Demand grows for farmers markets

May 6-12, 2024

By Catherine Mayhew


Look at our farmers markets today, bursting with heritage breeds and heirloom varieties, foods that were once abundant when we were an agricultural nation, but that we have lost touch with. Bringing all these back helps us connect to our roots, our communities and helps us feed America the proper way.” – Jose Andres, chef, restaurateur and founder of World Central Kitchen


On any given Saturday, a veritable city will rise in a parking lot, park or field. Within a few hours, tents will sit pole to pole and underneath them a dizzying array of fruits, vegetables, meats, baked goods and artisan handmade objects will be displayed.


The tents will be gone in just a few hours. But what’s left behind is health, and not just for the consumers who buy the produce. It’s health for a system that has grown and flourished over the last few years, not only despite the pandemic but because of it. It’s health for the producers – the farmers and ranchers – who are turning one revenue stream into diversified businesses.


The number of farmers markets in the U.S. grew 7% per year from 1994 to 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture reports. The USDA estimates sales at the markets are $1 billion a year. In Tennessee, food sold directly to consumers from farms totaled more than $28 million.


And it’s not just consumers with a healthy household budget who are buying. The USDA says that redemptions at farmers markets and direct marketing farms of SNAP (food stamps) is up by 162% since 2017.


In Tennessee, farmers markets throughout the state are poised to take the next step and use modern business practices to grow their brands. From marketing to social media to expanding beyond just the market, farmers are leaning into the 21st century, and a Tennessee farmers market trail, similar to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail, is in the beginning stages.


Not bad for an idea that started with a makeshift tent and a blanket on the ground.


Old versus new


Vendors with those tents and blankets might have first set up shop in Egypt more than 5,000 years ago when farmers would sell their produce along the Nile River to travelers passing through. Farmers markets didn’t hit what became this country until the 1600s. The first governmentally designated market was founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1730 when city planners created a 120-square-foot lot in the center of town.


In Nashville, informally selling produce brought to the town square on horseback gave way to a state-mandated market house built in 1802.


Back then, farmers needed to sell their crops as close to the fields as they could. Today, the USDA reports that about 78% of farms dealing directly with consumers sell their harvest within a 100-mile radius of the farm.


But most farms don’t sell directly to consumers. Agricultural industrialization, preservation methods and global shipping has meant that fruits and vegetables can be harvested sometimes months in advance, stored and then shipped to grocery stores.


Apples, for example, are harvested in the fall and stored for 9-12 months before you actually purchase them. Citrus is often stored for six months before it makes it to a grocery store. Potatoes can sit for up to 11 months in storage.


Many tomatoes grown commercially are actually harvested while they’re still green to make shipping easier then ripened at their destination. That’s why so many grocery store tomatoes don’t actually taste like a tomato.


Another consequence of industrial agriculture is that crops are limited to what easily sells in grocery stores. The array of fruits and vegetables in a typical supermarket might look abundant, but the focus for growers is varieties that will travel well and have a long shelf life.


Walk into any farmers market and you’ll immediately notice varieties you never see inside the grocery store.


Increasingly, market managers are trying to leverage that abundance and create an environment in which consumers can shop at a farmers market for almost everything they need, from produce to meats and freshly baked breads.


“We teach that consistency is very important,” says Kasi Haire, a board member of the Tennessee Association of Farmers Markets and manager of two local markets. “We’re trying to teach consumers that the farmers market should be your first grocery stop and then you just fill in the gaps. Obviously, we’d prefer that everyone eat seasonally and you should develop your weekly menu with what is available.”


And that is a bit of a learning curve. For consumers accustomed to buying strawberries year-round, it’s a tough ask to limit them only to the very short strawberry season that starts in mid-April and lasts only a few weeks. But market managers want shoppers to wean themselves from offseason options, only buying and preparing what’s in season.


The Franklin Farmers Market has almost doubled its vendors since Amy Tavalin became the manager eight years ago. Today, in a sprawling area behind The Factory, there are about 107 vendors.


Tavalin says expanding the market was intentional.


“We wanted to give the customer an experience so they wouldn’t have to go to the grocery store after the market,” she says. “We do maintain that if you don’t make it, bake it or grow it you can’t participate. Our mission has always been to maintain Tennessee farmers.”


The market has an extensive selection of preservative-free home-baked breads, meats that are raised locally and humanely, farm-fresh eggs that are packaged a day or two before they’re sold and numerous options for already prepared take-home foods. The only outside producer allowed is a seafood purveyor, but the market felt comfortable including them because the fish is sustainably harvested by small producers.


Marketing the markets


Pick Tennessee, an arm of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, has been an educational and promotional resource for farmers and producers for more than 30 years. Its website,, offers resources for farmers and information for consumers, including a list of every farmers market statewide including Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.


About 12 years ago, the nonprofit Tennessee Association of Farmers Markets was created to further focus on just farmers markets, although they work closely with Pick Tennessee. A priority is to train market managers to help farmers maximize their businesses.


One of the ways they do that is to hold a statewide conference of market managers to teach best practices. The conference participants cover a wide range of local producers from beekeepers to Christmas tree growers and wine growers to the farmers markets.


“Wouldn’t it be cool if we connected all the market managers across the state?” says Tavalin, who runs the conference. “The Pick Tennessee Conference started in 2016. Since then, we’ve had about 800 participants. It’s supported heavily by a specialty crop block grant that varies year by year. Last year, we wrote a $50,000 grant that covered lunch and speakers. This year we wrote the grant for scholarships for farmers who may not be able to attend.”


One of the aims of both Pick Tennessee and the farmers market association is to provide real tools to expand the business opportunities for farmers who bring their crops to market.


“To go to the farmers market you have to get everything loaded up and be somewhere for lots of hours and typically make lots of small transactions,” says Megan Leffew, an extension specialist for the agriculture department’s Center for Profitable Agriculture, which works closely with farmers markets. “And then you have to haul everything back. It can be pretty rigorous.”


The center is doing a series of farmers markets webinars covering the gamut of opportunities for farmers. “We’ll be talking about merchandising strategies,” says Leffew. “What kind of supplies do you need? What kind of set up? You need a table and you need a tablecloth that’s a solid color to accentuate your products. We also talk about regulations for fresh vegetables. You can sell some by count or weight. What kind of scale do you need? How can you use social media to connect with people and email marketing to stay in touch with customers?”


Leffew says what farmers need is dependent on their goals. Small farmers in rural counties may have fewer expectations than larger, more urban, farmers.


Delvin Farms works 120 acres in eastern Williamson County. It started as a small-scale operation, but over the years it has expanded to include several farmers market locations, a CSA program and an on-site farm store. It also has a robust website.


“They don’t want to have all their eggs in one basket,” says Leffew. “They want to have several streams of marketing and outlets.”


An initiative in the formative stages is a statewide farmers market trail similar to Kentucky’s Bourbon Trail and Tennessee’s Ale Trail and Whiskey Trail.


“We were just awarded a farmers market promotion grant through the United States Department of Agriculture to start a farmer’s markets trail similar to the whiskey trail,” says Haire. “Similar to wineries, there will be a website where you can see where the markets are updated with their days and hours. There will be some kind of incentive to go visit.”


An easy, if ambitious, daylong trip could take consumers from 11 markets in Nashville to seven markets in Chattanooga and then seven more in Knoxville.


A silver lining


One of the biggest boosts to farmers markets has not come from education, but through perseverance.


When the world shut down in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic, the immediate future of farmers markets was very much in jeopardy. The immediate thought was to shut them down.


“We were a part of discussions almost every day with the Department of Agriculture and the governor about how we could help market managers do things in a safe way to keep them open and operating and keep farmers producing food,” says Haire. “There was a huge spotlight shown on local food and also farmers markets were considered a safer place to shop because they were outdoors and you could spread out more.”


Leffew points out that at a time when supermarket shelves were bare, farmers markets still offered abundance.


“Oh, that was interesting,” says Tavalin of the Franklin market’s experience. “The Tennessee Association of Farmers Markets had a lot of Zoom meetings with a lot of managers who were closing their markets. And we said we’re not closing our market. It’s essential to our customers.”


Tavalin initially thought about having clients preorder and then have a drive-thru lane for them to pick up their produce. But that seemed overly complicated. Franklin’s mayor was ready to close the market, but relented to keeping it open if the market would eliminate their artisan vendors and just sell food.


“We removed the center aisle of the shed and pushed them all to the outside,” says Tavalin. “And we put six-foot tapes down for people to stand in line. And there was the mask mandate. It was intense.


“But farmers did really well. Business boomed. Peoples’ businesses doubled. I feel like we picked up a lot of customers because they felt safe outside.”


The other innovation, at least as far as farmers markets were concerned, was moving from a cash-only model to an electronic one. For decades, anyone who shopped at a farmers market knew to bring cash because that’s all a vendor would accept. But paper money fell out of favor almost overnight when the pandemic started and farmers were forced to move to credit cards and cash apps such as Venmo.


“It was a good change for a lot of different people,” says Haire. “One thing we teach our vendors is that you never want to leave a sale on the table. If someone has a credit card, you should take that payment. It’s just part of doing business.”  


Reprinted with permission from the Nashville Ledger