By Judy Rife
July 7, 2018
WARWICK — Laura Soons Thorton steadily replaced the boxes of pies and the trays of pastries as the crowd of customers surged in search of Dad’s favorite on Father’s Day at the Warwick Valley Farmers Market.
As they clutched their boxes of Scotty’s Pies and waited to fork over their $17.50, Thorton fielded questions from the uninitiated.
Yes, we make everything from scratch. Yes, we roll the dough by hand. Yes, we use our own recipes. Yes, we use fruit from our own orchards.
“They’re the best,” volunteered one customer.
“Yes, they are,″ echoed another. “I’ve been coming here for years.″
But Thorton, who sold 35,000 pies last year at three markets and her family’s Soons Orchards in New Hampton, said business isn’t what it used to be.
“The past several years, it’s been off, and it’s not just here or just me,″ said Thorton. “We all talk about it among ourselves. We can’t figure it out.”
Trouble in paradise
This summertime, livin’ is uneasy at the farmers markets that have become almost a Hudson Valley birthright.
There’s a general sense that sales have thinned at markets of all shapes and sizes, even where crowds have not. Speculation about why, suddenly, there is trouble in paradise abounds among market managers and vendors.
Is the time of day and day of week a good fit for the community? What about the location? Is there a good mix of vendors? What about their prices? Is enough being done to promote the market?
And, more delicately, are there simply too many markets?
“Think about it,” said Diana Lupinksi, a vegetable farmer and the Goshen Farmers Market manager. “If they miss us on Friday, they’ve got Middletown on Saturday, Warwick on Sunday, Florida on Tuesday.”
But they’ve also got farm stands and supermarkets that are stocked with local fruits and vegetables and open seven days a week.
“People are still eating, but they’re buying more of their food elsewhere, and many of us think it’s all about convenience,″ said Lupinksi. “Especially people between 25 and 45 who have kids and work. They have no time. They want to order online, pick it up at the store or have it delivered and save an hour.”
What do consumers want?
“Sales are down everywhere,” said Diane Eggert, executive director of the Farmers Market Federation of New York. “We’ve had an overproliferation of markets — from 235 to 700 in 20 years — and now we not only have fewer customers, but also fewer customers buying food.”
The implications of the trend for the state’s farmers — for the agricultural industry in general — prompted the federation to seek a federal grant to study what consumers want.
The $145,000 grant, awarded to New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland, is financing a multi-state survey that a Cornell University team helped devise and will help analyze.
“It’s the first effort in the country on this scale,” said Eggert.
Ideally, the survey, which was just launched, will give markets some guidance about how to adapt to the wants and needs of new generations of shoppers. The millennial cohort, the 25-to-45 crowd, in particular, has defied easy pigeonholing.
Greg Cash of West Milford, N.J., and his wife and daughter, for example, never miss a Sunday at the Warwick market.
“We always buy for the week,″ said Cash as he juggled bags of produce. “We belong to a CSA, too, so we plan our meals around whatever is fresh, whatever is local.”
Loren Paltrowitz of Warwick and her husband and two children never miss a Sunday either, but on this Sunday they were bagless. Kids had pickles on sticks and Mom had cookie in hand. The shopping list usually includes strawberries and apples, honey and maple syrup.
Eggert and her counterparts have asked market managers to promote the online survey throughout the season and provided them with graphics and videos that link to the questionnaire to post on their social media sites. The results will be released in March.
“The base is changing,″ said Katy Kondrat, manager of the Kingston Farmers Market. “For the younger crowd, for families with children, the market is definitely about more than shopping, so we really need to understand our customers better to keep it viable.”
The profit center shifts
“It’s not like anybody’s doing anything wrong,″ said Liz Higgins, a specialist in agricultural business management at Cornell Cooperative Extension. “The farmers market is a successful business model, but it’s a mature model. The number of consumers is flat, and in terms of profitability, that train has probably left the station.”
Higgins said the changes in consumer shopping habits that are roiling the food industry at every level are also apparent at farmers markets.
Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods and subsequent offer of free two-hour delivery to its Prime customers in major cities is perhaps the biggest canary in the coal mine, but it is far from the only one. Blue Apron is delivering ready-to-cook meal kits, and Uber is delivering ready-to-eat meals from restaurants.
“From the farmer’s perspective, people don’t want to buy anything that requires a lot of preparation time,″ said Higgins. “People love to go to the market, but they don’t necessarily want two pounds of kale. They’re more interested in prepared or semi-prepared food, what I call the food-truck model.”
Similarly, she pointed out that supermarkets have upgraded their produce sections in response to consumers’ desire to see, if not buy, more and different fruits and vegetables.
“Prepared food is now the supermarket’s profit center,” said Higgins.
“It’s true,″ said Pam Clarke Torres, co-owner of Prospect Hill Orchards in Milton, a vendor at five greenmarkets in New York City. “Anything that involves a lot of preparation just doesn’t sell, so all of us are adjusting our product lines to the extent we can to get more sales.”
For Torres, that has translated into 100-hour workweeks in-season to grow a full menu of fruit as well as craft more and more jams, pies, cookies, muffins and granolas with it.
“It’s an exhausting lifestyle, but the value-added products are now a significant part of our business,″ said Torres. “At what point do we back away from it and establish more of an on-farm presence in Milton? More pick-your-own, perhaps a CSA, maybe a farm stand? I don’t know the answer. I call this my midlife crisis.”
Part of the scenery
Michael Newhard, owner of The Home Source on Main Street and Village of Warwick mayor, credits the 25-year-old market as being a catalyst for the community’s economic development.
“You can walk to shops and restaurants from the market, so businesses that normally would be closed on Sunday are open,″ said Newhard. “The ripple effect has been fantastic.”
But Main Street today, he continued, is grappling with the same challenges as the market.
“Small, quaint downtowns such as ours are now considered a form of entertainment,″ said Newhard. “People come here not so much to shop as to enjoy the scenery.”
Torres said she’s observed the same phenomenon evolve as neighborhoods around some New York City greenmarkets have filled with one-percenters.
“In some places, we’re sort of the backdrop to the fabulous lives of the fabulously ultra-rich,″ said Torres. “It doesn’t seem to occur to them that it costs us money to be there, and that if they want to keep us there, then, well, maybe they should buy something.”
Penny Steyer, the Warwick market manager, said vendors still benefit in spite of it all from the broad support that agriculture enjoys in the community — the first in the region to approve a farmland preservation program.
“Our farms — we have eight fruit and vegetable vendors — keep us going,″ said Steyer. “They are one of our biggest draws.”
Similar sentiment buoys the small Heart of the Hudson Valley Farmers Market in Milton, a community that won official state designation for a farm trail to memorialize its 300-year-old industry.
“It’s a stick-to-the-basics market with vendors from farms in town,″ said Sheila Mannese, the manager. “And it has a committed following, local people who plan their schedules and menus around it.”
But Lupinksi, in Goshen, another community with a strong ag tradition, fears consumers are increasingly removed from the farm.
“People have become accustomed to buying strawberries year-round, and so they come to the market in June for tomatoes and corn, as though they’re in Orange County, Fla., or Orange County, Calif., and get upset because nobody has them,″ said Lupinski.
Different market strokes
In Monticello and Liberty, Catskill Mountainkeeper has rescued failing markets and recast them to serve the specific wants and needs of local people. Government benefits such as SNAP were seamlessly integrated into their operation.
“These are food deserts where people don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables,″ said Ramsay Adams, executive director of Mountainkeeper. “Our success is modest — we draw hundreds, not thousands like Callicoon — but it’s real and it’s growing.”
The Callicoon Farmers Market is Sullivan County’s largest and a Sunday destination for the newcomers who are discovering the Catskills.
In Washingtonville, managers of the faltering market have switched to Sunday from Saturday and rebranded it for farmers and artisans.
Jessica Kehlenbeck, a member of Placemaking of Washingtonville, said the hope is that the switch in date and time and the addition of crafts will attract enough traffic to sustain the market’s four beginning farmers.
“It’s only our second year, but we do well with our organic fruits and vegetables,” said Samer Saleh, co-owner of Halal Pastures in Washingtonville and a member of Placemaking.
“I shop in Goshen, but any time we’ve had a market, I’ve come because I want to support the local effort,″ said Catherine Flandrau of Washingtonville. “Hopefully, this time it will blossom into a Goshen.”
Do markets pay?
Higgins, the Cornell ag-business-management specialist, said farmers will have to examine where they are making money and where they are not and adjust their market participation and business accordingly — something she recommends they do year-in and year-out.
Many of them, she explained, fail to factor in all of their market-specific costs, especially their own time, from the minute they’ve loaded their trucks and left the farm until they’re back home and unloaded.
Then there’s the salaries of the help, the fees for booths, truck parking and electricity at the market, and the premiums for at least $1 million in liability insurance.
“The explosion in the number of markets wasn’t driven by farmers or food justice or food desert considerations,” said Higgins. “It was more of an economic development effort to bring people back to Main Street, to build a sense of community. The equation is different now.”