Brent Finnegan -- May 14th, 2010
Since 1979, the Harrisonburg Farmer’s Market has provided patrons of downtown Harrisonburg with a place to buy locally-grown produce. On Tuesday and Saturday mornings during growing season, you can find fresh eggs, fruits and vegetables, and (often) meat grown or raised within just a few miles of the city. In recent years, the market has grown along with the downtown renaissance. Last year the market began gathering under their own permanent open-air pavilion, and vendors are already spilling out of that.
Meanwhile, a few blocks away, the Friendly City Food Co-Op (FCFC) has also been gaining momentum. The cooperative is currently on track to meet their fundraising goals and open a grocery store in downtown next year, with a special emphasis on locally-sourced foods.
But if both organizations are essentially marketing to the same demographic, will business at the farmers’ market suffer when the co-op opens?
There is no simple answer. The issue is complicated by several factors, one of which is the difficulty in defining where one group ends and the other begins. “We already have a number of the market vendors as our members,” Ben Sandel, president of FCFC board, wrote in an email.
Josie Showalter, manager of the farmer’s market, is one of those members. In fact, her husband is a member of the co-op board. Showalter said, “There’s already an awful lot of concern in the community, sort of fearful stuff like, ‘What is [the co-op] going to do to the farmers’ market?'”
After several questions from concerned market vendors, in February, Showalter sent out an email in an attempt to put some of those fears to rest:
. . . For many vendors the Market is a primary source of personal income so some vendor anxiety is to be expected . . .
The Co-op is committed to supporting the Market in every possible way and is planning on giving out the Buy Fresh, Buy Local guides at their checkouts. In addition, there is planned space for Farmers Market materials to be displayed in the store and we are brainstorming other ideas. . .
Apart from cross-promotion, there is reason to believe that the addition of one could help the other.
“There’s this idea called clustering, where you have car dealerships all together, or fast food restaurants all together because they establish a place and a market, and they all help each other out,” said Adam Campbell, former outreach coordinator for the co-op. “We’re doing that with the farmers’ market. We’re helping build this market of ‘local, organic, sustainable’ here in Harrisonburg.”
I asked Bill Wood, professor of economics at JMU, about clustering. Wood explained that the outcome of the co-op and farmers’ market coexisting in the same neighborhood depends on the overall volume of potential customers downtown. Wood writes:
There would be two forces working in opposite directions with a food co-op and farmer’s market. Each one would bring more traffic to the general area, and that by itself would help both businesses. But there would also be some competing product lines, and that would hurt. It’s hard to know in advance which force would be stronger. With a big enough increase in downtown visits, there would surely be room for both a food co-op and a farmer’s market — and lots of other businesses as well.
Barkley Rosser, also a professor of economics at JMU, had a similar take. Rosser writes:
[I]t will probably not be too much of a negative impact in that I think there will be more variety and different sources at the Co-op, but there might be some negative impact. My guess is that people will be using the Co-op more for basic shopping, whereas the farmer’s market is more a matter of specialty items and socializing.
To my knowledge, there are only two other cities in Virginia that have a grocery co-op and a farmers’ market. Roanoke’s City Market in the downtown area has been a destination spot for more than a hundred years, and is open daily. Roanoke Natural Foods Co-Op is located in an entirely different neighborhood, more than two miles away.
In Lexington, however, the farmers’ market and Healthy Foods Co-Op are barely one block apart from each other. And, as in Harrisonburg, there is significant overlap between vendors and members. Mitch Wapner is manager of the farmers’ market, and sits on the board of Lexington’s co-op, which has been around for more than thirty years.
Wapner doesn’t believe their co-op has a negative effect on the farmers’ market. “If anything, the market hurts sales at the co-op, not the other way around,” said Wapner, clarifying that their farmers’ market began about nine years ago. “Our market is only open on Wednesday mornings, and produce sales are definitely off at the co-op on Wednesdays.”
But Wapner says comparing the two is apples and oranges. “Our competition [at the co-op] is more from Kroger and Walmart than from the market,” said Wapner, whose co-op sells some local produce on consignment. He said market vendors in Harrisonburg shouldn’t worry. “This is win-win, not win-lose.”
Sandel emphasized the distinction between a full-service grocery store and a weekly downtown event. “The farmers’ market will always be a social event and a great opportunity to know the farmers and artisans in a way the co-op can’t be.”
Showalter agrees. “The co-op is doing the ‘fresh, local’ thing in addition to being a grocery store, which the market can’t possibly be,” said Showalter. “What the market offers is, absolutely everything at the market is fresh and local. If there’s any question about how it was grown, the farmer is right there, and the customer can ask the producer directly.”
The effect of FCFC on the farmers’ market remains to be seen, but Showalter is optimistic that the two organizations will work together to promote each others’ success. “I’m very grateful for the consideration of the co-op for the market. It’s not like they’re trying to come in and take over our customer base. They want this to be a win-win.”