Do farmers markets need to be reinvented for the digital age?

Photo: RetailWire
Dec 16, 2021

Small and medium-sized independent farms have discovered online selling in recent years with the arrival of numerous farm-to-door delivery apps, possibly threatening the popularity of farmers markets. 

Many farmers markets were already struggling due to over-saturation prior to the pandemic. A March 2019 article from NPR noted that the number of farmers markets exploded from 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 in 2019. Crowds were heading to the bigger markets for variety and one-stop shopping, forcing scores of smaller ones to fold.

Newer competition has been coming as well from subscription-driven community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and home delivery options from, Instacart and Blue Apron.

With the pandemic, the temporary closing of farmers markets and restaurants forced farms to pivot online to capitalize on the resurgence in home cooking. In many cases, the pandemic accelerated the use of local, direct-to-consumer food systems, such as Barn2Door, Farm to People, Our Harvest, Harvie and WhatsGood, that were already gaining traction. A number of farmers markets set up their own online shops.

Going online can help farms tap directly into the broader growth in online grocery in addition to reaching customers who can’t frequent farmers markets. Online, farms can offer a wider variety of products versus their farmers market stall while avoiding waking up well before dawn and spending the day in inclement weather.

Many delivery platforms can also provide customizable boxes not available from CSAs and offer farms purchasing insights to assist in crop planning.

Technology snags, arranging permits and dealing with perishables, however, offer challenges to online selling for farms. A recent Modern Farmer article noted that “no digital platform could replicate the interactions farmers have with customers in person.”

Many farms are trying to balance their online and offline opportunities.

Tom Bennett, a pig and poultry farmer from southwest Michigan, told The Wall Street Journal that farmers markets remain important to his business, but more so for brand recognition and driving customers online. “Now I’m not only the farmer but the grocery store, the salesman, the delivery guy,” he said.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see emerging online growth opportunities for small and medium-sized independent farms complementing or replacing farmers markets? How may farmers markets have to be updated amid grocery’s digital push?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The shopping experience of the farmers market can’t be replicated online: the aromas, random conversations with vendors, the dog parade."
"Farmers markets are the epitome of experiential shopping."
"Is nothing sacred any more? Do we not realize that Nature has all we need to be well and happy?"

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18 Comments on "Do farmers markets need to be reinvented for the digital age?"

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Georganne Bender

I’m with Modern Farmer: “no digital platform could replicate the interactions farmers have with customers in person.”

Farmers markets aren’t Macy’s and they aren’t Amazon. They are personal places, with different meanings for different people. Many sellers use tech at the point of sale, but not everything has to be digitalized. Let us keep some experiences exactly what they are: experiences that can’t be replicated by digital.

Ken Morris

Farmers markets need to embrace the digital age. People want to buy local and support farmers and artisans in their community and they had a hard time doing that during the pandemic. It was very easy to use online options that aren’t local. Keep the money in the community by supporting your local purveyors. Most vendors in farmers markets discovered Square long ago. They need to consider other solutions that offer CRM and geofencing to drive traffic. Most farmers markets are signage only and require a drive by or should I say drive buy. That’s no way to run a market in 2022.

The shopping experience of the farmers market can’t be replicated online: the aromas, random conversations with vendors, the dog parade. Even Oculus Rift or the metaverse isn’t there yet.

Joel Rubinson

Farmers markets are a fun experience that I hope never goes away! However the exhibitors might want to establish a digital presence and e-commerce capabilities for non-perishable goods to supplement their physical booths.

Gary Sankary

Where I live the farmers market is far more of a social and community building event than just a place to get fresh food. I don’t believe that digital platforms can replace that experience. It’s a destination, a place to spend an hour or so walking around the stalls, grab a fresh baked item for breakfast, see neighbors, and buy high quality produce at a significant discount.

The value prop for most of the customers I think is the social and treasure hunt aspect of the experience. Those who don’t care about that, probably aren’t spending much time at the market. They’re using the CSAs and co-ops, many of which have partnered with Mercado and others to provide delivery and curbside services.

Dave Bruno

It appears that the era of the omnichannel farmers market is undeniable. While I cherish the local farmers market experience, this does not mean it has to end. The long-term strategy for farmers is really no different than that of the grocery store today: optimize each channel while integrating them all to create a holistic brand experience. When done well, in-person markets should build brand, establish relationships and promote the digital services, while the digital services can expand the reach, expand assortments and promote the in-person markets. Sounds pretty familiar to me, no?

Ian Percy

Only a few responses are posted as I type this and I couldn’t agree more with all of them. Is nothing sacred any more? Do we not realize that Nature has all we need to be well and happy? Do we think that somehow touching and consuming what Nature and the passion of a farmer brings to our table isn’t a divine gift? There is something irreplaceable about looking the person in the eye and taking from their hand what they grew, baked or made. Compare that experience to a soulless digital platform.

David Naumann

I recently visited the farmers market in Olympia, WA and I truly enjoyed it. Fortunately, the farmers market was an open market with a large canopy and space heaters to make it comfortable for the PNW climate. It was surprising to see that 90 percent of the vendors were cash only. Of course they had ATMs located on the premises. Farmers markets are a great way for farmers to promote and sell the products they have surplus inventory of after selling to local grocery stores. For the non-food products at farmers markets, it is a great venue to attract new customers and expose them to crafts and merchandise not available at other stores. For these vendors, it is extremely valuable to have an online store to showcase their entire inventory.

Richard Hernandez

I love farmers markets – they are more personable places and I love that I can take my dog – he recognizes the other dogs that go.

I like the treasure hunt aspect of farmers markets and most vendors take electronic payment and/or have websites to sell their product already. They are fine as-is.

David Spear

Farmers markets are cool because they offer a unique and different experience. They are a departure from online/in-store and that is why so many shoppers like to venture out on a brisk Saturday morning and engage with the growers.

Steve Montgomery

Farmers markets are the epitome of experiential shopping. Customers get to interact with the people who grew the items they are buying. As Mr. Bennett pointed out, the actual farmers market experience combined with the use of the right technology does not diminish the importance of the farmers market for the farmer, but may shift some of its value from being a sales tool to a marketing one.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Personal connections are certainly an advantage of in-person farmers’ markets. Keeping a personal connection while managing delivery logistics, permits, promotion, and technology is a daunting task. When the hurdles are overcome by some online tools, then it becomes theoretically possible for all farmers’ markets to do the same. The pandemic may be encouraging this movement as it has many others. However continuing to manage the personal connection and the ability for consumers to get the high quality local fresh produce they want when it is available is a difficult hurdle.

Dion Kenney
7 months 25 days ago

I don’t see the farmers market going away, but I do anticipate that many farms will add an online sales channel to their business model. Many of them (where I live) have already set up stores at the edge of the farms, in addition to selling at farmers markets, selling to combines and co-ops, via farm-to-table restaurants, etc.

There are also different kinds of e-commerce platforms that provide a “shop the vendor” experience instead of the standard product-centric user interface. This can allow shoppers to browse a vendor’s wares, ask questions, ask for custom order products, and fill up their basket at that specific farm’s online store. And with increasing consumer comfort with BOPIS and BOPAC, I can see some farms creating customer-responsive sales models that get traction and add significantly to their revenue base.

Ryan Mathews

First of all, there is a world of difference between small and medium-sized farms. The whole appeal of most farmers markets is the social aspect, the ability to interact with producers directly, and the fun of tasting and sometimes dealing on price. They are perfect for smaller farms. Medium-sized farms are more like other businesses, but the consumer dynamic is essentially the same. The problem is they have to move a lot more product to be profitable. So there may be a digital play for a digital platform in some cases, but for the majority analog is just fine.

John Karolefski

Farmers markets are personal experiences that cannot and should not be duplicated online. Buyers and sellers enjoy this people-to-people marketplace.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

No doubt, shopping at farmers markets, like most retail shopping, has taken a hit from COVID. However, the solution is not merely to develop an omnichannel option. Farmers markets gain their point of differentiation by engaging the farmer and the customer directly in their indoor or outdoor stall. While change may be inevitable, caution must be taken to minimize this point of significant (positive) differentiation.

Doug Garnett

We shouldn’t be surprised that farmers might find a balance of online and offline sales makes their best market mix. That’s the way of retail today.

Craig Sundstrom

In my mind the whole — or at least primary — attraction is the experience of going to one: touching the carrots, smelling the cantaloupes, wishing that couple with the brat one row over would move to the jam section … I won’t say online has (absolutely) zero potential here, but I think it’s much less than having a box of canned goods delivered (which as those who remember my posts about the potential of online grocery know I’m already conservative on).

Anil Patel
Farmers’ markets are more than simply a place to buy veggies; they are a ritual. Customers like interacting with the farmers, snacking, and going back home with fresh fruits and veggies. However, there has been no substantial development in the digitization of farmers’ markets. One of the major challenges in bringing farmers online is the tech snag which can be overcome by connecting farmers with marketplaces. There are various online and offline platforms that connect farmers and customers. Customers benefit from quick access to fresh agricultural products, while farmers get a bigger audience to do business with. eCommerce platforms like Shopify can also help in enabling small and medium farmers to have an online presence and market their products directly to their customers at a very minimum cost. With a good eCom presence, Farmers can also offer BOPIS (Buy Online Pick Up In Store). It is a great strategy that allows customers to explore the products online, go to the farmers’ market to pick up the fresh product, delivering both immediate gratification and the joy… Read more »
"The shopping experience of the farmers market can’t be replicated online: the aromas, random conversations with vendors, the dog parade."
"Farmers markets are the epitome of experiential shopping."
"Is nothing sacred any more? Do we not realize that Nature has all we need to be well and happy?"

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