The number of farmers markets has more than quadrupled over the last 20 years, according to the USDA. The trouble has become defining what a farmers market is.
One of the country’s larger markets is going through a painful process of purging vendors who don’t meet a new “producer-only” standard.
“There’s nothing here. There’s no farmers,” retiree Walter Gentry says with a laugh, which echoes through the empty sheds of the Nashville Farmers’ Market. “I thought I could get some peaches here.”
Not long ago, you could get a peach in May or just about any time of year. Not any more.
“It’s not peach season. And as much as I’d love to have a peach right now, they’re not ready,” says market director Tasha Kennard.
There’s not much of anything ready at the moment. That’s a reflection of Tennessee’s moderate growing season.
Kennard knew there would be some lean times when the city-owned facility instituted a controversial “producer-only” policy this year. It requires vendors to be the ones who grew or made the product being sold.
Previously, Kennard says vendors who resold the same fruits and vegetables that appear in the supermarket dominated the produce sheds.
“I think that there are a lot of people that...make assumptions that because they’re at a farmers’ market, everything is either locally or regionally grown and that the person they’re buying it from is the farmer, but that hasn’t been the case at this market for a very long time. It’s been a mix.”
Recently, fewer full-time farmers were showing up. Kennard says they were put at a disadvantage. Customers flocked to the tables that had an abundance of colorful produce, even pineapples and avocadoes, which couldn’t possibly be local or even regional. Ann Hardy ran one of those tables for nearly 50 years. She has a small farm, but most of her produce came from wholesalers.
“We’re not able to grow everything we sell and meet the demands of the people we serve,” Hardy says.
Under the new restrictions Hardy hasn’t found a way to reopen her stall. This tension between supply and demand exists at many markets. While some of the nation’s largest have similar restrictions, many take an anything-goes approach.
“Some markets, their main purpose is to provide fresh food and so the producer-only aspect of it may be less important,” says Jen Cheek, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition — a national trade group.
But the mission for many is to give local agriculture a way to connect with customers, and vice versa. It’s a pretty popular concept at the moment. So Cheek says a market has to be careful not to let its brand be “co-opted.”
“Maintaining that trust between farmers and customers is going to be what makes farmers markets stand out, even as other people are using the name.”
For Nashville area farmer Mike Baudinot, the new rules feel like a throwback to when his great grandfather started farming in the 1800s.
“You didn’t have watermelons in March and April. You didn’t have apples all year round. It was what the farmers raised. That’s what was in season.”
Baudinot is one of the few farmers already selling at the Nashville market. He’s got new hoops to jump through now, like proving he actually grows what he sells. But he’s ok with that, and he figures customers will be too.
“People don’t realize when their stuff is fresh, local, it’s a whole lot different than getting it from California or even Florida.”
The hopes at this market are that customers will accept sweeter strawberries and juicier tomatoes, even if that means they’ll only be available a few weeks a year.