E-Interview with Tim Robinson – Farmers Markets in the Centre Region

Tim Robinson

Tim Robinson recently sent along a link to this New York Times article:

I wrote back to ask for his thoughts on the piece – interview below. Reader thoughts welcome, as always.

Do you have an opinion on the practical implications of this article for the State College area?

TR: While we have Millheim, Bellefonte (two markets), State College (four markets) and Boalsburg markets, they do not directly compete with each other. An exception is the two Bellefonte Saturday markets. The market for local produce has barely been scratched so far, and is nowhere near saturation. Saturation here in Centre County is a long ways off.

What’s your view on centralizing the farmers markets into a larger, year-round indoor location, something like a co-op, with more typical business hours and a layout more aligned with supermarket shoppers habits?

TR: The Sozo (Beaver Ave.) indoor winter market ran from November 2009 to May 2010 and a winter  market ran from November 2010 to May 2011 in the State College municipal building. Two vendors stuck it out all winter in the Sozo market, and at least two stuck it out at the municipal building: a dairy and a bakery.

The Boalsburg farmers market overwinters in the fire hall with around 14 vendors. Some drop out as they run out of produce, but many have stock year round. There were maybe ten left by May.

In order for an indoor market to work, it would have to have all the charm of an outdoor market. It would have to be a wonderful location, so that, for example, the students who frequent the Locust Lane markets could conveniently visit the others. The same for the folks who frequent the Home Depot/North Atherton market – it would be inconvenient to travel to a downtown location where parking is an issue.

For a winter market to continue and be full, the vendors would be severely tempted to supplement their own produce with bulk purchases from California, etc. for resale. This would violate the ‘producer only’ tenet that makes farmers’ markets different from the produce section of Weis markets.

Maybe de-centralizing and making it less like a supermarket are exactly why farmers’ markets are successful. No carts, individual vendors. One supermarket ‘plus’ is variety and a wide selection – you can find everything you need for a good meal. Our area farmers’ markets have moved in that direction and now offer meats, ready-made food, pastas, desserts, dairy, etc. Customers have more of a one-stop shop.

What do you see as the role of a farmers market consumers’ alliance of some sort, that might be able to coordinate with the farmers market organizers in some way to match supply and demand while growing both?

TR: People have apparently tried to organize local restaurants to match demand and supply, but nothing came of it. The availability of, for example, string beans is an iffy thing. When they’re ripe, they’re available. When they’re done, they’re gone. There’s a supply spike, and then nothing. The glut can be leveled by preserving the food. Typically, at least with produce, the customer does the preserving. There is some room perhaps, for a buy-local online clearinghouse where producers list what products they have available at the moment so that buyers know where to go and when when they want a bushel of pears or ten pounds of string beans.

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