More Farmers Markets means more competition and lower profit for owners

The burgeoning popularity of farmers markets nationwide coincides with a push from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and some high-level lobbying.

USDA officials will spend roughly $10 million on its Farmers Market Promotion Program this fiscal year, up from $9.2 million last year and $4.3 million in 2010.

Launched in 2002 during the administration of President George W. Bush, the program has an advocate in current White House occupant Michelle Obama. Farmers markets further the first lady's efforts to encourage healthful eating and the widespread availability of nutritious, affordable food.

While she has specifically called for improved food access in poor neighborhoods, Obama endorsed and helped christen a weekly farmers market near the White House in 2009.

Sam Kass, assistant White House chef and a senior policy adviser for the administration's Healthy Food Initiative, calls farmers markets "a beautiful way to connect farmers" to consumers.

"We've seen time and time again in taking kids to farmers markets that it really opens up their eyes to where their food comes from," he said. "They get curious and more open to trying new foods. So I think they're just absolutely essential."

The number of markets has grown from 1,755 in 1994 to 7,175 at the USDA's last count in 2011.

But that growth can have its downside for vendors: more competition and lower profits.

So says Chris Hoge, who owns Chris' Marketplace and sells his seafood products -- including crab cakes praised by Gourmet and Saveur magazines -- at the farmers market near the White House and at several others in Maryland and Virginia.

"Now farmers markets are in every neighborhood" in and near the District of Columbia, he said. "You can go to one tomorrow or the next day, all within three or four miles. It's kind of like having a grocery store."

With more vendors competing on more days, and consumers limiting their spending, Hoge said other farmers or producers "wind up taking inventory home."

"All my markets are down," Hoge added. "Everybody's saying the same thing."

Stacy Miller acknowledged she has heard "on a limited basis, stories along those lines."

Miller heads the Farmers Market Coalition, a Virginia-based national organization with members in 48 states.

Such complaints tend to arise in heavily populated metropolitan areas, Miller said, where growth in the number and frequency of markets can create strain. With new markets opening, and an inconsistent customer base, farmers and producers "feel compelled to sell at four or five markets instead of two" to earn the same amount of money. That takes time away from production.

Success depends on standing out, she added.

"Certainly, markets and producers that are proactive in terms of quality and food safety are going to have a competitive edge," Miller said, suggesting steps such as informing customers of a safety plan or certification in good agricultural practices.

As for USDA spending, a new online program (http://www.usda.gov/maps/maps/kyfcompassmap.htm) offers data on various programs including farmers markets. "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass" is "a great tool for all kinds of transparency" in the department's programs, Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said.

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