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On the Farmers Market Frontier, It's Not Just About Profit

On a corner in Washington, D.C., where stores burned during riots 44 years ago, there's now a plaza where farmers sell produce on Saturday mornings.
Dan Charles/NPR
On a corner in Washington, D.C., where stores burned during riots 44 years ago, there's now a plaza where farmers sell produce on Saturday mornings.

Farmers markets are popping up in cities all across the country, and people expect lots of different things from them: Better food, of course, but also economic development and even friendlier neighborhoods.

At its core, though, the farmers market is a business, and it won't survive unless the farmer makes money.

So what's the key to success for these markets?

On a recent weekend, I took a small tour of the urban farmers market universe — at least the universe in and around Washington, D.C. My route went from rich neighborhoods to poor ones; from well-established markets to those just getting off the ground.

I start with one of the most well-established markets, run by Jim Crawford of New Morning Farm.

Forty years ago, when Crawford got into organic farming, such markets were rare in Washington. So Crawford had his pick of neighborhoods.

He tried several but settled on one of the wealthier ones, on the northwest side of the city. Every Saturday, he sets up tables and tents in front of a small private school.

Around here, the median household income is $170,000 a year. And Crawford says that does help. "It isn't cut-and-dried that this is only for high-income neighborhoods. It definitely isn't," he says. "On the other hand, you have to have people who can maybe afford to pay a little more than the lowest prices in the supermarket. Because we can't afford to grow stuff and sell it for those prices."

Crawford just raised his tomato prices, because blight is cutting into his supply. He bumped the red organic ones up to $3.20 a pound. The scarcer heirlooms are $4.20 a pound.

And still, they sell, despite the competition. There are regular grocery stores, including a Whole Foods, just a few blocks away.

The Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market sits beside a park in a strip of suburbia that was neglected for a long time.
/ Dan Charles/NPR
Dan Charles/NPR
The Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market sits beside a park in a strip of suburbia that was neglected for a long time.

"I don't pay attention to prices, which I know is really bad," confesses a loyal customer named Isabel. She cares about taste, and when she talks about it, her eyes get bright with enthusiasm. "Some things just taste better, and when you bring them to relatives, they say, 'Where did you get those tomatoes?' "

This market now has lots of company, and markets are moving into new surroundings.

I drive two miles southeast, across Rock Creek Park, which has long been seen as a dividing line in the city between rich and poor, white and black. Here is the neighborhood of Columbia Heights, in the heart of the city. In 1968, after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, riots and looting broke out here. But over the past few years, Columbia Heights has gone from troubled to trendy.

On the corner where stores burned 44 years ago, there's now a plaza where kids run through fountains and where farmers like Matt Harsh sell produce on Saturday mornings.

"You need two things for a good farmers market: pent-up demand and lots of disposable income," says Harsh. "With all the young people moving into this community, you've got that disposable income coming up, and you got tons of pent-up demand. There's just no place to get stuff."

But there aren't just young people with money here. About a third of the produce that Harsh sells is paid for with money from programs that provide food assistance to low-income families, such as the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Private donors have stepped in to boost the value of those benefits, when they're used to shop for fruit and vegetables at this market. The ability to use those benefits at this market, in fact, has been one of the keys to its success.

Amy Sahalu is waiting in line to pay for some of Harsh's vegetables. She grew up in Ethiopia, and she comes here partly because it feels a little bit like open-air markets back home. There's only one drawback: "A little bit expensive here," she says. "But it tastes good for me."

This market has turned into a kind of low-key celebration of urban community and country food.

A lot of people would love to see the same thing happen in places that aren't quite so up-and-coming.

So the new farmers market frontier is in places like Shipley Terrace, on the southeastern edge of Washington.

According to the Census Bureau, the median household income in this neighborhood is about $27,000 a year. Two-thirds of the families don't have fathers living with them.

Yet there's a farmers market here: the Ward 8 Farmers Market. And in some ways, it's just like the ones across town.

The customers here are looking for the same thing.

"Fresher produce, locally grown," says Steve Hair.

"So you know where your food is coming from, and I like that," says Carlos Graham.

But there also are ways in which life is different on the farmers market frontier. The making-money part is tougher.

James Smith sells fresh vegetables here. He says there are only enough customers at this market to support one stand like his.

"When you've got two or three people selling the same product, then everybody lose money," he says softly. "Nobody makes money. I drive 80 miles to get here. And if I don't make any money at all, why come here?"

And yet, almost in the next breath, Smith tells me it's more than a business.

"I'm here for the people," he says. "I like the money, but I'm here for the people more than the money. People on this side don't have as much money as other folks do. They need to eat, too. So we need to take care of those, also."

Markets like this usually have volunteers and nonprofits behind them, and they have goals that go way beyond making money.

When John Gloster helped set up the Ward 8 Farmers Market, there was no real grocery store anywhere for miles around. "We have done a great job of making foods available that people perceived previously as being outside of their budget," he says.

At other frontier markets, the healthy food is a way to build a community. For instance, across the Potomac River in Virginia, the Four Mile Run Farmers and Artisans Market sits beside a park in a strip of suburbia that was neglected for a long time.

"The park was a place that nobody wanted to go," says Kevin Beekman, who helped get this market off the ground.

On Sunday mornings, there's now food and usually some music.

Beekman says the vendors here are doing OK, but not great. In other ways, though, the market has been an amazing success. He used to fill a garbage bag with trash every weekend, but now, he says, "nobody even bothers to litter. It's so much more of a pleasure to be in the neighborhood. Folks in the high-rise across the street will come down. They'll say, 'I don't know what this is all about, but I'm happy that this is in my neighborhood.' "

"Are they shopping here?" I ask.

Beekman pauses for just a moment. "They're starting to," he says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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