by Gail March Yerke

We’ve all experienced the effects of supply chain disruption and product availability during the COVID-19 pandemic. Manufacturers have faced delays in receiving critical parts needed to keep their production lines in operation, impacting employment. The automobile industry pumped the brakes when the shortage of computer chips affected new vehicle availability. Global food distribution faced major delays and, more often than not, consumers found partially filled grocery shelves. If that’s not bad enough, our country is experiencing the fastest and largest inflationary spiral in 40 years. So, is there any good news? In a word, yes.

The Michigan Farmers Market Association (MIFMA) recently presented their 2022 conference virtually, offering two days of industry expert presentations, roundtable discussions and break-out sessions. Established in 2006, the organization promotes local food consumption and supports its more than 450 members. Besides promoting markets and farm products, the association offers education and policy support for Michigan farmers markets.

In her welcome address, MIFMA Executive Director Amanda Shreve referenced the recent roller coaster of events that have impacted our country. “We have seen supply chain disruptions, inflation and the exponential growth of online grocery shopping,” she said. “All of these disruptions, challenges and obstacles we’ve seen and yet farmers markets have been resilient through the whole thing.”

It’s likely to be another busy summer season at the Farmers Market at the Capitol in Lansing, MI. Photo courtesy of Michigan Farmers Market Association

Keynote speaker Debra Tropp, former deputy director of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, kicked off the conference with “Making Lemonade Out of Lemons: Managing and Sustaining Farmers Markets in an Uncertain Environment.” Much of Tropp’s presentation focused on the latest corporate and USDA research statistics and analysis, highlighting how current trends and food-at-home purchases benefit local farmers markets. The growing popularity of remote work has encouraged home food preparation and cooking, with many hesitating to return to the regular workforce.

For the first time since the Great Recession in 2008, food-at-home purchases account for more than half of all food spending. Tropp explained how between 2020 and 2021, total food expenditures in the U.S. jumped 18% to $1.87 trillion. “In an atmosphere of scarcity and relative isolation, consumers are increasingly open to shopping at direct markets,” she continued. “Consider that we don’t have heavy advertising, packaging and transportation costs. Farmers markets appear more price-competitive given the steep price inflation in standard grocery channels.”

So now, more than ever, consumers are embracing food sourced from their local farmers market. According to Tropp, customers are also looking for food system alternatives that promote sustainable production and emphasize nutrition. Locally grown foods’ smaller carbon footprint is seen as a part of the climate solution as well. “Be sure to bring all of this to your customers’ attention through your social media,” she stressed. “Show your sustainability ‘cred’!” In addition to social media, vendors should “talk it up” with their customers and use signage at their market booth underscoring the same.

Looking ahead, both Shreve and Tropp saw positive indicators for growth at farmers markets. It seems that despite all of the chaos and uncertainty around us, the stage is set for an epic 2022 market season.