A farmers market is a market for farmers — unless it isn’t.

Precisely what constitutes a farmers market — and who should and should not use the term to promote and sell fruits, vegetables and other fresh products — is a growing debate across the food industry.

Retailers use 'farmers market' signs and complaints fly

Pamela Riemenschneider

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 “farmers market” 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 shouldn’t be moving in on what’s traditionally been a means for small- to medium-sized growers to sell directly to consumers in their geographic vicinity.

Co-opted phrase

“We are seeing increasing interest on the part of large retailers trying to align themselves with farmers markets,” said Stacy Miller, executive director of Cockeysville, Md.-based Farmers Market Coalition.

There have been “a lot of complaints coming to us where people really feel the integrity of farmers market is being compromised by these efforts,” she said.

“There is certainly a risk of co-opting the term ‘farmers market’” and potentially misleading consumers, Miller said.

Much like the debate over what is and isn’t “locally grown,” 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 doesn’t regulate the business or provide a specific definition.

That’s left it to states or state farmers market organizations to add clarity. California’s 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 “mission of a farmers market rather than the specific logistics.”

A farmers market, according to the coalition, “operates multiple times per year and is organized for the purpose of facilitating personal connections that create mutual benefits for local farmers, shoppers and communities.”

The coalition’s objective is to “ensure that the farmers market consists principally of farms selling directly to the public products that the farms have produced,” according to the statement.

Still, that hasn’t prevented some grocery chains from trying to latch on to the popularity of farmers markets.

Stung by summer’s criticism

In June, Safeway posted “Farmers Market” signs above fresh produce displays in front of several stores in the Seattle area, and then changed the wording to “Outdoor Market” after local farmers market groups complained, the Wall Street Journal reported in September.

Over Labor Day weekend, Albertsons placed “Farmers Market” 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 “farmers market” in future promotions but will continue to promote locally grown produce.

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“We will continue to do what we always do — 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,” Rodriguez said. “We include local growers because we want to support our local economy and the community.”

A Safeway spokeswoman said the company has no plans to use the term “farmers market” for fresh produce promotions at its stores. A Supervalu spokesman didn’t respond to a message.

Representatives with The Kroger Co., Cincinnati, the largest U.S. grocery chain, also didn’t 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 “farmers market” in their promotions, noting that many fresh vegetables available at grocery stores come from local growers anyway.

The association’s more than 3,000 members include large U.S. food retailers.

“There’s a lot of variability in what’s considered a farmers market,” Means said. Additionally, retailers “have been using a farmers market approach as long as I’ve been going to grocery stores. It’s a legitimate marketing tactic.”