Social Learning and Innovation at Retail Farmers' Markets*


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    An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society, Albuquerque, New Mexico, August 15–19, 2001. A grant from the USDA's Fund for Rural America supported the research. Duncan Hilchey, Heidi Mouillesseaux-Kunzman, Chris Lewis, and Kathy Kremer made valuable contributions in the organization and execution of the study. We appreciate the comments and advice of Kerry Agnitsch, Beth Barham, Cornelia Flora, Will Goudy, Fred Lorenz, Tom Lyson, Steve Sapp, the editor of Rural Sociology and the anonymous reviewers. Mistakes and omissions that remain are our responsibility. Address correspondence to Clare Hinrichs, 310 East Hall, Dept. of Sociology, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011; e-mail:


Abstract  Retail farmers' markets are seen as key institutions in a more “civic agriculture,” but little is known about how they promote small business entrepreneurship. Drawing on research in economic sociology and economic geography, this paper examines the role of social learning in vendor innovation. Data from a 1999 mail survey of farmers' market vendors in California, New York and Iowa show that business innovation, as represented by intensity of vendors' innovative marketing practices and vendors' successful enterprise expansion, was modest. Social learning through engagement with customers contributed to more innovative marketing by vendors, while social learning through engagement with customers and fellow vendors increased the likelihood of vendors diversifying to additional markets beyond the farmers' market. Certain individual and enterprise characteristics also influenced vendor innovation. This suggests that, although important, the beneficial effects of social learning for vendors at farmers' markets remain moderated by human capital and structural factors.