Rochester Public Market seeing fewer farmers as economic disruptions take toll
On a recent Thursday morning at the Rochester Public Market a light but steady stream of shoppers filtered past vendors peddling fresh fruits and vegetables, kettle corn, and blossoming flowers.
A group of retirees sat around a picnic table at Zimmerman’s. And a swarm of grade-schoolers, having just unloaded from a pair of school buses nearby, waited impatiently for their tour to begin.
Normalcy is returning to this place that is such a part of the community fabric. But its threads have been frayed, first by the pandemic, then by labor shortages, supply chain interruptions and high gas prices.
"The pandemic really hit the market pretty bad,” said Cindy Barrett, a longtime vendor and farmer who sells asparagus, beans, eggplant and tomatoes grown on the family farm in Williamson, Wayne County.
“People are coming in more and more now than they were before,” she continued. “Of course, now we got to deal with gas prices and everything else.”
Vendors are struggling, like every other retailer, with changes in shopping habits. Many people got used to the convenience of online ordering during the pandemic. Both the market and individual vendors like Flower City Bread continue to do dozens of curbside pickup orders weekly.
All of this has a domino effect on the industry.
“We've lost some vendors,” Barrett said. “I mean, the prices of the stalls went up this year. Some people didn't renew their leases. It's just the economy and, you know, some people are just getting out of it. “
The market is adapting in a shift last seen more than a half century ago.
Back to the future
For a long time, the market’s challenge was accommodating all the vendors who wanted in.
That drove a multi-million-dollar renovation and expansion, completed in 2017. A new shed was built, to be filled with farmers and other food vendors. But there wasn’t enough demand — even before COVID. Projections of higher and higher revenues fell flat. Today the market is grappling with vacancies.
“It's a whole little ... small economy; its own microcosm of what's going on,” said Jim Farr, who oversees the Public Market, and has been doing so for 25 years.
The market, much like any retail operation, ebbs and flows. And financially, he said, it’s doing OK. Revenues are up, budget records show, but remain below pre-pandemic levels.
Farr offers this quick history lesson:
Back in the 1950s, the market was supposed to close. Everyone was moving to the new Genesee Valley Regional Market, a food distribution hub in Henrietta that offered easier access to the New York state Thru-Way and trucks that could ferry their wares to various locations across the Northeast.
When some stubborn farmers refused to go, the only way to keep it viable was to open it to something it never had before.
“That's the first day we ever let anyone in but food and farm products,” Farr said.
Those vendors, peddling socks, underwear and shoes, kept things going.
As farmers markets saw a resurgence, tripling in number nationwide between the ’90s and early 2000s, the vendor mix at the Public Market shifted back toward food.
“Now,” Farr said, “since the pandemic, we may see a shift a little bit back the other way again.”
By the numbers
Already farmers are routinely outnumbered by those selling crafts, hats, and kitchen gadgets.
Farmers collectively fill more stalls. But a census of last year’s market days in June, July, and August — the busiest months of the season — showed local farmers accounting for just 15% of the vendor mix.
Other food vendors, peddling jams, pies and products not grown in New York state, were 38% of the total. General merchandise vendors represented 31%, with craft vendors making up the difference.
In recent weeks, market staff has relied on general merchandise vendors to fill the outer two sheds.
Most of the licensed vendors hail from Monroe and Wayne counties, records show, but extend across the Finger Lakes and as far away as Queens, in New York City.
The vendor census is being collected as part of a master plan and management plan update, the first in more than a decade. The assessment isn’t just looking at the market but the surrounding neighborhood, evaluating every commercial property in the surrounding neighborhood.
There is consideration of a small transportation center with a bus turnaround, the possibility of housing development and options for wholesale vendors to move offsite, finding their warehouses are more valuable as retail space. The market restaurants “are doing very well,” Farr said.
The area around the market has seen $30 million or more in private investment along Railroad Street and around the market, he said. The city has put in close to $20 million in recent decades.
'Things are gonna change’
The shifting vendor mix isn’t all about the pandemic, or the economy for that matter.
For some, the pandemic wasn’t all bad.
Fresh meat vendors saw record sales as supermarket prices soared. More time at home meant more time for gardening, helping sales of flowers and vegetable plants. But Ted Cooper with Kirby’s Farm Market in Brockport, says foot traffic at the Public Market has yet to rebound, at least on weekdays.
“Saturday, we sold over 100 pounds of asparagus and everything sold pretty well,” Cooper said. “But Thursday's have been not really that great.”
There also is an oversaturation of markets, according to the Farmers Market Federation of New York.
It’s also important to have a mix, Farr said. Even among food vendors, the farmers and wholesalers ensure competition. That ensures affordability — a mission and a need not lost on Tom Watson, a farmer and produce seller out of Livingston County.
“This area has always been a hub for food in a food desert,” he said. “With the price of fuel going up ... loads from California have increased substantially, as well as from New York City, Philadelphia, from down south, and we rely on a lot of that produce early in the season.”
Those farmers who remain are making do. People like Mary Ellen Loss, the self-described longest-running and oldest vendor at the market, celebrated 50 years this season.
Farming in her family goes back generations. There are fewer farmers now, she said, more what she calls “hucksters,” the wholesalers and re-sellers who undercut her prices. Too low for her to match. She and her husband make their living on farming.
“Things are gonna change,” she said. “And we have to go along with that change. But we'll take it. I grew up during a depression, so anything is better than nothing.”