Battle Brewing Over the "Farmers' Market" Brand In Washington State

Safeway fm photo: Nick Wingfield/The Wall Street Journal

I first got wind of a brewing controversy from Jack, a commenter on the blog, who heard a radio ad to the effect of - No need to go to the Farmers' Market when you can come to the Albertson's produce market. Apparently Safeway has been taking a similar approach, promoting their in-store produce experience as a farmers' market.

Yesterday I received notice from the Washington State Farmers' Market Association that they are forming a task force "to review the use of the term "farmers' market" by non-WSFMA-member groups." I didn't immediately make the connections between the Albertson's ad and the formation of the task force but then I came across this WSJ article explaining the controversey;

Farmers and their supporters have spent several decades building "farmers' market" into a brand that signifies something specific to consumers, namely, locally grown produce fresh off the farm. Now, to the dismay of farmers' market representatives, two large grocery chains in the Northwest recently began posting store banners advertising displays of tomatoes, corn and other items as farmers' markets.

In June, several Safeway Inc. stores in the Seattle area posted signs with the term "Farmers Market" above produce displays in front of their stores. When local farmers' market groups complained—the offerings included mangos, which aren't suited to Washington's climate—Safeway changed the signs to say "Outdoor Market." A Safeway spokeswoman said the chain has no plans to call its outdoor events "farmers' markets" in the future.

But then, over the Labor Day weekend, about 200 Albertsons stores in Washington, Oregon and Idaho put up their own "Farmers Market" signs next to their produce stands. The same groups complained to local Albertsons managers about the promotions, but a spokesman for the chain's owner, Supervalu Inc., said the Albertson stores may repeat them in the future if the chain deems them effective. These "farmers' supermarkets" have popped up from time to time in other regions as well.

In Washington State the rules for state association member markets are very clearly defined and enforced, so it does create a dilemma when you have a highly regulated use of the term "farmers' market" alongside a fast-and-loose use of the term, strictly for marketing purposes. I'll be interested to see how this shakes out. I think a good argument could be made that the state association, through its work, has established and nurtured the term "farmers' market" as a valuable brand in the state of Washington, and therefore they should have some authority to regulate the use of the brand.

This is yet one more example of how the rapidly growing interest in local food has large retailers scrambling to get on board. I'm not sure if they are seeing a decline in sales or if their marketing departments simply see an opportunity.

I did an interview yesterday for an upcoming show on NPR about the growing backlash against the local food movement, and I was asked about the critique by some that farmers' market and the like are nothing more than elaborate marketing schemes. My response is that there is actually something very real and substantial going on in our culture around food, and there are some that are responding by turning that into a marketing scheme. But as the flimsy marketing banners go up around town, let's not forget the substantial shifts that are taking place in the relationship between consumers, food, farmers and land. The marketplace is responding to consumer interest, but let's not then equate the marketplace's response to the thing itself.