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Surveying St. Louis' farmers market scene: What’s changed in the past 15 years?

Ferguson Farmers Market
Volunteers at the Ferguson Farmers Market.

The oldest, still-operating farmers market in St. Louis, Soulard Farmers Market, has a history that stretches back over 200 years. But it is only in the past 15 that the local food scene has exploded across other municipalities in the region, bringing with it smaller markets and more opportunities for local growers to sell their produce and products.

Credit Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio
Chris Jaurigui, Annette Beach and Dave Thies.

St. Louisans are fulfilling the promise of the local food movement, which began nationwide in the 1980s. It resurged in the early 2000s with the purpose of sustaining local producers, building community ties and reducing the environmental impact of the food system. That’s when many local farmers markets and local farms started appearing across the country. 

“Part of the charm [of the farmers market] is that people really do like to know their farmers, they like to know where their food comes from and talk to the farmers about the type of food they’re producing ” said Chris Jaurigui, a long-time volunteer with Ferguson Farmers Market, which is in its 14th year of operation. “They like to know because they are being introduced to foods they’ve never had before. They’re getting an instructional view, they get to see the food. That makes it a special thing.”

Have we reached a saturation of farmers markets?

By some counts, there are now more than 30 farmers markets in the St. Louis area, and that’s not even including local/urban farms that sell food in the region. While there is vast interest in buying food from local sources — you’ll see that grocery stores have recently started emphasizing that they carry it — some believe that the St. Louis market for homegrown products is near saturation.

“I think there is a saturation point for farmers markets because there are only ‘X’ amount of growers in the area,” said Dave Thies, the fifth-generation owner of Thies Farm, who joined “St. Louis on the Air” on Wednesday. “You can kind of thin the quality quite a bit if it gets to saturation.”

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Eggplants for sale at Tower Grove Farmers' Market.

“If the farmers aren’t making money, they’re not going to come,” Annette Beach, the market manager for the 10-year-old Tower Grove Farmers Market, replied.

“It becomes highly competitive, you can only have so many markets being successful so many days of the week,” said  Jaurigui. “If you could spread that out throughout the week so people could go to a market at different times throughout the week when they’re available, but when you have a dozen-or-more markets all operating at the same time on Saturday, you’re not going to get the overflow from other communities coming down.”

On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” these three guests who are part of the local food movement in St. Louis joined host Don Marsh to discuss what has changed in the past 15 years and what they see the future of local food here becoming:

The history of the local farmers market scene

In the past few years, a few markets, such as Clayton and Ellisville, have shut down their operations due to lack of sales. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the hunger for local food has waned.

We started out 10 years ago with maybe t13 vendors and 500 customers on a Saturday, and now we have up to 60 vendors on a Saturday and we can have 4,000-5,000 shoppers.

“People want local, fresh produce and the meats and cheese and that sort of thing,” said Beach. “We’ve been really busy these past couple of years. We started out ten years ago with maybe 13 vendors and 500customers on a Saturday and now we have up to 60 vendors on a Saturday and we can have 4,000-5m000 shoppers. It is growing at Tower Grove.”

Thies, whose farm on North Hanley Roadhas been in operation since 1855, and now has two other locations, participates in the Ferguson Farmers Market because it reaches new audiences. He’s also innovated other ways to bring local food to people who are interested in it outside of his farm grounds, where produce is for sale.

“We’re invited to probably 20 different markets, we get calls every year,” said Thies. “It’s not an easy job to set up and do a farmers market for a grower and do it right, so we do the Ferguson market as well as corporate markets.”

Thies’ farms bring food directly to customers on a bi-weekly basis to corporations like Express Scripts, Energizer, Build-A-Bear, UnitedHealthcare among others. He says it is a way to get their name out there and also eases the process of bringing goods to market.

“In St. Louis County, even as soon as the '80s there was quite a few number of substantial commercial vegetable farms, probably 20 to 30,” said Thies. “Now, as far as commercial farms, you’re talking five.

“Back then, we were prone to the markets. That’s when the California movement of bringing everything in and ‘homegrown.’ We’ve always used ‘homegrown’ as our niche, that’s what we specialize in, if you want good flavor. That became not a big deal in the '70s and '80s. Everyone was so thrilled that California was in here year-round, we kind of lost our edge. When the local movement grew, that has been a big benefit to us.”

The economy of things

Thies said that the local food movement has even impacted traditional food sources in St. Louis: local grocery stores, such as Schnucks and Dierbergs. “It has really forced their hands to promote local product,” he said, though he wasn’t sure of dollar impact.

Low-income customers' dollars will get twice the value on money spent on fruits and vegetables at several local farmers markets.
Credit Courtesy SNAP 2 It! Program, via St. Louis Farmers Market Association
Courtesy SNAP 2 It! Program, via St. Louis Farmers Market Association
Cherry tomatoes.

“It has impacted their thinking. Our family knows the Schnuck family,” said Thies. “They’re a good company to deal with, but recently they’ve put us out on the forefront. Previously they worked with us, but now they promote us. Locally-grown.”

At markets themselves, farmers or vendors pay a booth fee to participate in the market and then take home all of the proceeds from their day’s sales. One of the hardest aspects of farmers markets is that they are, essentially, community-run to keep costs down.

“A market manager can’t do it all,” said Jaurigui, a volunteer himself. “You can’t hire anyone really because you aren’t making money. It is up to people in the community to keep it going and thriving. At the Ferguson Farmers Market, there are 30 to 40 people that come out in rotation on Saturday mornings from 6 a.m. and then shut down at 12 p.m., with different people from the community. That’s what makes a market successful, the community buy-in.”

Ferguson Farmers Market has struggled, in particular, following last year’s protests in the area. Jaurigui says it has started to pick back up, but they did have to shut down the market early last fall.

A community relationship is cultivated when customers can have one-on-one relationships with the farmers they buy from, said Beach.

Jaurigui said that customers range from the super-involved foodie (who wants to know everything from how to prepare the food they buy to where it came from) to the person who is hesitant and comes for what they know, like tomatoes or corn. “It is always nice to get someone to try something,” Jaurigui said. “Sometimes the farmers give out little samples … once you can get someone to talk to you, they’re more likely to try something, to take something home and prepare it the way it is suggested.”

There are specific vendors that consumers always come to visit. Peaches and mushrooms are especially highly sought, said Jaurigui. Just last week , Beach said that if Joe Ringhausen Orchard doesn’t come to market, she’ll have over 100 people asking her where the apple cider is. 

Sometimes, at the end of the market, you may even see vendors trading among themselves with food that is left-over from the day’s business.

Saturation actually may be a good thing

People sit down and enjoy a meal with different people, complete strangers and they strike up a conversation because they have a common interest: the farmers market.

“The economic advantage is that it brings people to your city and while they’re there, they might go to a local business,” Jaurigui said. “We really encourage people not just to enjoy our market, but to enjoy the community. We have a little picnic table area in the middle of the market and people sit down and enjoy a meal with different people, complete strangers and they strike up a conversation … because they have a common interest: the farmers market.”

That community-creation is part of the reason why “saturation” doesn’t worry Jaurigui.

“There’s a reason why I’m so involved in the farmers market,” he said. “It is a community event, it brings people together. It’s very much a place-making thing, for cities too. The more farmers markets you have, the better, but when you have too many, the smaller ones fall off. It’s unfortunate, but there are always other farmers markets for those vendors to go to.”

More information

Ferguson Farmers Market

Tower Grove Farmers Market

Thies Farm

Local Food Map

Listeners also sent these three markets as those they like to visit regularly

Webster Grove Farmers Market

Midtown Farmers Market Schlafly Farmers Market

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.
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