A farmers market is a market for farmers â unless it isnât.
Precisely what constitutes a farmers market â and who should and should not use the term to promote and sell fruits, vegetables and other fresh products â is a growing debate across the food industry.
Produce on display at the Dallas Farmers Market is a mixed bag of local, wholesale and retail during the winter months.
The discussion intensified in recent months after two of the biggest U.S. grocery chains, Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway Inc., and Albertsons, a unit of Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Supervalu Inc., hung âfarmers marketâ signs and banners at stores in the Pacific Northwest to promote fresh produce.
Some farmers markets groups have a problem with that, saying large corporations shouldnât be moving in on whatâs traditionally been a means for small- to medium-sized growers to sell directly to consumers in their geographic vicinity.
âWe are seeing increasing interest on the part of large retailers trying to align themselves with farmers markets,â said Stacy Miller, executive director of Cockeysville, Md.-based Farmers Market Coalition.
There have been âa lot of complaints coming to us where people really feel the integrity of farmers market is being compromised by these efforts,â she said.
âThere is certainly a risk of co-opting the term âfarmers marketââ and potentially misleading consumers, Miller said.
Much like the debate over what is and isnât âlocally grown,â growers, shippers and retailers are wrangling over definitions and proper use of farmers markets terminology as the popularity of the formats surged in recent years.
Nationwide, there are 6,132 operational farmers markets this year, up 16% from 2009 and more than triple the number during the mid-1990s, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures released in August.
Farmers markets generated more than $1 billion in revenue in 2005, the most-recent year with available sales data.
At the federal level, the USDA provides information on starting and running farmers markets but doesnât regulate the business or provide a specific definition.
Thatâs left it to states or state farmers market organizations to add clarity. Californiaâs agriculture department certifies farmers markets, performing checks to ensure that growers are selling their own crops.
The Washington State Farmers Market Association, Suquamish, says the markets should include at least five growers selling their own products.
In May, the Farmers Market Coalition approved a baseline that focuses on the âmission of a farmers market rather than the specific logistics.â
A farmers market, according to the coalition, âoperates multiple times per year and is organized for the purpose of facilitating personal connections that create mutual benefits for local farmers, shoppers and communities.â
The coalitionâs objective is to âensure that the farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced,â according to the statement.
Still, that hasnât prevented some grocery chains from trying to latch on to the popularity of farmers markets.
Stung by summerâs criticism
In June, Safeway posted âFarmers Marketâ signs above fresh produce displays in front of several stores in the Seattle area, and then changed the wording to âOutdoor Marketâ after local farmers market groups complained, the Wall Street Journal reported in September.
Over Labor Day weekend, Albertsons placed âFarmers Marketâ signs next to produce stands at about 200 stores in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, prompting complaints from the same groups, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Albertsons spokeswoman Lilia Rodriguez said the company will not use the term âfarmers marketâ in future promotions but will continue to promote locally grown produce.
âWe will continue to do what we always do â offer our customers the freshest and best produce products during peak seasons from all of our sources, including local product that is grown within our own communities,â Rodriguez said. âWe include local growers because we want to support our local economy and the community.â
A Safeway spokeswoman said the company has no plans to use the term âfarmers marketâ for fresh produce promotions at its stores. A Supervalu spokesman didnât respond to a message.
Representatives with The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, the largest U.S. grocery chain, also didnât respond to messages.
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said retailers are perfectly within their rights to use âfarmers marketâ in their promotions, noting that many fresh vegetables available at grocery stores come from local growers anyway.
The associationâs more than 3,000 members include large U.S. food retailers.
âThereâs a lot of variability in whatâs considered a farmers market,â Means said. Additionally, retailers âhave been using a farmers market approach as long as Iâve been going to grocery stores. Itâs a legitimate marketing tactic.â