Students find food for thought and research at WNC farmers markets
When the North Asheville Tailgate Market opens each Saturday in Lot 28 of the UNC Asheville campus, the spaces fill with the usual fare of fresh produce, baked goods and conversation. Patrons examine plant starts, devour pastries, and stock up on their favorite greens, but a few students stand back to watch the interactions. They have been studying “The Talk at Tailgate Markets,” under the leadership of Leah Greden Mathews, Interdisciplinary Distinguished Professor of the Mountain South and professor of economics at UNC Asheville.
“I am interested in the intangible,” said Mathews. “Most of my research in economics deals with putting prices on things you can’t buy in the market. Over the years, I’ve been increasingly curious about how values are influenced by various interactions. This project gave me the opportunity to look at a piece of that, but the student team collaboratively evolved the project to include observations at the market.”
The research project examines how the interactions that people have at tailgate markets influence purchase behavior. Students observed, surveyed and interviewed market customers and vendors during the spring and summer 2012 seasons, conducting their research at six Asheville-area farmers markets.
Surveying the Goods
“As a health and wellness promotion major, I’m particularly interested in the answers to a couple of the survey and interview questions where consumers say they are purchasing more fruits and vegetables, trying new foods, and discovering new things at the market that they enjoy because of the experience and the information that vendors share with them,” said rising senior Rachel Carson. “Vendors have the opportunity to change people’s preferences individually and as a community.”
The survey asked respondents about their purchases at the farmers market, motives for attending the market and interactions at the market, as well as basic demographic information.
The research team discovered that the average market consumer at the campus tailgate market is a 53-year-old female from North Asheville who learned about the market from word-of-mouth and now shops there weekly. She spends on average $29.48.
“I was eager to learn the demographics of our customer base,” North Asheville Tailgate Market Director Shay Amber said. “Since we have customers of all ages and walks of life, it was difficult to determine averages on age, location and what brings them to our market. This study will help me create the market that our community most demands.”
Customizing Community Crops
Market managers throughout the Asheville area can now tailor their offerings to consumer demands. They had access to the first reports over the winter, allowing plenty of time to plan for the upcoming season and prepare for future interactions.
“I wish to provide the products that bring our customers back week after week,” Amber said. “After reviewing the report, I was delighted to learn that our fresh local food is the main reason folks keep coming back to shop with us.”
The UNC Asheville study also suggests that it’s the interactions surrounding the food which entice customers, who cite learning different kinds of information from vendors, including their growing practices and philosophies. Customers are attracted to abundant displays and samples, and they build a rapport with vendors who provide honest information about their products. They also appreciate the opportunity to pick out fresh food, often garnered with the farmer’s encouragement of “Oh, this was just picked this morning!”
Growing Each Season
As the oldest market in the area, the North Asheville Tailgate Market celebrates its 34th year this spring, with events each month to educate the community on what’s in peak season. And the students can still be found at the market, even though the study is complete.
“When I shop at tailgate markets now, I find myself falling into the same patterns of the consumers that we studied: conversing with other customers about their purchases, asking farmers questions about the produce, being drawn to abundance,” said Kelly Giarrocco, who graduated in December 2012 with a degree in economics.
Report authors include UNC Asheville students Rebecca Baylor, Rachel Carson, Kelly Giarrocco, Eric Gerber, Zoe Hamel, Sara Russell and Matthew Waissen. Their research was supported by the Sara and Joseph Breman Professorship of Social Relations of UNC Asheville with logistical assistance from the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project.