Farmers’ markets have been growing in popularity for the past decade and the media have kept up the hype by playing on consumers’ desires to support local producers and eat a more regional and seasonal diet. And, from a consumer’s perspective, there are few summertime events that are more fun than heading off to the market with empty bags and baskets to sample, socialize, and bring home the best of the harvest.
But are farmers’ markets the best choice for your farm business? There are a few things you need to consider before you take the plunge.
Finding the right market is important. Farmers’ markets that are well-established and in more urban areas tend to have high traffic and be greater earning potential. Those are huge benefits to vendors but you should understand that those markets also may not be taking on new vendors and, in fact, may have waiting lists of vendors waiting for a spot. They may also cost more and require more of a commitment from their vendors. And, of course, you will have more competition at larger markets. If you are shopping for the best market do look for a well-organized market. Markets that have been in existence for a number of years and that have a paid market manager will tend to be more organized. If you are new to selling at farmers’ markets this can be an advantage to you.
Consider your product(s). Some items sell well at farmers’ markets while other items are better suited to the wholesale arena or to restaurants or even to CSAs. In general the most successful market vendors have a variety of products to sell and a steady supply of product throughout the season. It may take a few weeks before customers begin to notice you.
Consider your labor pool. It takes a lot of time to harvest, package, pack-up, set-up and sell at a market. Do you have that kind of time to commit? In addition you will need time to design a market display, set your prices and get signs made up. Not the least of your considerations should be who will be doing your chores on the farm while you are at the market? Even a market that is only open 4 hours will still take between 6 and 8 hours of time once you include set-up and break-down and travel.
Consider your target customer. Who is the most likely consumer of your product? Are they likely to be at the farmers’ market?
Consider your personality. You have to really like people to do well at farmers’ markets. People will be expecting you to talk to them about your product. They will probably be expecting samples. They will frequently be naive about growing seasons, pricing and preparation. They will gravitate to the familiar and will often resist new and unfamiliar items. They can be fickle. They will sometimes make faces or say things about your product that are hurtful–often this is not intentional they are just providing criticism that you might not want to hear. They will expect you to be there every week but they won’t necessarily buy (or even show up) every week. If you like people and the fast-paced hustle of the market then you will likely love the experience. If you are shy, introverted and have a hard time “selling” then the market may be a painful place for you.
What is the added value to you as the farmer? Is there a compelling reason for you to be at a farmers’ market. Farmers’ markets can be an outstanding opportunity for new farmers who need to build name recognition and show off the quality of their product(s). Farmers’ markets can also be excellent places to get feedback on new products and to test preferences. Farmers’ markets are living, real-time focus groups. If you don’t make use of that opportunity then you are missing one of the great benefits of markets. The farmers’ market is also the best place for you to develop a customer list. If you are not using the opportunity to capture names and contact information from consumers you are missing out on future sales.
Regardless of the reasons that you choose to sell at a farmers’ market you should keep a careful account of the costs and benefits of participating. On a seasonal basis you should review that accounting and make sure that it is a good business decision for you. It is easy to get blinded by the romance and energy of a market but the bottom line is that it has to meet your business goals.
Finally, keep in mind that every market is unique. They vary greatly in size, reputation, average daily sales, and level of competition. It may take some trial and error to find the market that best suits your product and sales goals.