Small and medium-sized independent farms have discovered online selling in recent years with the arrival of numerous farm-to-door delivery apps, possibly threatening the popularity of farmers markets. 

Many farmers markets were already struggling due to over-saturation prior to the pandemic. A March 2019 article from NPR noted that the number of farmers markets exploded from 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 in 2019. Crowds were heading to the bigger markets for variety and one-stop shopping, forcing scores of smaller ones to fold.

Newer competition has been coming as well from subscription-driven community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and home delivery options from Amazon.com, Instacart and Blue Apron.

With the pandemic, the temporary closing of farmers markets and restaurants forced farms to pivot online to capitalize on the resurgence in home cooking. In many cases, the pandemic accelerated the use of local, direct-to-consumer food systems, such as Barn2Door, Farm to People, Our Harvest, Harvie and WhatsGood, that were already gaining traction. A number of farmers markets set up their own online shops.

Going online can help farms tap directly into the broader growth in online grocery in addition to reaching customers who can’t frequent farmers markets. Online, farms can offer a wider variety of products versus their farmers market stall while avoiding waking up well before dawn and spending the day in inclement weather.

Many delivery platforms can also provide customizable boxes not available from CSAs and offer farms purchasing insights to assist in crop planning.

Technology snags, arranging permits and dealing with perishables, however, offer challenges to online selling for farms. A recent Modern Farmer article noted that “no digital platform could replicate the interactions farmers have with customers in person.”

Many farms are trying to balance their online and offline opportunities.

Tom Bennett, a pig and poultry farmer from southwest Michigan, told The Wall Street Journal that farmers markets remain important to his business, but more so for brand recognition and driving customers online. “Now I’m not only the farmer but the grocery store, the salesman, the delivery guy,” he said.


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