinated to recently discover a hand-typed 1939 “Roadside Market Survey” of New York State in a large red bound collection of Cornell papers.

Though written over 70 years ago when the country had just emerged from the Great Depression, the report highlights some very familiar problems that farmers still face, such as the high cost of marketing/distribution (including freight, labor, taxes, space fees, etc.) relative to the price received by the farmer.  Author H.S. Kahne writes  “As long as this is the case, one of the chief problems of the farmer will be that of reducing his marketing costs to the minimum so that he may get as much as possible of the consumer’s dollar” (p. 2).

Just as many Hudson Valley farmers today have turned to directly marketing their products to consumers in order to get a higher percentage of the consumer dollar and thus remain viable, many area farmers in the 1930s were also reaping the benefits of direct marketing, and carefully balancing factors like the volumes of sales possible (i.e. in NYC markets) with the full costs of getting the goods to those markets.

The report cites a fascinating study of 267 growers who sold at the three New York City farmers’ markets during the 1933-1934 season, among other locations.  The study looked at where these farmers received the biggest returns.  The table below is from that study, and lays out the higher returns that direct marketing was giving these farmers: selling directly at the farm they were receiving an impressive 95.2% of the consumer dollar; while at the local markets they were receiving 88.6%, followed by an average of 74.9% at the farmers’ markets in New York City.  All of this compares quite favorably to the wholesale return of 64.7%, and helps show why direct marketing was a good choice for those farmers.  On average, each farm selling at the three NYC farmers' markets grossed $7,793 during the 1933-1934 season.

Table 1: Net Returns and Costs of Marketing Per Ton of Produce, Related to Place of Sale, As Reported by 267 Grower-Patrons of the Harlem, Willabout, and Gansevoort Farmers' Markets, 1933-1934 Season
Place of Sale Costs of marketing per ton Net return to grower as a percentage of gross sales
At Farm $1.51 95.2%
Country shipping points or local markets $3.64 88.6%
New York City – average three farmers’ markets $7.36 74.9%
New York City – large wholesale market $11.40 64.7%
Yet part of the point of Kahne's report, is that the returns received at the New York City farmers’ markets varied greatly depending on the size of the loads.  Those who were able to produce enough (or work with other farmers) to bring 7-10 tons to the farmers’ market, could keep their marketing/distribution costs to a low 13.5 percent of gross sales, and thus retain 86.5% of the consumer dollar.  By contrast, those whose average loads were less than a ton, had very high marketing/distribution costs of 73.5% of gross sales, and thus were only retaining 26.5% of the consumer dollar. 

It is for this reason that the author highlights roadside (farm) stands as one way for smaller producers to also get some of the benefits of low marketing costs when they are too small to take advantage of these benefits at farmers’ markets. 

In the Roadside Market Survey conducted in 1937, roadside markets sampled in three locations in the Hudson Valley (the largest of which was in Columbia County) on average made $1871 for the season, which lasted about 18 weeks.  It is interesting that much like many farm stands today, they also included products they didn't grow themselves - these accounted for 29% of the Hudson Valley farm stand sales in the study. 

While the circumstances of agriculture in the County has undoubtedly changed greatly in the 70 years since Kahle's report was written, it is interesting that some of the same direct marketing strategies that farmers used then, are flourishing now.  How do the choices Hudson Valley farmers make today in marketing their products compare to those made 70 years ago, I wonder, and are there any insights to be learned?

If you are interested in delving more into the hand-typed pages of Kahne's report or any other FEP resources, consider stopping by.
7/15 column: Farms and Markets Blossom (full version)

by Anna Duhon

It’s easy to see the bountifulness of our local agricultural land in July.  With each passing week there seems to be some new profusion of local produce in every corner of the County.  I’ve been fortunate to witness this parade of the growing season through my current research into the food system in Columbia County, which has me traveling all around to farm stands, farmers’ markets and other local food venues.  A happy consequence of this work is that my refrigerator is stuffed to overflowing with delicious finds, from pints of cherry tomatoes to freshly made currant jam and logs of liverwurst.   

Behind this abundance of local produce, there are hundreds of farmers, as well as some new agricultural trends at work.  One of the most striking trends is the blossoming in recent years of small, diverse farms that, to a significant extent, depend on the direct marketing of their products to consumers through farmers’ markets, farm stands, community supported agriculture (CSA) shares, and other such “direct markets.”  Everywhere I go I meet farmers who reflect this trend; many have newly started farms, others have embraced new markets, and some have been at the forefront of this trend for decades. 

In this latter category, I had the great pleasure of getting to talk last week with Joe Gilbert at The Berry Farm, who seems always ready to show you the greenhouses and answer any questions you might have.  As I learned, The Berry Farm provides a good illustration of how things have changed in the past few decades.  Like many farm stands, the Berry Farm began small – just a temporary, seasonal stand in the early 1980s, while the farm’s main marketing was focused on New York City and selling wholesale.  Then, as Joe describes, he suddenly realized that people would buy more than just the usual hardy farm stand fare, and began to focus more and more on building up a diverse well-stocked, year-round farm stand to meet an increasing local demand for such offerings.  Eventually he abandoned the wholesale and New York City markets entirely, in favor of marketing all of his products directly at the farm.

So how big is this shift towards more direct marketing?  Just in the five year span between the 2002 and the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the number of farms in Columbia County increased from 498 to 554, while the number of farms marketing directly to consumers has gone up nearly 25% (to 125 farms), and the value of the agricultural products directly sold to consumers has almost doubled.  Yet these statistics are already becoming rapidly out of date. 

There may be no better way to realize the extent of new agricultural changes afoot, than to attempt to compile a complete list of all that is going on, as we are currently doing as part of our “Food Resource Mapping Project” (recently supported by a grant from the Berkshire Taconic Foundation’s Fund for Columbia County).  One quickly realizes that the food landscape is very dynamic, with new enterprises and markets popping up faster than one can count – though we keep trying.  There are at least nine farmers’ markets in Columbia County, three of them brand new this year, and all but two having started in the last five years.  And so far we have counted 60 farm stands in the County.

Though this proliferation of farms doing direct marketing is reflective of a new trend, it is in fact a very old idea at work, and one that seems to have waxed and waned multiple times in recent history.  Originally, of course, farmers’ markets were the first “marketplaces” in human societies all over the world, and in many parts of the world their central importance in provisioning a community’s food and providing the market for farmers has not changed.  These are vital markets woven into community life, where people might come each morning to get fresh ingredients for the evening meal, or travel all day to procure a week’s supply of food and hear the news.

Yet in our part of the world, recent trends in economics, technology, and culture have combined to drastically change the way food is marketed and consumed.  While most Northeastern cities had large central farmers’ markets that provided seasonal foods well into the 1800s, this began to shift in the late 19th century as refrigerated transport became possible – first with boxcars, then later with trucks.  Meanwhile expanding urban and suburban populations meant that more food was needed; yet farms were pushed farther and farther out of the city.

The advent in the 1920s of modern supermarkets that began to centralize the purchasing and distribution of goods through large warehouses further hastened the decline of farmers’ markets, as well as farms in general.  Small producers simply couldn’t meet the new price, volume, and delivery requirements.

Consumer culture changed as well.  In conjunction with the automobile and refrigeration, the supermarket ushered in a culture of “one-stop shopping” for produce trucked in from distant places, and the convenience of frozen food over fresh.  This culture only deepened in the post-World War II era of TV dinners and suburbia, and in fact the number of farmers’ markets plummeted throughout the country to as low as 100 in the early 1970s.  In less than a hundred years, they made the transition from being a vibrant center of urban culture to a novelty – as they still are for many today.

Even despite this overall trajectory, it is interesting to note that the hard economic times of the Great Depression actually spurred a return to direct marketing as part of the “self-help” efforts underway.  Farmers’ markets briefly increased, as did the phenomenon of rural roadside farm stands, newly made possible by the spread of the automobile.  In a  of New York published in 1939, author H.S. Kahle touted direct markets as a means for farmers to embrace an “economical way of marketing,” that reduced dependence on inflexible distribution costs “so that [the farmer] may get as much as possible of the consumer’s dollar.”  (For more on this report, see the background information at left)

It is still true that direct markets provide a unique way for small farms to survive in a global wholesale food system, and therefore for communities to have a diversity of fresh, local products that extend far beyond what is available in supermarkets, and may even be a better price.  Yet they also provide far more in terms of culture.  As Joe from The Berry Farm explained, direct markets provide the chance to reverse the TV dinner culture, one small step at a time.  And already farmers’ markets and farm stands offer rare social spaces for people from different parts of a community to meet, share, and learn from each other.  Farmers might share ideas or techniques with each other or listen to the health concerns of their customer; patrons might come to understand what 90-degree days mean for farmers, or run into neighbors they never see. 

Why might all this be important?  I think it is often in the in-between social spaces and moments that new ideas are hatched, bonds strengthened, and fruitful connections made as we expand our understanding of other people’s realities, the food we eat, and the place that we live.  So this is the great potential of farm stands and farmers’ markets – to become ever more inclusive and woven into the culture of individuals and communities.

The Berry Farm

The Berry Farm in Chatham, NY has grown from a small, seasonal farm stand in the early 1980s to the present year-round facility.


Brown, A.  2001.  Counting Farmers' Markets.  Geographical Review, 91 (4).

Hinrichs, C., Gillespie, G., and Feenstra, G. 2004. Social Learning and Innovation at Retail Farmers' Markets. Rural Sociology, 69 (1).

Kahle, H.S. 1939. Roadside Market Survey. New York Agricultural Experimental Station Cornell, A.E. Series 255-275.

Lyson, T. 2004. Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food and Community.  Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England.

Pyle, J.  1971.  Farmers' Markets in the United States:  Functional Anachronisms.  Geographic Review, 61 (2).

Roth, M.  1999.  Overview of Farm Direct Marketing Industry Trends.  Presented at the Agricultural Outlook Forum, 2/22/1999.