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The success of farmers markets in greater Seattle may be interfering with their viability elsewhere, according to a presenter at the Association of American Geographers'

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Geographers Wonder Why Farmers Markets Aren't Thriving in Rural Areas

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The success of farmers markets in greater Seattle may be interfering with their viability elsewhere, according to a presenter at the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting.

Of the hundreds of sessions being offered at the Washington State Convention Center this week, a few dozen relate to food policy, including Washington State University Jeremy Sage's paper on farmers markets. Sage mapped markets statewide by location and schedule to determine how easily eaters in surrounding communities could access them.

With mega-chains forcing small, independent grocers out of business, farmers markets could play an increasingly important role in rural areas. "The idea that it's only for yuppies is not necessarily true," Sage said. But Sage's research showed markets remain a largely urban phenomenon in Washington. Of the state's 169 famers markets, 57 are located in the Seattle metropolitan area.

Sage believes the reasons are primarily economic. A vendor at a city market can expect to make at least 10 times as much money as his counterpart at a rural market, he said. The problem is compounded by rural market planners' reluctance to hold markets on weekdays, so as not to compete with the lucrative city markets for vendors.

While geographers long ago predicted additional farmers markets would lead to more market days, "that didn't pan out," Sage said. "I was kind of disappointed." To wit, 40 percent of farmers' markets statewide are held on Saturdays. If a market's held on a Monday--a day on which Pike's Place Market is one of the few open markets anywhere--customers accuse the organizers of being "elitist by catering to people who don't work," Sage said.

Session chair Allison Brown contested Sage's conclusion that farmers always choose the most potentially profitable market. "If you talk to farmers, it's much more complicated," she said. "It's not just 'On this day, I'll choose the most profitable market.' If I'm a producer that has two high-end markets back-to-back, on the third day I might choose a low-end market where I can sell what's not Grade A."

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