In the past two decades, the United States has experienced HUGE increase in demand for fresh, local food and transparency in food production. Local food sales grew from an estimated $1 billion in 2002 to over $7 billion in 2012 and continue to grow today.
This enthusiasm for fresh produce has led to a national resurgence of farmers’ markets. The USDA estimates the number of farmers’ markets has as much as quadrupled in the last 20 years, and that’s good news for communities. Not only do markets contribute measurably to local economies, but also serve a more intangible purpose: They act as “third places,” community gathering spaces that contribute to regions’ social vitality.
So, farmers’ markets are good for communities. They are also good for farmers. Regular attendance at a farmers’ market helps small farms build brand recognition and customer loyalty. Markets empower farmers to set their own prices and offer a venue for connection between growers and consumers. Farmers’ markets were hugely important to us in our infant years and remained a big part of our operation even last year, with markets accounting for more than 10% of our farm sales.
Despite all of this, Team Oxbow made the choice this winter to say farewell (or at least, “see you later”) to farmers’ markets. So why the change?
This is a thoughtful shift rooted in our values and our experiences over the years. In 1999, Oxbow was a farm of two people on ¼ of an acre. Over the next 16 years, ¼ of an acre became 30 acres, and the farm became a diverse organization devoted to much more than just growing food. Each in their own way, now over 30 people care for our land and support our mission-driven work.
In our early days as a production farm, farmers’ markets were a great way for us to find homes for the relatively small quantities of food we were able to grow. They also served as a great means for us build our name and connect with the people eating our food. As our production grew and more people joined the team to support the effort, we needed more outlets for the increasing quantities of food we were able to grow in addition to what we could sell to restaurants and our market shoppers.
We found a great and reliable market of eager eaters in our CSA members. For most farms, CSAs make a TON of sense. Members sign on for an entire year’s commitment at the beginning of the season. For farmers, this means predictable revenue and consistent workloads across the farm, which in turn allow for specialized labor and overall higher efficiency. In a world with profit margins as slim as those in agriculture, a degree of greater efficiency can make all the economic difference.
All farms must face the challenge of navigating two continuums: those of economic and ecological sustainability. It is easy and common to sacrifice one for the other. There is no shortage of profitable farms ignorant or dismissive of their effects on the environment, and plenty of ecologically-minded farms with minimal or even negative margins. Our hope is to find the middle ground, upholding our commitment to responsible land stewardship without sacrificing profitability.
So, this year, we have made the decision to invest more of our resources into growing our CSA program. We hope this change will both streamline our operation AND give us more opportunities to connect with our members and advance our mission. In the future, we are looking to better integrate our programs—farm, native plant nursery, and children’s education—through our CSA connections.
We are excited for the challenge ahead of us and at the same time very sorry for the things we must let go. But as important as established farms like ours are, it is even more important that, with every generation, we see a new crop of farms and farmers succeeding in our community, and we are confident that our vacated spots are appreciated by our successors.
We are so thankful for the support we have had over the years from our farmers’ market customers and excited that King County’s markets will continue to thrive into the future. Farmers markets will continue to be a resource for farmers and consumers, and we encourage all to take advantage of them, regardless of our absence. Rest assured, if you are patronizing a farmers market, you are spending your money well. You can find lots more information about how you as a consumer can access the best of King County’s food economy here.
Many thanks to the market managers and volunteers we have worked with over the years (too many to name), and to our die-hard customers for the endless friendship and support. May there be many more fruitful (and vegetableful!) years ahead!
Want to support us? Our CSA has begun, but you can still sign up for it.
This article appeared in our newsletter June 22. Sign up to receive it.