Just before 8 on a Sunday morning in June, white canopy tents edge the narrow band of shade below the Rillito Park pavilion. Savvy shoppers arrive early, while the produce is still perky and plentiful, before local eggs could be fried on local sidewalks.
It’s a 10-minute stroll from one end of the farmers’ market to another. There are eggs from Elfrida, cheese from Bisbee, beef from the San Rafael Valley. There are locally baked cookies and kale chips; locally roasted coffee and chiles. And there are locally grown vegetables—purple onions, shiny and piled on blue wax cloth; bright red tomatoes placed carefully in wicker baskets; grass-green fennel fronds spilling from wood crates. Customers chat with their favorite vendors. Crumpled dollars unfold from sweaty pockets and press into latch-lock cash boxes.
Farmers’ markets are the frontline of local food, where farmers and food producers build their brands and business identities—where they connect with and get feedback from customers. Farmers’ markets are where eaters come to learn about all things local—about local farmers, regional seasonality, and face-to-face commerce. And over the past 15 years, farmers’ markets have exploded across the country, increasing from 2,863 in 2000 to 8,268 in 2015, according to the USDA.
But for all that farmers’ markets provide to their communities, they are still not where most people buy their food. And so, even as the number of Tucson farmers’ markets continues to increase—as evidenced by the clusters of white canopy tents sprouting up around town like dandelions—farmers’ markets are increasingly not where southern Arizona farmers are earning a living.
Why not? Customers are fickle, so sales are unpredictable. There are too many markets, farmers say, which dilutes the sales potential on any one day. And farmers say that they spend an unsustainable amount of time and energy hustling their product.
“That’s the challenging part of driving everywhere to hawk your produce at different markets,” says Cie’na Schlaefli, the farm manager at the San Xavier Co-op Farm. “You don’t know if you’re going to sell it. It’s exhausting. You’re spending more time and energy and money trying to sell that food than you are growing it.”
“I realized that during the summer at the farmers’ market, we could sit there for 40 hours at five markets to sell the same amount of eggs and honey that we could give to the Co-op in about three hours,” says ReZoNation Farm’s Jaime de Zubeldia. Even so, he estimates that he spends more than 400 hours a year on the road, delivering and selling the eggs, pork, and honey he and his wife, Kara, produce on their 10-acre farm. “That’s a lot of time to spend, which translates into money, and things not being done on the farm,” he says.
Schlaefli says that it’s important for farmers to factor in their own labor when doing their financial planning. “If you don’t figure the cost of your time into it, you wear out. And your energy should cost something.”
But seeking sales, farmers are forced to stretch their energy. On a day that might start at 6 a.m., “I don’t usually break down until well after 12 o’clock,” says Sleeping Frog Farms’ CJ Marks. “Every sale counts. If everyone who liked us on Facebook was part of our CSA or came to buy a $3 thing, and we sold out every time, we’d be in a much stronger position.”
Step past the line of shade at the Rillito Park Pavilion, walk 15 minutes down the river path, and you’ll see another spread of white canopy tents. It’s surreal—it’s déjà vu. Didn’t I just buy eggs and tomatoes?
In the summer of 2014, Heirloom Farmers’ Markets moved their Sunday morning market to Rillito Park, and Food In Root took over management of the St. Philip’s Plaza Farmers’ Market. At St. Philip’s Plaza, Willow Spicewood of Spice of the Desert jokes that it’s like they’re one market, just separated by a long walk.
But of course, they are not. Although some do, most customers don’t go to both markets; already labor-strapped producers are forced to choose between sticking with one market and missing out on potential sales, or splitting their time and resources to set up and stock two booths, one at each market.
“Farmers really can’t afford to send someone to all those markets—they need to be farming,” says Tina Bartsch, the former owner of Walking J Farm. “From my point of view, if farmers’ market managers really wanted to support local agriculture, they wouldn’t create more farmers’ markets. They would create one good one and have all the farmers’ come to that one. And they would be stringent about who they let in.”
Midway through the meandering St. Philip’s Market, three adjacent tables brim with colors—sunshine squash, forest broccoli, crimson peppers. I duck below a banner that says, simply, PRODUCE, and ask the man behind the table where their farm is located.
“Oh, we get our stuff from all over,” he says. “Some of it is from the UA farm, down the street.”
“What about these mangos?” I ask.
“Sometimes from Peru, sometimes from Mexico.”
The apples—green and red—wear stickers with Price Look-Up codes, evidence that they have already wound their way through an industrial system.
Many states have passed laws regulating who can sell at farmers’ markets—in 2014, California passed a law funding inspectors to ensure vendors at certified markets were actually growing what they sell. In Arizona, it’s up to each farmers’ market manager to decide who is allowed to sell what. At the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, run by the Community Food Bank, vendors are required to be certified under the Arizona Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which mandates that at least 80 percent of a vendor’s product was grown by that vendor or on one neighboring farm.
But in a town where a farmers’ market can now be found nearly every day of the week, market managers face the challenge of simply filling their markets with vendors.
“The concept of a farmers’ market, at least to a lot of people, is farmers,” says Clayton Kammerer, who co-founded Food In Root in 2012. “The reality is that we do live in the desert where the small growers are more scarce. It’s a difficult challenge of making a market something worthwhile that people can participate in; otherwise, they’ll continue to shop at Trader Joe’s.”
When the first Heirloom Farmers’ Market opened 14 years ago, Manish Shah says there were only two farms selling local vegetables. To support a viable market, the market manager allowed brokers to resell produce from places like California and Mexico. “Those brokers helped fill in the gaps,” he says. There are fewer brokers today, he says, “And they’re not selling the same stuff as the producers. Tomatoes, maybe. But that’s it. The brokers are selling pineapple, or out-of-season carrots.”
But local producers say that is precisely the problem—that farmers’ markets are projecting a false sense of seasonality, not to mention undercutting their prices.
“We have people coming to us in the middle of winter and asking, Do you have avocados?” says Dana Helfer, who owns Rattlebox Farm with her husband, Paul Buseck. “Some people don’t have a clue about what grows here, and if there are avocados at the market, there’s just no opportunity for them to learn.”
And, she says, allowing brokers to sell in the same space as farmers “really affects local producers’ ability to sell their product. You can’t compete. We’re 60 miles from a major port of entry. Our community is flooded with cheap produce. People come to the market and they only have so much money in their pocket. There goes half of that $20 to buying strawberries that got shipped in from somewhere else, that they could just buy at Safeway.”
“Customers still want to be able to buy pineapple at the farmers’ market,” says Shah—so, he says, let there be pineapple. “I think if your interest is eating local, you’ll ask.”
The issue is that many customers don’t know they’re supposed to ask. There are so many microclimates across southern Arizona that it’s conceivable that one farm could still be growing beets while another farm has moved on to summer squash. And it’s in the name—at a farmers’ market, we come assuming that the food was grown locally.
Helfer says they’re hoping to expand within the next couple of years, from one acre of mixed vegetable production to two or three. “But as we expand, there’s only so much foot traffic that the farmers’ market can manage,” she says. “So we either expand our CSA or we diversify our market—probably both. The infrastructure that would help us grow is not more farmers’ markets.”
Nationally, less than 20 percent of local food is sold in the direct-to-consumer setting—at a farmers’ market or through a Community Supported Agriculture program. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, of the $4.8 billion earned in local food sales in 2008, only $877 million—18 percent—was generated by farmers selling directly to consumers, while selling to intermediate channels generated three times more value than selling directly to consumers.
“Small farms in particular rely heavily on direct-to-consumer sales outlets for their income, and the income from these outlets can be quite volatile—which puts farmers in a tenuous position, especially if they don’t have a more secure economic buffer of a larger or consistent buyer,” says Kara Jones, the farmers’ market manager for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.
And so, as farmers wear out—as they calculate the cost of their time and energy—they’re rethinking how direct-to-consumer channels like farmers’ markets fit into their sales strategy. Farmers’ markets are still an important cornerstone of local food, but what many producers in southern Arizona say they’re seeking is the economic stability offered by those alternate “intermediate channels,” including partnerships with institutions or access to wholesale markets.
After four decades on Fourth Avenue, the Food Conspiracy Co-op has seen a few transformations; today, the small storefront of the member-owned grocery store catches eyes with a coat of neon green paint and bright white bubble letters: CO-OP.
To the right of the registers, in a vibrant corner of the store, produce manager Todd Stadtlander has managed to do a lot with a little space. Sloping shelves are stacked full of cold, colorful greens, fruits, and roots. Carefully stacked piles of vegetables wear laminated tags declaring their origin. Red Chard—Organic: CA. Or, Dino Kale—Local: Sleeping Frog Farms. In early June, Sleeping Frog’s curly kale is on sale, $2.39 for a bunch. “For the most part, we pay more for local produce than we pay for certified organic produce out of California,” says Stadtlander. “You can go to Sprouts or Whole Foods and they’ll have Dino kale for a buck. That’s what I pay a producer for it.”
Stadtlander works with seven to 10 local producers; to help move their product, he compromises on his profit margin, effectively subsidizing local food to make it more accessible to price-sensitive consumers. “Which is good to make sure it sells,” says Co-op general manager Kelley Kriner, “but not great as far as the education piece, because then people don’t quite understand the cost that goes into producing this food from small farms.” But the Co-op is doing more than subsidizing local food for consumers—they’re also working with local producers to help them build more economically viable businesses. “We’ve done a few ‘super CSA’ loans,” says Stadtlander—basically, a grander version of the Community Supported Agriculture model of “investing” in a share of a farm in exchange for food that farm produces.
The consumer-driven CSA model doesn’t always provide the cash “oomph” at the beginning of the growing season to help farmers invest in their infrastructure, seed, and labor, says Sleeping Frog Farms’ Marks. “That money actually goes to the labor and some of the seed, pumping water, drip tape. If we can buy everything in bulk at the beginning of the season, we save money, so we can produce more food at better quality, and that brings the prices down,” he says.
So the Co-op took the CSA model and supersized it, offering cash up front in exchange for produce later. In 2011 and then again in 2013, the Co-op offered Sleeping Frog Farms an interest-free loan of $25,000—which the farm has already paid back, entirely in produce. “We just did the same thing with ReZoNation,” says Kriner. “What they communicated to us was that their egg production was not sustainable in the way it was set up, so we forwarded them the cash to make the changes they needed to make—and we can continue to get their great eggs.”
Despite their dedication to supporting small producers, the Co-op is limited by the size of the store and the time of their staff. “People say, ‘Why don’t you carry more local? I go to the farmers’ market and there’s so much more there,’” says Kriner. “Each direct grower relationship is a cost, labor-wise, for Todd. If he ordered everything from one organization, it’d be super easy. One invoice, and you’re done.”
And, she says, the Co-op can’t offer the price premiums that growers can earn selling their product directly to consumers at the farmers’ market. “Those folks that are at the farmers’ market need to get $3 for their head of lettuce. We can’t pay that. Grocery stores in general have a very small profit margin.”
What the Co-op offers growers is an opportunity to avoid the hustle and unpredictability of the farmers’ market—to sell their product once, in volume, and be done with it. A grower might earn less money per head of lettuce selling to the Co-op, but they also spend significantly less time.
“Where the Co-op comes in is that you want a consistent outlet for your product,” says Stadtlander. “I’m happy to work with growers who say, ‘I can grow 40 heads of red lettuce every week for the next eight weeks.’ I say, great, bring it in.”
“And if it doesn’t sell, it’s not their problem,” says Kriner. “It’s our problem.”
On a hot Thursday afternoon in June, Audra Christophel, the consignment program coordinator at the Community Food Bank, sorts produce into wicker baskets for shoppers at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market. There are cherry tomatoes and heirloom tomatoes from backyard gardeners. Nopales from Panchita, a gardener at Las Milpitas Farm. Apricots from Antonio’s backyard orchard. Christophel works with more than 180 micro and small-scale growers to aggregate the food they grow into a diverse display of seasonality.
The consignment table, which began in 2005, is a microcosm of a more ambitious project in local food aggregation and distribution, catalyzed by a grant the food bank received from the USDA’s Local Food Promotion Program.
After conducting in-depth interviews with 20 local producers Christophel and Jones realized that, above all, producers were seeking more reliable sales than they were finding in the direct-to-consumer market. “But to sell to bigger buyers, like institutions, requires a fair amount of administrative infrastructure and capacity. For a small or mid-sized farm, that’s a huge burden,” says Jones.
Enter the Community Food Bank. “We already have a lot of the infrastructure required from our charitable donation wing,” says Jones. “We already have refrigerated trucks, warehouse and cooler space, inventory tracking systems.” And after 40 years serving the community, they had the trust of local producers who’d be putting their livelihoods on the line to enter these new markets.
In April, a majority of the producers Jones and Christophel had interviewed came to the food bank for the first gathering of what they’re loosely calling a producer’s cooperative. Together, producers generated a list of crops they could grow by season, in what quantities, and at what price point.
Tucson Medical Center was the first institution to commit; they’ve now agreed to buy all the tomatoes and cucumbers that local producers say they’re capable of growing for the institutional market—300 pounds of cucumbers and 200 pounds of tomatoes every week, which ends up meeting about half of TMC’s demand, says Beth Dorsey, the director of food and nutrition at TMC. “We’re serving about 2,000 meals a day in the cafeteria and about 1,200 meals a day for our patients. It’s a lot of food.” She says she’s excited not only about supporting local producers but also for the increase in quality. “We had a tasting here and never before had I or anyone else in the room tasted such a great cherry tomato.”
Although it will vary seasonally, selling tomatoes and cucumbers to a place like TMC offers producers a reliable market, one that doesn’t depend on the whims of consumers or market managers. But it also requires the sort of planning and coordination that had previously been beyond the capacity of most growers.
“We talked to TMC about how we can’t get a sudden mass order and fulfill it. We need to start back when this stuff is planted,” says Jones. And to sell to an institution accustomed to receiving “three-by-three” tomatoes—named for their size, three by three inches, predictable down to the slice—growers must consider what varietals to plant. “Growing for a farmers’ market requires diversity, whereas growing for an institution requires consolidation of product,” says Jones. “We’ve talked to growers about strategically setting aside a portion of their plot—this is where we’re all growing the same varietal of cucumber, or lettuce mix.”
A few months ago, the food bank hosted a workshop led by a business consultant, Patrick Staib, who coordinated a similar effort in Albuquerque. “One of the business recommendations he had for small-scale farmers was to only anticipate that 25 percent of your income would come from the farmers’ market,” says Jones. “So 75 percent, a big chunk, should come from the wholesale market, because it’s more consistent.”
Back at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, as the sun inches toward evening, the courtyard at the Mercado San Agustín fills up. Parents perch on steps while their kids play, squirm, totter. A musician resumes his strumming. Farmers are still selling food, although the supply is thinning out—frozen beef, brown-speckled eggs, thick honey. There are plant starts and seeds; crusty whole grain breads and stretchy flour tortillas.
The romance of a farmers’ market can be misleading, obscuring how many farmers burn out or go under after facing the very real struggle of growing food. But a farmers’ market is still a lovely place to wander, to talk to farmers and vendors, to slurp on a prickly pear popsicle, puppy’s leash tugging at your wrist.
Christophel says one of her favorite parts of running the consignment table at the food bank farmers’ markets is the conversation. “People ask, why are there no bananas? Or, what can I do with this? I think that education component is one of the most important things we do—educating folks about what it means to shop at a farmers’ market, what it means to support local producers, and how that’s different than shopping at a grocery store. I love seeing a bigger conversation start on the other side of the table.”
Of course, local food needs more than education—it needs better policy. Imagine if the federal government subsidized small vegetable farms the same way it subsidized corn and soybean growers. If our city and county governments offered the same incentives and tax subsidies to local grocers, meat processors, vegetable distributors, and grain millers that it offers to Walmart or Citigroup.
But that doesn’t mean consumers don’t matter—that doubling the number of regular, dedicated customers shopping at farmers’ markets or joining CSA programs wouldn’t make a huge difference for local growers. According to a study by Ken Meter at Crossroads Resource Center, if everyone in southern Arizona shifted just $5 of their weekly spending on food to a local producer, we would generate $287 million in new farm income.
“We need the support from the community to say, yes, having a local food system is important to us. Having local farms is important to us,” says Helfer. “Not because it’s nostalgic. But because it’s important to our food security and the diversity of our American food system as a whole. We’ve got to be able to put our money and our policies where our mouth is.”
As customers climb on bikes or fold into cars, heading home with totes full of food—as farmers make their final sales, hoping to head home with empty coolers—the sun tiptoes toward the edge of “A” Mountain, finally falling west and casting the courtyard in complete shade. ✜
Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona and the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.