According to the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont, about 65 farmers markets operate in the state – down from a high of more than 80 a few years ago. Farmers say fewer markets is not necessarily a bad thing, but they say remaining markets need to do more to compete and grow.
Some farmers are opting out of local markets altogether, preferring to sell directly to customers with CSAs or at farm stands. Greg Cox, who owns Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland, understands that sentiment.
"I get calls all the time from people who say, 'Yeah, we want to start a farmers market in our town — and it's March or April, and they're going to start in May," Cox said. "And the first question I ask is, ‘Do you have farmers lined up?'"
Cox has been a mainstay and organizer at Rutland's farmers market for years.
"Farmers are busy people and it takes years to develop a customer base," he explained, while packing up vegetables for his own CSA customers. "This is not a build-it-and-they-will-come kind of thing."
Cox said it has taken years and lots of effort to grow Rutland's farmers market.
In 2007, when Rutland organizers added an indoor winter market, Cox said revenues went from $300,000 a year to $500,000 annually. Revenues grew even more, he said, after 2012 when the indoor market moved to a larger space in a renovated industrial warehouse now called the Vermont Farmers Food Center (Cox is president of the center's board).
According to Cox, 2015 was a banner year for the market: "We hit $2.1 million. That was our highest gross sales from the vendors."
Since then though? "I think we got a little lax," Cox admits, noting that annual sales at Rutland's farmers market have leveled off.
"You lose that energy to really push the envelope," he said.
Cox said Rutland's farmers market already has won over the customers who are highly motivated to eat local food, but he said a much harder task is reaching people who shop purely based on convenience — or those unaware the city even has a farmers market.
That's a challenge facing many farmers markets in Vermont. Some have even disappeared: Johnson, Essex, Westford, Colchester, Bradford and South Burlington are all towns that had farmers markets, but don’t anymore.
"I would say that the majority of the markets that we see closing are markets ... often in smaller communities," said Erin Buckwalter, with NOFA-VT. "Or they're markets like South Burlington that operated close to a much larger market, like Burlington's. They often have a harder time attracting vendors and customers."
According to a 2018 report by NOFA-VT, Americans spend about 10% of their income on food – and competition for that spending is fierce. Shoppers today are more impulsive; they're buying more prepared foods and a growing number are shopping for groceries online, according to the report.
To compete, Buckwalter said farmers markets need to ramp up their marketing. She said that can be as simple as better signage.
"For example, Middlebury has little A-frame signs that they put up around the town," Buckwalter said, "and they did some assessment of the community members about how they learned about the farmers market and those road signs were like the best thing for the market. So they started putting out more of them.”
The NOFA-Vermont report found farmers markets also need to better serve different income groups — for example, providing opportunities to sample specialty craft beverages for high earners, while targeting low earners with budget-friendly recipes, signs indicating good value options and loyalty cards that offer discounts.
At Rutland's farmers market, Cox said they've identified a number of strategies to attract new customers, including ramping up advertising on all mediums.
"We need to have them understand what it means to the community, what it means to the economy, what it means to their family's health," Cox said.
The Rutland farmers market also want to do more to attract tourists visiting nearby ski resorts. Killington just purchased $2,000 worth of farmers market tokens to give to employees who want them, and a spokesperson at the resort said they'll buy more if the tokens are popular. Cox said it's the kind of cross-promotion he wants to see more of.
Another goal, Cox said, is to host more agritourism events, like bike-to-farm tours: "We'd start at the Food Center and bike to a nearby farm," explained Cox. "We'd have all kinds of food trucks there and people would have a chance to tour the farm as a way to pull back the curtain and show people what farmers are actually doing."
He said a balcony at the indoor food center is being turned into a dining area, so people will have a place to eat the prepared foods they buy – a growing segment of the farmers market business.
To help fund these initiatives, the Vermont Farmers Food Center has applied for a $300,000 USDA grant this spring. Cox said they've made the final cut, and he’s optimistic about their chances.
"So our goal with this grant is to increase the customer traffic by 25% and the gross sales by 50% in three years," Cox said. "And we think that is really doable."
Cox said grant winners, part of a federal Farmers Market Promotion Program, are expected to be announced in the next few weeks.