Are you considering selling at farmers’ markets? Wondering what they’re like and how to get started? Perhaps you’ve sold from your own roadside stand before (or at least sold lemonade as a kid) and need to know if a farmers’ market would be an appropriate next step.
In general, I consider roadside stands and farmers’ markets two very different ways of selling your products, rather than roadside stands being the forerunner of a larger market. Some growers benefit from operating both, one providing what the other can’t. There are, of course, some things they both have in common. Both your booth and your roadside stand need to look attractive, be spilling over with fresh, clean produce for sale, have good signage, and obvious and easy methods of payment.
But where the roadside stand is independent and can reflect your own needs and farm, a farmers’ market turns you into a segment of a larger patchwork quilt of sellers. I know that was obvious. What’s not quite as obvious is that while the benefits of reaching more and different customers at a farmers’ market can be worthwhile, you, the vendor, also have to be worthwhile to the farmers’ market as a whole in order to be allowed to participate.
Some farmers’ markets operate in a very casual and loose manner. But many are structured with strict rules. And though the rules may seem daunting at first, if you become one of their vendors, you may find that these rules actually protect and benefit you in many ways as a seller at the market.
In many cases, farmers’ markets have a certain amount of space divided up for a specified amount of slots. Where you can be more spontaneous with a roadside stand, you may have to secure a spot at a farmers’ market weeks or months in advance.
Markets may charge a small yearly membership fee, which may give you voting rights as well as guarantee you a spot in the market. Some markets charge a flat fee, others ask for a percentage of sales – or both. There may be other optional small fees such as if you need to use electricity or credit card machines.
You must grow all or most of your own. The idea of farmers’ markets is that customers know they’re buying local products unique to their market. If you grow and sell your local heirloom tomatoes and fresh herbs, for example, this protects you from another competing vendor hauling in cheap-labor mass produced “heirlooms” from out of state or across country borders and selling them as their own right next to you for far less.
However, there are exceptions to the rule of growing your own. Some markets allow you to purchase a small percentage from other farmers and sell them along with your own. This is especially true if you want to make products from your produce to sell. For example, if you want to make salsa from your tomatoes, peppers and herbs, but need a few other ingredients that you don’t grow yourself, you’ll often be able to purchase these as long as your own produce makes up the majority of the ingredients.
You must be local. This rule is related to the above issue. But as another example, it protects an urban grower from being pushed out by a rural grower who drives to the city. The general income, cost of living, and cost for growing in an urban area can be higher, and therefore, urban prices at the market may understandable be higher. If rural Cousin George shows up with his cukes and tomatoes for half the price of what anyone can grow them in the city, he puts the others out of business and defeats the purpose of local production.
However, if there are products that are difficult to grow in a certain location, they may allow an out of area vendor to become a member and supply those products. For example, at our local Pacific Northwest farmers’ market, it’s very hard to ripen big juicy summer peaches in our area. A vendor from a drier and hotter county has been allowed to sell peaches at our farmers’ market. This attracts many buyers who come just for the peaches, then look around and buy other products.
Your products must enhance the overall market. Farmers’ markets understandable need variety. If you grow and provide pickled heirloom vegetables, this rule of variety protects you from 10 more selling pickled heirloom vegetables, with no other variety to draw a diversity of customers to the market. There certainly can be more than one vendor providing a similar product, but most markets do strive for variety. Also, they usually have rules about how much of a percentage of the market must be considered vendors of farmers’ products, and how many can be extras, such as crafts or musicians. If they only allow, for example, 15% of the vendors to sell non-farm homemade crafts, you may be out of luck, or may have to be put on a waiting, list if you wanted to sell your hand-knitted potholders. However, if you knit them from the wool of the sheep you raise in your backyard farm, and dye them from plants in your garden, you’d more likely be considered a farmer selling “value-added products” rather than purely a crafter. You’d be in the ranks of farmers selling baked and canned goods from their own produce. It’s ultimately your own farmers’ market leadership’s call.
Read the guidelines thoroughly. Other possible issues may include rules on what type of table or canopy you can use and when you must show up to set up for opening time. No one is usually allowed to cheat by selling early. Whenever the market officially opens, a bell or some sort of signal will let everyone know it’s now okay to sell. And everyone is expected to completely clean up their own territory afterwards. Some market groups ask everyone to contribute to the before or after setting up of the farmers’ market beyond just their own vending area.
Depending on your circumstances, you may want to know whether or not you’re allowed to sell during only a specified time period during the season, or if you’re expected to have products available during the whole season, which is typically May through October. In some cases, occasional sales are allowed if there’s space, but the full-season vendors get the best guaranteed spots.
You may need to have a business license to operate as a vendor in your market, and you may need to give permission for the market managers to inspect your property to make certain you are actually the producer of what you’re selling. Again, ultimately this protects you once you’re part of the market, making sure cheap produce that’s actually not being grown by locals aren’t stealing market customers or diluting the image and brand of the farmers’ market.
Everyone needs to consider their own circumstances when choosing to sell at a farmers’ market. Remember that roadside stands often draw a different type of customer, one that wants only what you have to offer and who may have been “just driving by.” You have no competition with your own roadside stand like you might with a farmers’ market. On the other hand, a farmers’ market will attract many more customers to your products than could otherwise be possible with just a roadside stand and an advertisement. One blueberry farmer uses his farmers’ market as a place to find more customers for his roadside stand and u-pick patch. Yes, he does sell blueberries at the market itself, but his greatest payout from that market comes when he hands out brochures about his farm and roadside stand at the farmers’ market. This brochure shows passersby and customers that he has a continual supply of blueberries seven days a week at his own farm, a u-pick patch and a pony for the kids to pet and ride.
Find out the exact name and location of the farmers’ market of your choice, then search it online, and download their farmers’ market guidelines. After studying them, if you think you can follow their rules, the next step is usually to connect with their contact person and eventually sign a contract and, if required, pay a fee. There may also be a committee that has to approve new applicants.
If your chosen farmers’ market doesn’t seem to have a web presence, or, if you don’t even have a chosen one yet and need to see what’s available in your area, then search online for your state’s Farmers’ Market Association. For example, search “Oregon Farmers Market Association.” From that website, you should be led to contacts or information on the particular farmers’ market you want to consider joining. If you don’t find a statewide farmers’ market association, this search may at least lead to an equivalent in your state. You can also search for associations in your county rather than your state. Other choices would be to contact your local cooperative extension agent to see if he or she can help with your search. While you can certainly just ask around at the farmers’ market itself while it’s in operation, it’s often too late to become a vendor for that season if you’re inquiring about it while the market is already up and running.
Barbara Berst Adams is the author of Micro Eco-Farming and The New Agritourism: Hosting Community & Tourists on Your Farm. She is also hostess of the Center for the Micro Eco-Farming Movement at MicroEcoFarming.com.