Is the Farm Stop Revolution Upon Us? - Modern Farmer

Is the Farm Stop Revolution Upon Us?

A hybrid between a farmer’s market and a co-op store, farm stops are popping up across the country, helping customers access local food year round.

Local Roots Farm Stop.
Photography by Betsy Anderson.

In 2008, Jessica Eikleberry was 29 years old and had just read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. She wanted to start eating locally and, with the help of her mom, she made a goal for the coming Thanksgiving: an all-local meal.

Eikleberry was shocked at how difficult it was for her to source local ingredients. She lives in Wooster, a productive agricultural area that hosts Ohio State University’s Agricultural Research and Development Center. Yet, even surrounded by farmland, they were “chasing a turkey all around Ohio,” Eikleberry recalls. Eventually, the family succeeded in finding their local fare. They enjoyed it so much that they wanted others in the area to have the same opportunity to cook with local food but without the hardship of tracking it all down. 

Soon after, they got word of another conversation happening in Wooster. Betsy Anderson, who worked for OSU’s Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center—along with her family—had been dreaming of some kind of cafe combined with a market for local food. They had approached county commissioners with their idea, but it hadn’t progressed beyond that.

The two groups joined forces, meeting once a week, building support, attracting others interested in helping. By January 2009, they had formed a board and incorporated as a member-owned cooperative that June, striking a deal with the Wayne County commissioners to take over a run-down building and transform it into a one-stop farm shop. 

In May, 2010, the new store hosted a celebratory grand opening. Over a cheerful green-striped awning and generously windowed storefront, the hand-made sign welcomed shoppers into Local Roots Market & Cafe—the nation’s first year-round, everyday farm store selling local food on consignment. Vendors would set their own prices; when items sold, they’d get a percentage of the sale price returned to them in two-week payouts. It was a new store—as it turned out—that would launch a movement.

Some of the offerings from the Lakeshore Depot Farm Stop.

Funding the farm stop

The local food movement has always struggled with the conflicting values of paying farmers fairly without making food an elite commodity. In addition, it can be hard for customers to source food year-round, depending on where they live, and modern grocery stores have conditioned many people to expect fresh strawberries in January or pumpkins in June. Farmers markets are great, but many run only certain days of the week or months of the year. Enter farm stops. 

Farm stops are a hybrid of these models. With brick-and-mortar locations, they are open year-round for customers, and they allow multiple farmers to sell their goods at the same time. Most farm stops work on consignment, where farmers set the prices for their goods, and the farm stop takes a cut of the profit—generally about 30 percent. All farm stores also rely on wholesale purchases to fill out inventory with items that producers are unwilling to sell on consignment. 

But farm stops, like any other venture in the food and agriculture space, can struggle with tight profit margins. Some stops are experimenting with pricing to ensure profits can stabilize. Food access is a primary concern at FARMacy Community Farmstop in Rock Hill, SC, where founder Jonathan Nazeer is trying something new. 

FARMacy. Photography courtesy of Jonathan Nazeer.

He estimates that 70 percent of his customers are higher-income shoppers from surrounding neighborhoods who drive out of their way to support his store because they are, as he understands it, “motivated by the mission of bringing good food into what they know has been a community marginalized for decades.” The support has been critical. Not yet able to accept SNAP benefits, FARMacy prices were out of reach for many living in the immediate vicinity of the store.

To reach this community, FARMacy adopted a pay-what-you-will system. Select products are labeled with their “real-value” price—what farmers expect to get from those sales—but customers can pay whatever they choose. There’s a balancing act that relies on customers who can pay more than the posted value choosing to do so. The data collection is on-going, but Nazeer is happy with the response he’s seen so far—a 37-percent increase in shoppers from the immediate community. Grant money subsidizing the program from the USDA’s Local Food Purchase Assistance Cooperative Agreement Program is set to run out in June 2025, but Nazeer recognizes that “pay-what-you-will” was never a sustainable solution to the root challenges of food sovereignty, which is his primary concern.

“If communities are not working towards producing their own food, then they have to rely on other communities to do that. I think each community has to be independent when it relates to food,” he says, reflecting on the difficulty he’s had convincing South Carolina farmers to sell on consignment in his community. Working with several South Carolina-based partners, Nazeer has launched Crop Hill to establish an urban agricultural district.

Some founders of farm stops have relied on personal finances to acquire initial building space. Most others, as with Local Roots, have been given deals on municipally owned buildings. Keller Market House paid $1 for the title of a county-owned land bank building in Lancaster, Ohio. A gas station, owned and renovated by the town of Jonesborough, is leased, according to its executive director Lori Powell, “at a very low rate” to Boone Street Market in Tennessee. 

Apples at the Argus Farm Stop.

Fellowship of the farm stops

Over the first three unseasonably warm days of March, 2024—15 years after the founding of Local Roots—a first-of-its-kind conference was held at the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens. 

Kathy Sample and Bill Brinkerhoff—co-founders of Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan—wanted to take stock of what they recognize as a movement, one that they’ve helped to accelerate. 

They tasked Argus manager Casey Miller with finding and inviting everyone associated with year-round consignment farm stores in the country, from those in operation to those in the inkling or development stages. The result was the 2024 Farm Stop Conference, which gathered 130 attendees from across the country, including representatives from all levels of government, several NGOs and half of the 14 recognized farm stops. 

Brinkerhoff recounted to the gathering the couple’s discovery of Local Roots in 2013. They were dropping off their son, Ben, at the College of Wooster when they happened upon the store and were enthralled. 

In November 2013, they began a detailed feasibility study to determine if and where a Local Roots-style store might work in Ann Arbor. Later that winter, they arranged a behind-the-scenes Local Roots visit to shadow employees and learn the nitty-gritty of the business. They were hosted by general manager Jessica Eikleberry. 

In March 2014, Sample and Brinkerhoff signed a lease for a former gas station situated along heavy commuter routes—car, bicycle and walking—on the edge of downtown Ann Arbor. The business opened later that summer as a low-profit, limited-liability social enterprise, including a small coffee shop that helps fund operations. They opened a second shop across town in 2017 and expanded that into an adjacent building in 2022. 

The Argus Farm Stop.

Last year, sales at these stores topped $6.5 million, two-thirds of that from sales of grocery items and the rest from cafe sales. Argus’ top 12 earners in 2023 saw more than $100,000 in sales and included seven farms selling vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy, along with two bakeries and a prepared-food vendor. But even smaller or limited season operators fared well: 75 vendors—half of them farmers—made more than $10,000 in sales. In its first decade, Argus has paid out more than $20 million to its vendors.

Brinkerhoff is passionate about the mission and the need for these kinds of stores. At the conference, he projects an image of a partitioned dollar bill from the USDA’s Economic Research Service showing that for every dollar consumers spend in a grocery store, a bit less than 15 cents went to the farmers producing the raw ingredients.

Tom Zilke, owner of Zilke Vegetable Farm, has been selling produce from his 25-acre farm through Argus since they opened. He describes selling through Argus as “very easy. The big benefit is they’re doing the selling. We come straight from the farm, drop it off and walk away.”

With Argus’ 70-percent consignment rate, Zilke will get 70 cents on the dollar when his products sell, without time and labor costs of manning his on-farm farm stand or a farmers market tent. 

Katie Barr has thought a lot about farm stops. She literally wrote the book on How to Start a Farm Stop as part of her Master’s thesis for the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability. As she discovered, the establishment of a farm stop can result in profound and sometimes unanticipated benefits for farms and food systems. Interviewing more than 40 farmers who sell through farm stops, Barr documented numerous stories of farmers paying off debt and investing in critical infrastructure—including additional acreage, greenhouses and root cellars—and expanding or investing in entirely new production systems. One farmer shifted their operation to winter production in order to take advantage of their farm stop’s need for winter produce. Another farmer made enough money selling eggs and chicken that they were able to establish a goat herd and, eventually, a flock of sheep to add goat milk products and wool to their repertoire.

The science of ecology has a truism: In the face of disturbance, diversity confers stability and resilience to the biosphere. Perhaps the same holds true for food systems.

The beginnings of Local Roots. Photography by John W. Anderson.

Thinking of starting a Farm Stop? Here are some resources:

Get the book How to Start a Farm Stop by author Katie Barr. Purchase the book or find a free downloadable PDF at this link.

Argus Farm Stop offers online training workshops on starting a farm stop or an online market here: https://www.argusfarmstop.com/learn

You can also visit these farm stops. Know of others? Share your favorite farm stop in the comments!

Local Roots Market and Cafe in Wooster, OH
The Wild Ramp in Huntington, WV
Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, MI
Boone Street Market in Jonesborough, TN
Agricole Farm Stop in Chelsea, MI
Keller Market House in Lancaster, OH
FARMacy Community Farmstop in Rock Hill, SC
Lakeshore Depot in Marquette, MI
Random Harvest in Craryville, NY
Bloomington Farm Stop Collective, Bloomington, IN
Philmont Cooperative in Philmont, NY
Public Market in Wheeling, WV
East Lansing Food Co-op in Lansing, MI
South East Market in Grand Rapids, MI
Meadowlark Market & Kitchen in Lander, WY
Foodsphere is The Entrepreneurial Center of Local Roots
Purplebrown Farm Store, in Peninsula, OH
Lowe Creek Farmer’s Market, in Prospect, KY
Liberty Prairie Farm Store, in Grayslake, IL

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Sasha
12 days ago

Purplebrown farm store in Peninsula could certainly be added to this list, 80 producers within 60 miles!

Steve Hess
6 days ago

Our “Lowe Creek Farmer’s Market Store” has been open year ’round for 3 years! We took all of the vendors indoors with us, after 18 years as a “Saturday only” Market!
Steve Hess, Louisville, KY

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