Let’s get this out of the way, first:
- I am a small farmer, operating on 40-ish acres in Virginia’s Northern Neck.
- I am not paid by, in hock to, in league with, or particularly happy with Big Agriculture. I’m just a guy who’s been in the small-sustainable farming business long enough to understand that the model is fatally flawed, and mature enough to say it out loud.
- To my friends who run and staff farmers markets: This essay is hard on farmers markets. It’s not because I don’t love you, but because I’m describing how restorative agriculture needs to evolve in order to compete without sacrificing its values.
I recently found myself with the free time to do some simple math. One of the larger farmers markets I participate in has about 100 vendors. I’m one of the mid-sized operations that sells there, and I’m paying about $1,000 a year in fees to participate in the market. I’m also devoting about 250 hours a year in staffing and prep time (call it $3,000), and about $650 in fuel getting to and from the market, plus another $1,200 in wear and tear on my vehicles.
Altogether, then, I’m paying $5,850 to participate in a large farmers market.
It’s pretty safe to assume that the costs of the other 99 vendors are similar. We’re shelling out a combined $585,000 to participate in just one market. Most of us participate in at least two markets, so let’s double the figure to $1.17 million, then round down to $1 million just to be conservative.
A $1 million-plus annual operating budget could comfortably lease, service, and staff a large urban brick-and-mortar market that’s open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round.
Instead, we spend it on a pop-up market that’s open just half the year (in my neck of the woods), for two days a week (remember, two markets), four hours at a time. And it’s probably outdoors — where rain, excessive heat, or a cold…