Farmers' market phonies raise ire of some customers - but not all, UF researchers say
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Doing business with a farmers’ market phony selling non-local food might bother some shoppers, but not all, according to a new University of Florida study.
Shoppers often assume farmers’ markets sell only the freshest crops from small, local operations, said Mickie Swisher, an associate professor with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. But with the number of U.S. farmers’ markets more than quadrupled since 1994, big-volume produce dealers sometimes use them to sell items shipped from other states or countries.
When that happens, customers may feel outraged or indifferent, depending on whether they’re committed to eating local or just want a pleasant excursion, said Swisher, one of the study’s authors.
The findings, published in the current issue of the journal HortScience, suggest that farmers’ market managers can keep serious and casual shoppers happy by requiring honest labeling and creating opportunities for patrons to mingle, she said.
“It’s a matter of knowing what consumers want, and I think this study has some insights that could be useful,” Swisher said.
For example, if the rules governing a farmers’ market are silent on the issue of non-local food, locavores would probably want to see that situation resolved, she said. Solutions might include barring non-local food, restricting it to certain parts of the market or requiring vendors to indicate where their merchandise was produced.
For patrons who want to socialize, management should provide amenities such as seating areas, particularly if any vendors offer ready-to-eat food.
In the study, Swisher and colleagues Zhifeng Gao of the UF food and resource economics department and Xin Zhao of the horticultural sciences department surveyed more than 120 shoppers at farmers’ markets in three Florida population centers – a major metropolitan area, a medium-sized city and a small town.
The survey asked shoppers about their expectations for the food sold at farmers’ markets, Gao said. The results showed that a large percentage believed much of the merchandise was locally grown, freshly harvested, organic and sold by growers themselves.
Then researchers asked participants if they would continue patronizing a farmers’ market after learning they had purchased an item that defied their expectations.
If the item was less fresh than expected, about 75 percent would continue patronizing the market; if it wasn’t organic, 66 percent would continue, he said. If the item wasn’t grown by the vendor 62 percent said they would return; and if it wasn’t local only 53 percent would visit the market again.
Using additional data analysis, the researchers determined which shoppers were most likely to stop visiting a farmers’ market that offered non-local food. Those were the shoppers who believed it was important to buy local food, or thought patronizing farmers’ markets was better than shopping at supermarkets.
The number of U.S. farmers’ markets increased from 1,755 in 1994 to almost 7,900 in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. So it’s imperative for managers to stay on top of emerging trends, including the ones consumers don’t like, Swisher said.
“Farmers’ markets have come a long way in the past few decades, and I think there’s a lot of potential if we don’t spoil it,” she said. “The farmers’ markets that are well-run and aboveboard will get the lion’s share of the business.”