With their marketing prowess, supermarkets have been able to tweak the definition of farmers' markets to their advantage. Some source product directly from local vendors and merchandise it in the store with call-out signage and lots of promotion; others might invite the farmers to bring their own harvests to a store parking lot for a one-day, meet-and-greet blowout. Still others use a store as a distribution point for a community supported agriculture, or CSA, group.
No one is complaining about the tactics — yet. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture has become aware of the ever-widening definitions, and voiced concerns during its most recent farmers' market census and report.
“There have been cases that have emerged about the use of the term ‘farmers’ market''” said Deborah Tropp, branch chief for farmers' market and direct marketing research at the agency's Agriculture Research Service. “In some cases there has been real discussion whether something is actually a farmers' market.”
While the USDA may not have an official regulatory definition of farmers' markets, some states do. A Safeway store in Kirkland, Wash., inadvertently ran afoul of such a law this summer when its outdoor produce display — with themed merchandising — included a sign promoting a farmers' market. After a warning letter, the sign was changed to “Weekend Outdoor Market.”