This Week in The Columbia Paper: "Gardening with Native Plants"
draws from our ongoing Gardening with Native Plants workshop in FEP's
next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper, August, 19,
Farms and Markets: Ongoing Research & Historical Background
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.
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
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
Country shipping points or local markets
New York City – average three farmers’ markets
New York City – large wholesale market
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
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
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
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 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.