Market research can be tricky especially when the market being researched is a farmers market.

An online survey seeks to quantify what local vendors have wondered about recently, why business is slowing and what they can do. The survey approaches the subject from many angles. Once completed and analyzed after this market season has finished, it may provide answers that those who care about local agriculture are likely to find informative if not comforting.

Let’s suppose that the survey concludes today’s informed speculation is true, that people are interested in both convenience and fresh, locally produced goods. Let’s suppose that there are clear suggestions about better locations, better hours.

The Farmers Market Federation of New York can take these to its members in hopes that it can move them in directions the survey indicated would be more profitable. But as with any survey, you have to analyze the results in other ways.

Who answered? If the goal is to attract more customers, then the survey should concentrate on more people who do not patronize the markets now. They are the potential customers and vendors need to know what, if anything, they can do to reach and attract them. All who conduct surveys these days know how hard it is to get a good sample, how many have cell phones and might not show up on lists that used to be comprehensive, how many screen their calls to avoid telemarketing. Voluntary online surveys like this one are notoriously unreliable.

So, is there a way to gauge public sentiment beyond the survey? Here, the answer is much easier yet also very familiar to those who do research.

People may say something but if you are promoting a product, you have to pay as much if not more attention to what they do. The anecdotal evidence today, something that will not be firmly disputed by the survey, is that people are going to supermarkets and that those stores are offering more competition for farmers markets, often on similar terms.

It’s not just about the convenience of stores open 18 or 24 hours vs. a market open just a few hours most likely one day a week. It’s not just the convenience of being able to buy everything instead of the limited items available at even the largest local farmers markets. It’s not even just about price, where supermarkets can always compete energetically and remind people about those prices through frequent advertising.

The most crucial blow that supermarkets have dealt to farmers markets came when they started both selling and promoting local products. Grapes in January were one thing. Local peaches in August were the clincher. If you can get local milk, cheese, vegetables and fruit along with all the rest of your groceries, the allure of the farmers market fades.

So no matter what the survey shows, other questions are more crucial.

How can farmers sell more to local supermarkets or supply more local restaurants, local schools?

Farmers and vendors still need to know how they can make their markets more attractive, but only as one part of a larger strategy to keep local agriculture busy and profitable.