Farmers Markets Hatch Possiblities

Spring is the incubating season.

Chicks hatch. Calves, lambs and kids appear on pastures that show a promising hint of green. Planting is just around the corner for gardeners and farmers, and already here for some. Many producers are preparing for farmers markets—that season too will be here shortly. Spring is an interesting time to consider the growth of these markets across our communities, and to note how as farmers grow a new year’s food supply, farmers markets incubate and grow new businesses.

The growth of farmers markets in Montana has been nothing short of spectacular. In 1990, Montana had only five farmers markets across the state. Today we have 49 markets in 42 communities. Very likely this growth has to do with the power of farmers markets to enable small business growth and enliven communities.

At Western Sustainability Exchange we’ve noticed significant growth within our own market. When WSE took over the Livingston Farmers Market in 2002, the busiest market days never saw more than 30 vendors. But in the past few years the market has steadily grown and we now see as many as 95 vendors come out on the more active days. Last year the market hosted a record number of 230 different vendors over the course of the season. As more and more people come out to socialize, shop and buy groceries, we have also seen an accompanying rise in sales generated through the market for each individual business—from 2009 to 2010 vendors witnessed a 20% growth in total sales, and approximately a 15% increase from 2010 to 2011.

We hear plenty of anecdotes about the importance of the market as an essential secondary source of income for vendors and their families. Farmers markets are undoubtedly growing in economic and community importance. But they also serve another valuable but less apparent role:  they incubate small businesses.

In the microcosm of the Livingston Farmers Market, we have witnessed a number of vendors grow their businesses from weekly booths at the market to regular suppliers of other shops around town. Farmers markets serve as a platform for vendors to test products and pricing and build a customer base in a low-risk setting.

Farmers markets have given rise to alternative business models too, as farmers cultivate customer bases and then begin CSA (community supported agriculture) shares or create virtual marketplaces like Bozeman’s own Field Day Farm’s Online Farmers Market.

But perhaps most far reaching is the capacity of farmers markets to incubate the next generation of farmers, businessmen, and community leaders. WSE provides “Youth Booths” to children at our Livingston market as a way to develop business savvy in young people. Many of the kids that set-up booths at the market have learned important business basics from an annual summer kids camp WSE helps organize as part of our Young Entrepreneur Stewardship (YES) program. YES teaches our next generation of entrepreneurs the economic benefits of using sustainable business practices, the importance of giving back to their community and the responsibility of being good stewards of the world they live in. The Livingston market then serves as a platform for these kids to put their theory into practice. We’re proud to partner with LINKS for Learning, Junior Achievement, 4-H, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Park County and the Livingston Food Pantry on this important component of our market.

Farmers markets are a significant and powerful feature of our communities. Whether it’s a healthy food system, a business idea, an entrepreneurial education or a community gathering, the growth of farmers markets in Montana is incubating and hatching up a better life for Montanans.