Co-op & Farmers’ Market: Good For Each Other?

Brent Finnegan -- May 14th, 2010

Harrisonburg Farmers Market photo by Randy LowerySince 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. . .

In Theory

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.

Harrisonburg Farmers Market

Photo by Randy Lowery. © All rights reserved.

In Practice

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.”

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20 Responses to “Co-op & Farmers’ Market: Good For Each Other?”

  1. Ernie Didot says:

    Hurrah for Brent. Well done article. Fair & balanced. ;-)

  2. David T says:

    I’m currently living in Pittsburgh where I have a top-notch seasonal farmer’s market and a year-round farmer’s market (mediocre) within walking distance of my apartment. We also have a full sized Food & Grocery Co-Op a 2 mile bike ride away. On top of all of this there are at least half a dozen CSAs in the Pittsburgh area.

    Granted we’re talking about vastly different numbers of people, but my observation is that each has thrived and still has it’s own niche. The produce at the Co-Op (while organic), is still supported by traditional means of food distribution and is local in origin a small minority of the year. Lots of things at our farmers markets should hardly be considered local and are much more regional in nature (Don’t get me wrong we still have local and organic, but you might not realize the difference at first glance). What I’m trying to say is that they are surprisingly different in practice.

    In the end, I think they are good for each other. Having both at my disposal makes it such that I rarely visit a commercial grocery store anymore, and doing so is completely out of habit or routine… I see the Hburg farmer’s market and co-op doing the same thing, keeping people in the state of mind to support such institutions.

  3. Barbara Finnegan says:

    Nice, in-depth coverage. This would be an interesting ongoing study for a business class.

  4. Sarah MacDonald says:

    Fantastic, well-researched and thoughtful post, Brent – thanks for doing this. I’ve been wondering about this, but I strongly believe that the more options we have for local, sustainable food sources, the more people will believe that it’s possible and feasible to eat that way, and the more the demand will grow.

  5. Joe says:

    Just because items are being sold at the farmer’s market does not mean that they are local or organic. One must still be selective and know the source. I will support both the market and the do-op.

    • Emmy says:

      Organic no, but the items sold at the Farmer’s Market have to be grown locally or made by someone local (as in backed goods, sewn items, etc).

      • Joe says:

        Are you sure there are not a few vendors selling conventional produce from out of state? I saw some things last weekend which are not possibly in season around here.

        • megan says:

          Green houses and high tunnels can make a huge difference. Things can be grown out of season.

        • Joe, I could be wrong, but I’m 90 + percent sure locally made or grown is a requirement for vendors at the market.

          • Emmy says:

            I’m sure it’s possible that someone could bring in something from out of the area and get by with it, but as Megan said greenhouses make a lot of things possible. There are several vendors who I know for sure have greenhouses and that is why they have some of the things they do when others do not.

  6. BANDIT says:

    I know of at least one “vendor” that has sold out of state produce at local farmers markets and passed if off as locally grown. Unless you pick it yourself, like at the strawberry farms, you have no guarantee that it was grown locally. We tend to be trusting souls who believe what we are told. I guess other than defeating the purpose, what harm is done? Personally, we buy fresh fruits and veggies from a local family that brings it right from the field. I feel good that we are helping a local farm family and that our purchases are so fresh.

    • Emmy says:

      No, there is no guarantee, but it is what they agreed to when they signed up, so that’s on their conscience. I still feel relatively confident that when I shop there I get more local products that when I shop at a grocery store. I guess that even if their product isn’t local, they are, so I’m putting money into the pocket of a community member.

      • Frank J Witt says:

        Great point Emmy. I had wanted to bring some items from PA to sell but after reading the agreement, I knew better. I would like to be able to buy the Polish things I like locally but haven’t had luck finding them even after asking around.

        I checked with local meat markets and bakeries (and even some from as far away as Gore) but could not find the things I wanted. I’ll keep checking but until then I will bring them back form PA whenever I have to go there…

        Emmy, how is your garden plot doing?

        • Joe says:

          The only reason I brought this up is that we have some neighbors new to the area who assumed that all produce is local and organic. I pointed out the vendors I know and trust but if someone is going to look you in the eye and lie about chemical use, then it is incurring their own karma. I think the market is a great thing and go religiously to enjoy the “in season” harvest. I have been munching strawberries all day and had a great conversation this morning with the raw honey guy with the bees. Peace.

  7. Jeff says:

    Great article Brent! And an excellent discussion by all.

  8. Except that all this talk of Brent being “fair and balanced” makes him sound like someone from Fox News!

    • Lowell Fulk says:

      You mean the Fox slogan is “Fair and Balanced”?

      I thought they were saying fairly unbalanced…

      Gotta get this hearing checked.

  9. I just read this discussion and as Manager of the Harrisonburg Farmers Market want to clarify that our Vendor Guidelines are very specific that anyone selling at the Market must be either be the grower or producer of the product, an immediate family member, or a family/farm employee. I make that policy very clear to any new vendor and everyone at the Market is proud of and upholds our producer only guideline. Many of our vendors do have greenhouses and utilize them and other methods to lengthen the season of their products. Related to organic question, we do not have any regulations except that vendors represent their growing practices honestly. I always encourage customers to get to know the vendors and dialogue with them related to any question you might have about their product – that’s part of the beauty of our Market – you can actually talk with the person who has grown or produced the product they are offering.

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