December 3, 2010

The number of farmers markets across the country has exploded over the past few years, providing marketing opportunities for the small-scale farmer. Students in a University of Kentucky rural sociology class, taught by Keiko Tanaka, wondered exactly who frequented the Lexington Farmers Market and why, so they surveyed 551 shoppers at all three of the market's locations over a two-week period. They will present the results and analysis of their survey in Conference Room A at the Lexington Public Library at 7 p.m. Dec. 7.

One of the biggest findings, according to Tanaka, associate professor in the College of Agriculture's Department of Community and Leadership Development, was that shoppers at the Lexington Farmers Market came from a relatively affluent and educated group of the population-with 57 percent having a household income of more than $50,000 and 66 percent having at least a bachelor's degree.

What Tanaka found particularly interesting was the proportion of people who say they grow and preserve their own food. Of the people surveyed, 60 percent said they grew some food in their yards and 50 percent preserved food they either grew or purchased.

"We didn't expect the percentage to be this high," she said. "They are saying that not only do they shop at the farmers market, but they grow their own food and they preserve food. It all goes as a package."

When students asked participants why they shopped at the farmers market, the most frequent answers concerned food quality, being able to support local farmers and the local economy, the variety and selection of products available, and social reasons.

Lexington Farmers Market Manager Jeff Dabbelt originally asked Tanaka to do a zip code analysis of the market's shoppers. She and her students expanded on that idea. Tanaka thinks the survey results will help the market become more effective.

"If you look at the most frequently raised concerns, they are chemicals in food, processed food and better nutrition and health," Tanaka said. "If somehow the market vendors can use those as a part of their marketing, they could attract more people. They can also improve customer service, because this helps them understand what the customer wants and what kinds of customers they have."

An issue her students' survey uncovered-a lack of diversity-concerned Tanaka.

"Lexington does have a food insecurity issue," she said, referring to the availability, or lack of affordable food for everyone. "There's a lack of diversity. I think the challenge for the farmers in Lexington Farmers Market would be how to attract the diverse populations in Lexington.... How can we use the farmers market as a tool (to solve this problem)? I don't want a farmers market to divide the community into two groups."

Tanaka believes local and state government, as well as the local school system, might be able to address those issues.

Her students will present a complete analysis of their data on Dec. 7. For more information contact Tanaka at 859-257-6878 or ktanaka@uky.edu.