After the piece I linked to Monday, I want to present my own economic argument from our own experience at market to bolster the piece’s core economic complaint. A few years ago, some folks with MU did a basic survey of market customers, at market, including questions like where they lived and how much they spent at market. Most of the surveyed folks reported spending something like $10-$20 a week at market. Some people certainly spend much more than that, but let’s say that $20 is an average. Let’s put this in perspective with a back-of-the-envelope calculation.
Average Saturday market attendance for the last few years is around 4,000/week, which includes kids. The survey reported that most people come to the market in pairs (plus kids). So let’s assume it’s actually 2,000 separate households. Each household spends an average of $20, so that’s an estimated $40,000 spent each week. Multiply that by 30 weeks, and that’s $1.2 million dollars. Obviously, this is a rough estimate of spending at Saturday markets. But sales data from the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market in northwest Arkansas suggest that the estimate is probably of the right order of magnitude. That market has 100 member vendors, summer Saturday customer counts in the 4,000s, and total annual sales of a bit over $1 million (as reported in Growing for Market).
Over a million dollars sound great, until you split it up among all the vendors. Divide that by 80 vendors (for CFM), and you get an average gross annual income per vendor of $15,000. Even as a net income (which it certainly is not), that doesn’t come close to supporting independent farms. Obviously there are much smaller vendors making far less in gross income, and a few big vendors making more in gross income, but the core point is that there’s nowhere near enough consumer spending at the market to support more than a handful of real, full-time (not hobby or part-time) farms. Keep in mind that very few of the vendors at CFM, even most of the bigger ones, are actually farming full-time and earning a living. Most have other jobs, or spouses with jobs, or Social Security & retirement benefits, or some other outside incomes that means they don’t have to make all their living from food sales.
Another angle: From some quick online research, the average American family seems to spend $100-$400/week on groceries. If the normal/dominant consumer at market spends $20/week, that means that only 5%-20% of personal food spending is happening at the farmers market, despite the market having the vast majority of foods that fit into any normal, healthy dietary regime, and those foods easily being fresh enough to last all week to the next market. Again, this is not going to sustain any real shift toward independent small farms, especially when it’s only among the 5-10% or so of the Columbia population who’re even bothering to shop at all.
Local foods are all about the economics. Green or not, small independent, full-time farms will succeed only if people spend real money with them, and will not if they remain a cute boutique source for Saturday night’s dinner with the other 20 meals coming from food corporations. That’s the reality we’re up against, and it’s something too many journalists and non-profit small farm advocates ignore or forget when praising the local foods movement. Certainly things are better than 20 years ago, but it’s far from an economic success story in the long run.
Also, whenever considering numbers like these, remember that such sales numbers =gross, not net, and it’s hard to judge farm-by-farm what a good income is. For example, a meat vendor may bring in a high total cash-flow at market because their products are more expensive, but their net may be low. A farm like ours that focuses heavily on low-overhead methods may never be as big or bring in as much gross as an expensive tillage farm, but our net (or at least our net/gross ratio) may well be better.
Finally, to be clear, I’m not saying we haven’t come a long way toward rebuilding local foods and small farms. We have. What I’m warning against is “Mission Accomplished” syndrome, in which food writers and nutritionists and journalists expound upon how vibrant modern farmers markets and local food systems are, without ever checking under the hood to see just how healthy the admittedly improving patient really is.