Farmers' markets have been around for decades, but they have increased in popularity with a little help from marketing and technology — consumers aim to buy local and meet those growing their food, and farmers look to expand their reach into the community.
With the advent of the Connecticut Farmers' Market Trail and the new social network for farmers' markets called Fresh Nation, farmers' markets are meeting today's consumers' needs through a business model that seems to work well for many of the state's farmers.
The number of farmers' markets has increased steadily over the years, according to Linda Piotrowicz of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. Up from 22 certified farmers' markets in the state in 1986, to 129 this year, the markets have increased tremendously in popularity among both producers and consumers in recent years.
"No matter what day of the week it is or where you happen to be in the state, there is a market at which to shop," Piotrowicz said.
Winter Caplanson, executive director of Bridges Healthy Cooking School, a non-profit organization that oversees the Coventry Regional Farmers' Market and The Farmers' Market Trail, said there's a simple reason why farmers' markets have grown in popularity.
"People are yearning for something real, and they find it at farmers' markets," Caplanson said. "Farmers' markets are about the most authentic slice of local culture and most trustworthy of business patrons can find. These are places where one can meet the people who grow and make their food, talk to them about their farming methods, hear the stories of each crop, especially the delicate and flavorful heirloom and ethnic varieties that are rarely found in supermarkets."
Farmers' markets provide for great diversity of products, according to Piotrowicz.
"There are unusual varieties — including an increasing number of heirlooms — shapes, and colors from which to choose," Piotrowicz said. "Many markets now offer a wide assortment of Connecticut Grown products that include not only fruits and vegetables, but also locally-raised meat, poultry, cheese and other dairy, honey, maple syrup and sugar, and more."
Farmers' markets differ from typical large wholesale/retail channels in that their products need not be uniform. Such channels also require extended shelf life, since the product is rarely sold the day it is harvested.
Caplanson, whose Farmers' Market Trail represents a new way to market the region's farmers' markets as linchpins for tourism, said farmers' markets represent a good business model for farmers.
"Farmers' markets offer a highly-affordable direct-marketing opportunity for producers," she said. "At an average vendor fee of about $12 a day, producers vending at a popular farmers' market can often tap into sales volumes that dwarf what they would encounter at a much more costly brick-and-mortar location, and enjoy more profit than they would selling wholesale."
The state's busiest markets draw thousands of visitors in just a few hours, and are great places for vendors to make connections, sample products, and cross-promote with other successful farms and small, independent businesses, she said.
Rodger Phillips, who manages a small urban farm called Grow Hartford for the Hartford Food System, participates in two farmers markets in Hartford, as well as the Coventry Regional Farmers' Market. He said being involved in farmers' markets has been a good business decision for him.
"I have sold a number of our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares to customers I have met at market," he said. "Many chefs interested in the 'Farm to Table' movement also frequent Farmers' Markets, and we have had a good experience gaining new customers that way."
Lost Acres Orchard in North Granby signed on to participate in the East Granby Farmers' Market last year, the market's first year of operation. Lost Acres' primary crops, apples and peaches, come later in the season, but their early season booth is stocked with baked goods, jams and jellies, local honey and other goodies.
"This market works for us," said Lost Acres' Susan Accetura. "Our farm store is way up in the boonies, and most of our business is in the fall. We get a lot of new customers (at the market), and it gets us out there. We almost prefer being part of one that's not necessarily right in our town, but still close enough that people will still come see us."
Because the farm bakes everything fresh for the market, Lost Acres has decided participating in one market is enough. And it's worth it.
"It's a boost to our sales for sure," Accetura said. "We do more at the farmers' market than we would up at the shop on a Wednesday (in the summer)."
Farmers shopping for a market to participate in look for ones that are organized, run well, and offer a wide variety of goods to lure shoppers.
"I think healthy competition is good," Accetura said. "I think you're going to step it up and do what you can to improve yourself (if the market has two vendors selling the same produce)."
Farmers' market customers tend to be loyal, according to Dennis Pierce, director of dining services at the University of Connecticut, which has instituted many initiatives aimed at offering more locally-grown foods on campus.
"It has a lot to do with community," Pierce said. "You see the same people there every day. They carry on conversations with the farmers, and the farmers offer suggestions on recipes and tell them what (crops) are coming up. People put special orders in."
That sense of community is what Caplanson is trying to capitalize on with the Farmers' Market Trail. The 10 markets included on the trail are some of the most popular in the state, offering both a wide array of goods and products, and free activities and entertainment to make them a destination unto themselves.
Caplanson said farmers' markets are for everyone.
"Farmers' markets are a great cultural equalizer," she said. "Top chefs shop here, families with young children, couple staying at their summer houses, elderly people receiving government food benefits, the hipsters, everyone. These are places you feel better when you leave than when you arrived. Malls don't have that effect, or Stop & Shop."