Farmers markets feature all manner of food products coming direct from farmers to consumers. In theory, this marketing avenue supports transparency in the food system, connects consumers with farmers, and supports local food production. In practice, however, these goals often fall short due to ineffective or non-existent guidelines for producers. The following guidelines have risen from our 5 years of experience direct marketing our products at 7 different markets in the Eugene and Portland area. The purpose of these guidelines is to help farmers market boards and consumers identify and select appropriate meat providers.
1. Farmer Raised: Does the farm entity produce its own products, or is it primarily a reseller for other farms? In meat production, it is a simple matter to purchase animals from outside sources and label under one’s own brand at a slaughterhouse. Or, another tactic is to purchase particular cuts from outside sources and re-label under one’s own brand. While this is common practice in the meat industry and allowed by law, it is questionable when it comes to farmers markets that are promoting food system transparency. Can a farmers market verify that its vendors have the capacity to produce the product under their label? For example, a 10-20 acre ranch cannot possibly produce enough beef product to supply 5 different markets in the Portland area (unless it is operating a feedlot). Or, a farm with 20 hens on site cannot provide enough eggs to sell 50 dozen at a particular market every week.
Some market managers may decide it is acceptable for farmers to source product from outside sources. However, they will still want to know what those outside source are. Is this product coming from neighbors with common growing practices, or is it coming from out of the country? What are the standards by which producers are considered if this is a growers cooperative? Finally, is vending preference given to vendors with a more direct connection to their production?
2. Local Production: Local production is defined by the USDA as all aspects of food produced within a 400 mile radius from its point of sale. The most obvious example of this requirement is the physical distance from the source ranch to the point of sale and the distance of the slaughter house to the point of sale. Less obvious examples are the source of day old chicks (e.g. out of state hatchery), feed products (e.g. Midwest grain), and location of further processors (e.g. location of smoker). Further, it is entirely possible to buy live animals from out of State and finish them for a short time on specialty rations in a local facility and claim local. Is this really considered local production? To what extent are local producers favored or not for a particular market? Are the farms’ claims of “local” consistent with their actual practices?
3. Further Processing: Many markets feature vendors selling meat products (smoked, dry-aged meats, food vendors) that are not produced by a farmer. For example, what are the rules about a Charcuterie sourcing feedlot pork raised in Canada, but smoked and cured in a local shop and distributed at a farmers market? Is this a valid product to be sold at a farmers market and how is the actual meat product different than what is sold commercially in grocery stores?
4. Is it Grass-Based: A big question in the meat industry is not just whether something is organic or conventional but whether it is grass-based or grain-based. This matters a lot because grass-based farming is intrinsically local, since it is quite difficult to ship grass (or hay) large distances. Grass-based farming means animals are raised outside, and inter-cropping is emphasized to establish fertility. Grass-based products mean better types of fats as well. While beef, sheep, and goats can be 100% grass-based, chickens and pigs can also be grass-based with grain supplements.
5. Is the farm itself open to the public: Many small farmers welcome the public any day or offer tours. Vending at a farmers market is a form of transparent food marketing and having a closed, off-limits farm (or offering no farm to visit at all) is questionable.
6. Certifications: Organic certification offers the assurance of an outside investigation process into the organic claim itself and greatly limits the feasibility of supplementing production with cheaper sources of product. Thus, the claim of “organic” in the case of a farmers market product can enhance the credibility of any of the other factors claimed in this list. Does a market consider organic production material in the selection of vendor products? Other certifications that enhance the credibility of farms are Salmon-Safe, AWA, and Food Alliance.
7. Economics: Our experience in running farmers markets is that they are only sustainable if average revenue is over $700 per market. This figure will pay for cost of goods sold, booth help, site fees, transportation, and some leftover to pay for indirect expenses on the farm. However, we have found that in recent years, our revenue has been decreasing as additional markets in the Portland Area have been added and more vendors have been invited. Confounding the problem of the glut of meat market vendors is that many vendors have been pressured into cutting corners to produce product at a lower cost to sell more product at farmers markets--and have been allowed to do so by farmers market boards. Over-booking vendors at farmers markets may give some short-term buzz and price-competition but in the long term tend to favor those vendors mimicking commercial producers (outsourced production, imported feeds, and mono-cropping).