Article By Michelle Summer Fike
The local food movement sweeping the nation is inextricably linked to farmers’ markets. The markets allow producers and consumers to meet and build relationships around locally-produced food on a weekly basis.
For me, farmers’ markets are a powerful measure of community health and sustainability, and I have had the good fortune of being involved with farmers’ markets as a vendor, board member and researcher since 1995. Four years ago, I began managing a new farmers’ market, and this past winter, I developed and delivered two 40-hour training programs for farmers’ market managers.
I’d like to pass on a few strategies for vendor success, based on my vantage point over the years as both a vendor and market manager.
Is the farmers’ market right for you?
Farmers’ markets are busy, loud, often early-morning community gatherings. Good managers often consciously cultivate a feeling of ‘busy-ness,’ fullness, and high spirits amongst both the vendor and customers. Be prepared for a full day and lots of conversation!
Many markets take place outdoors. Poor weather seems to be more of a challenge for some vendors than for others, so assess your comfort level with working outside in the rain, wind and cold.
Farmers’ markets can be physically demanding as you need to load and unload your product. You need to be able to stand for long periods of time (you sell more if you stand, rather than sit, behind your booth). Markets require you to be social and outgoing as a vendor, and to play fairly by the rules established by your market. Make sure you can confidently say that these parameters suit you as a person.
New vendors need to set realistic targets and understand there is an ebb and flow to the revenue stream. Vendors endlessly discuss these peaks and valleys among themselves (the most commonly-heard phrase at a farmers’ market is probably “So, how was your day?”). Some weeks you will celebrate your success and other weeks, you will want to cry. At some point, every vendor has looked at the beautiful product left at the end of market day, wondering how to recover the loss for that week.
Vendors need to be focused on revenue trends over time, rather than fixating on weekly sales. Even though you will likely gain skills that help moderate some of this variation, sales will never be predictable or certain.
Relationships with your market and customers take time to build. Sales are dependent upon these relationships, so don’t give up too early.
Vendors are selling themselves and their farm/business as much as they are selling a product. Turnips are turnips are turnips. But the people selling turnips differ and your job is to share your ‘story’ so people want to buy your turnips to be part of your story. This context-rich relationship marketing is part of the ‘magic’ of farmers’ markets. It takes time for you to become part of the web of stories at a given farmers’ market. To be successful at a farmers’ market, I believe you need to take the time to invest in becoming part of this dynamic market ‘family.’
Do something different
In this day and age, setting yourself apart by offering unique products is proving difficult. Increasingly, those once-unique products are available from other vendors and/or stores. On the other hand, the story about your product is uniquely your own. For example, you might tell your customers about the benefits of a product (nutrition, ease of preparation); what inspired you to offer a product, or something compelling about your business or farm. These details add context to the product, and this is what ultimately differentiates your product from that of another vendor or store.
I believe there is more room for vendors to expand their product selection at farmers’ markets, keeping customers curious, engaged and willing to buy more. For example, heirloom varieties of fruit and vegetables, and wild/native foods are both relatively untapped markets. Heirloom seed varieties are wildly popular with gardeners, and heirloom tomatoes sell well at markets. However, heirloom varieties of other crops could offer more interesting opportunities for vendors.
Another idea for setting yourself apart from other food producers is to create ‘food bundles.’ Years ago, I met a woman who had become known at her farmers’ market for salsa kits. She grew the ingredients to make great salsa and timed her plantings so the ingredients ripened at the same time and over an extended period. She included tomatoes (2-3 varieties), tomatillos, cilantro, onions, mild and hot peppers (2-3 varieties of different colours) and garlic. She sold the salsa kit as a single item for a higher price than if she had sold those same items individually.
By providing the recipe and the right amount of each of the ingredients, she made it simple for her customers to go right home and make fabulous salsa. Shopping for ingredients, the weighing and measuring, was all done for them! All they had to do was put the contents of their carton together according to her simple recipe. The cartons looked beautiful and enticing (bringing people to her booth). She got a great price for them because they were unique and contained several ingredients. And she became ‘famous’ at her market thanks to this ingenious product, which translated into more sales for her other products as well.
I think similar ‘food bundles’ could be developed for in-season soups, stews, pickles, pastas, casseroles and other dishes. Bundle your ingredients and sell them together with simple recipes. Many farmers’ market customers want whole, fresh foods but are still looking at producers to help take some of the preparation and guess-work out of cooking.
A simple slant on merchandising
Keep it abundant, keep it consistent, keep it friendly.
Vendors are given a great deal of (mis)information about how best to set up a display. Advice varies, but a great deal of it surrounds the importance of organization and presentation. Vendors are warned against selling out of cardboard boxes, and are told about the benefits of attractive baskets and how the perfect tablecloth will ‘pull it all together.’
A lot of this is great advice, and farmers’ market vendors need to consider themselves professionals. However, have you been to a farmers’ market where someone is doing a brisk, enviable business selling out of cardboard boxes on a coverless table with handwritten price signs?
There is something appealing and trustworthy to consumers about a no-fuss, plain-jane, barebones approach to merchandising. Fancy doesn’t necessarily correlate with success. I have seen elaborate displays that don’t work in a farmers’ market. Studies show that consumers are looking for an alternative to grocery store values when they go to a farmers’ market. High-gloss retail merchandising techniques don’t always translate well at the market.
Fancy doesn’t necessarily correlate with success.
If you keep your booth abundant (full of product), consistent (the same look week after week) and friendly (in both tone and feeling), I think you can be successful regardless of the frills. I’ve seen many creative, thoughtful displays that work beautifully at a farmers’ market, but there is a range of viable options. Even if merchandising isn’t your calling, I believe you can still be successful if you keep the focus on abundance, consistency and friendliness.
Ultimately, the quality of your product and the story of your farm or business will do more to attract and retain customers than whether you use wicker or plastic. Trust your gut when it comes to merchandising at a farmers’ market, less can be more if you want it to be.
Work with your manager
Most farmers’ market managers I know are incredibly passionate about their work. Many put in long hours for low pay in poorly equipped offices with very little support. Managers have to wear many hats. They have to deal with stakeholders who sometimes have competing needs, and be professional communicators, event planners, fundraisers, problem solvers and site managers all while helping you make a living as a vendor.
The passion and commitment of your manager is an asset to you as a vendor, and I encourage you to tap into it. Managers are there to help you, and if you need information or guidance, ask your manager. The relationship between vendors and the market manager can contribute to the overall vibe of a farmers’ market. I encourage vendors to take the initiative to make that relationship as full and mutually-rewarding as it can be.
Being a successful farmers’ market vendor takes time and patience, practice and love. There are many people looking to build meaningful relationships with the individuals who make their food and other local products. If farmers’ market vending appeals to you, I heartily encourage you to give them a chance to know you and the amazing work you do!
“I believe that the vendors who are the most vulnerable to farmers ‘ market burn-out are:
- new to markets,
- set their revenue goals too high,
- come with too much product, and
- assume people will buy their product without having met them before.
These individuals go home disappointed. This only needs to happen a couple of times before a vendor gives up.”
The best way to build a successful farmers’ market business is to:
- start small;
- keep coming back;
- meet the vendors and customers at the market;
- tell the personal story of your business;
- build your relationships with customers and the market; and
- grow your business steadily through those relationships
Extending your market season
Consider dehydrating and/or freezing some of your leftover produce for sale during fall and winter markets. Provincial food safety specialists will tell you about the food handling requirements.
Kale chips can be made with left-over kale. Dehydrated zucchini, cherry tomatoes, basil, mushrooms, eggplant and spinach could be bagged together as a dried soup mix base. Dried herbs can be combined in several wonderful mixes. Tomatoes can be dehydrated and sold as sun-dried tomatoes. Dried apples, berries, and other fruit can be sold individually or mixed.
Peas, corn, tomatoes, spinach, stone fruits, beans, squash: strawberries and other fruits and vegetables can be frozen in bags or see-through plastic containers (some will benefit from blanching first). Besides a freezer at home, you’ll need to invest in a few nice coolers and decent signs.
Customers want to buy fresh, local product year-round. Extending your season and your offerings can be as simple as using leftover and extra produce in creative ways such as these. For vendors at year-round markets, these products are especially helpful in rounding out your winter and spring offerings; fresh frozen local strawberries in February can capture a premium price!
This article has been reproduced with the expressed permission of the original author.