By AFM Contributing Writer; Aimee Whittington Ph.D.
The state of Massachusetts has 500,000 acres of farmland holding 7200 farms. The state’s agricultural industry produces an annual market value of nearly half a billion dollars and provides direct employment to 26,000 people. The average farm in Massachusetts annually produces $66,000 worth of agricultural products on just under 70 acres.
Simply because of geography, small farm culture - especially family farming - is prevalent in New England agriculture and Massachusetts is no exception. Small farms with agricultural sales below $100,000 a year account for 85% of farms in the state. And 80% of those are owned by a single family or individually. And rounding out the demographics, the average age of a Massachusetts single operator is 59 and 38% of all principal operators are women.
One of the biggest facets of small farm culture is the farmers’ market. Direct market sales is a key feature of Massachusetts agriculture. Market venues provide growers and producers opportunities to engage in direct marketing. Or the face to face sale of their products to the end consumer, with no intermediary retailers. And make no mistake, those small-scale, individual interactions add up to big business.
Nationwide, in the 20 year period from 1994 to 2014, the number of farmers’ markets in the USDA directory increased 370%, from 1,755 to 8,268. From 2015 until now, the number of markets rose slightly. Growth had begun to even out, with the last 2 years seeing a spike due to the pandemic. Massachusetts ranks 5th in the nation for direct farmers’ market sales with over $100 million generated annually. Direct market sales account for 21% of the state’s total agricultural product revenue, which is the highest proportion in the country. Additionally, Massachusetts is 3rd in the country for direct sales per farm ($55,384) and 8th in the nation for direct sales per capita. The Amherst Farmers’ Market was established in 1971 and has brought (preCOVID) several thousand shoppers into the town center every Saturday for many of those years.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, there was concern as many farmers’ markets across the country were cancelled. Luckily most reopened sooner rather than later, with many having to adapt to rapidly changing state and/or local guidelines. Market runners had to find creative ways to source supplies, such as bathroom facilities and hand washing stations, and enforce policies which mandated masks, social distancing and other precautions. Because instead of slowing down, business at markets (especially those held outdoors) was growing rapidly.
Concerns about shopping for food safely, in combination with disrupted grocery store supply chains, caused consumer interest in locally sourced food to skyrocket. Market vendors and managers had to adapt quickly. There was a steep learning curve for some, as technology was put into place for options like pre-ordering, pre-packaging and curbside pickup. More affluent shoppers either became interested in or reinvested in buying local food. Lower-income buyers were able to use enhanced federal benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As well as having access to a program in Massachusetts which provides limited matching funds for purchases of fresh produce, the Healthy Incentive Program. The pandemic brought young people out to our market in previously unseen numbers. Every facet of the market has undergone substantial change.
For producers, managers and consumers filling these new and expanded roles has been no mean feat and the future is not yet certain. However, these last 2 years have shown us our marketplace responds vigorously to crises, while continuing to create growth and opportunities.
Bringing you organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, locally-sourced blog posts on a semi-weekly basis from the Amherst Farmers' Market.