by Gail March Yerke
Competition. Even farm markets are feeling the pinch as more consumers want to know where their food comes from and communities across the country add their own markets. The USDA’s most recent National Count of Farmers Market Directory reports an increase of over 4,000 such markets nationwide in the past 10 years. When record keeping began in 1994 there were 1,785 farm markets recognized in the United States. The most recent data show growth to over 8,600 markets across the country. What’s a market to do?
Each year farm market committees and managers look for ways to attract more customers to their events. While balancing vendors, product mix and marketing plays a big part of this process, more and more farm markets are adding one more ingredient to their recipe for success: entertainment. Besides the typical menu of fresh vegetables, fruit and artisan food products, many are opting to serve up “food for the soul.” Whether it’s different genres of music or amusement for the younger audience, it is a growing trend across the county.
Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the San Luis Obispo (SLO) Farmers Market offers “a place to eat, shop, listen to music and connect with the community.” Since 1983 they have brought the best of California to their customers with myriad fresh fruits and vegetables as well as farm-to-fork prepared foods from 50 vendors each week. Visitors can shop and dine Thursday evenings from 6 – 9 p.m. According to SLO Marketing and Communications Manager Kat Thompson, “It really makes a difference adding the entertainment. The market’s livelier and attracts more people with the different performances.”
Their 2019 schedule showcases a wide range of talent including folk music, an ‘80s cover band, a New Orleans-style jazz group and a juggling acrobat/comedian. The weekly community event stretches across six blocks of Higuera Street downtown and features different entertainment at each of the five barricaded intersections along the way. The SLO Farmers Market attracts several thousand visitors each week.
Over on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan you’ll find the Bay View South Shore Farmers Market. Entertainment Director Mark Budnik explained, “Our market committee decided to include entertainment about 12 years ago.” He was running the sound board that day as Gypsy Geoff, a magician/juggler, performed. “We like to kick off the season with him [Geoff] every year. It’s a great draw for families,” he added.
The planning for each year’s entertainment schedule starts early in the calendar year, just after the holidays. “Music is a big part of the market. We have a budget we work with and I contact those we have come to know in the Milwaukee music scene over the years for availability,” said Budnik. All talent is paid for the typical 45-minute to hour-long performance that takes place mid-market Saturday.
The market provides a tent and sound system for the performers. Crowd favorites are asked back each year; many artists contact the market requesting to perform. This year’s lineup includes mainstream jazz, old-time country and blues, 1930s swing, classical guitar and a popular local blues/folk singer/songwriter. Celebrating its 21st season, the Wisconsin farm market hosts 45 vendors and attracts an average of 2,500 customers each week.
Just one of many markets across the East Coast, the USDA also jumped on the entertainment bandwagon. The USDA Farmers Market located on 12th Street and Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C., features local artists at their weekly event. The USDA describes this farm market as “its own ‘living laboratory’ for farmers market operations across the country.”
Now in its 24th year, the market serves the District of Columbia’s 2nd Ward May through October from 9 a.m. – 2 p.m. each Friday. More than 30 vendors bring produce, fresh cut flowers, homemade breads, cheeses and other locally produced foods from farms and ranches in the Chesapeake Bay area.
As more new farm markets continue to be added to community landscapes, the competition for shoppers also grows. If your local farmers market hasn’t already added a showcase for local talent, it’s something to consider. The “market experience” that includes music and entertainment might be just what sets your farm market apart from others in your area.