After years of steady growth, sales at the Bellingham Farmers Market leveled off and declined about 3 percent per year starting in 2011.
That drop is minuscule compared to the market’s growth up to 2011, market director Caprice Teske said. Gross sales at the market have nearly doubled since 2006, growing from about $1 million to $1.8 million annually. But the recent drop could signal a shift in the way consumers buy local food.
The trend is national, according to a January 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with everything from an increase in the number of farmers markets, the recession, and more places for farmers to sell produce contributing to the plateau in sales.
Chris Benedict, interim director of Washington State University’s Whatcom County Extension office, said the change is a natural process that markets go through. Statewide, there was a steep growth in direct sales from 2000 to 2005 that leveled off over the next five years and began to drop in some places in the last three years.
In Bellingham, the plateau in market sales might not mean a plateau in demand for local food. Grocery stores and restaurants both sell more locally grown food than they did five years ago, Teske said.
“Ten years ago the farmers market was one of the only outlets where you could consistently get local food,” she said. “ Now, a lot of the time farmers use the market as a launching pad for additional business. They use the market for exposure that they wouldn’t necessarily get on their own.”
When Sküter Fontaine started farming in 2007, he made nearly all his sales at the Bellingham Farmers Market. His Everson farm, Terra Verde Farm, has grown from a quarter-acre to about 10 acres. Now, the market makes up about 40 percent of his sales, but it is no less important to his business, Fontaine said.
On a Saturday in April at the market, he made a deal to sell his produce to a chef at Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen.
“That came about from him seeing us at the market and being able to talk to us about what we grow and what our farm is like,” Fontaine said. “Deals like that happen because of the market giving us access to more venues, being able to meet people and do branding.”
Terra Verde Farm has a community supported agriculture program that allows customers to subscribe to get weekly shares of farm produce. Fontaine also sells to the Community Food Co-op, Terra Organic and Natural Foods, and to local restaurants.
He said it has gotten easier to sell to local restaurants since 2007, as some Bellingham restaurants have changed their menus to offer more seasonal produce. Now, during winter, restaurants Fontaine sells to are more likely to serve leek and potato soup – made with vegetables that store well – rather than tomato bisque, he said.
If sales at the market have leveled off because farmers are finding new places to sell, that’s not a bad thing, said Teske, the market director.
“That is our mission — to connect the community with local agriculture,” she said. “We have illustrated that there’s a demand for local products and more folks, like restaurants and grocery stores, are making sure they have local products.”
Oliver Lazenby, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.