With an honor-box system, a farmstand's products should be clearly priced, and shoppers are trusted to pay the right amount for their goods. Providing paper bags or boxes is a helpful touch.
Illustration By Elayne Sears
Well-cared-for gardens, orchards and livestock can be amazingly — sometimes exhaustingly — productive. After all, there’s only so much fruit and produce you have time to can and space to store. And only so many eggs you can eat, milk you can drink and meat you can make room for in the freezer. When you find you’ve temporarily produced more than you can consume, why not do what small farmers have always done? Sell your extra products at a farmstand or farmers market, or barter, trade or donate what you can’t use.
Setting Up a Farmstand
Getting started selling vegetables and extra goods is simple. “Tap the network you already have,” says Mary Shepherd, editor of the bimonthly magazine Farmers’ Markets Today. “Put up a sign at work, send an email or put a post on Facebook.” You can also consider posting an ad on the ‘Farm + Garden’ category at Craigslist.org.
If your road gets enough traffic and you have a handy parking spot, try to sell products right from your home. You can make your own farmstand for selling eggs, vegetables and more by putting your offerings on a table next to an “honor box” for payment. Just be sure to bolt the box to something secure. Promote your farmstand with a sign in your yard, an ad in the local paper or flyers at local cafés.
Another option would be to park a produce-loaded truck near a busy corner to sell sweet corn, melons or other goods. In many small towns, you may be able to get permission to park your “portable produce stand” in the parking lot of the post office, courthouse or another central building.
Farmers Markets, Big and Small
If you’re thinking about someday expanding your business, start by selling a few weeks’ worth of surplus products at the small, outlying farmers markets for which the organizers are often craving vendors, suggests Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers Direct Marketing Association (NAFDMA). The smaller markets come with an entire support network, including the opportunity to sell alongside people who have been doing this for a while.
On the other hand, larger farmers markets are often more stringent about who can sell, and they usually charge a fee for an assigned space. “Go to the market manager and ask what the rules are,” Shepherd says. “Some markets will have a community table where you could possibly bring produce in a certain week of the month.” Asking a regular vendor to sell your produce doesn’t often work, Shepherd says, because many markets prohibit vendors from selling things they didn’t produce themselves, and vendors may be leery of taking your word on your growing procedures.
If you would like to sell at a larger market but aren’t producing enough to stock the stall all season, consider sharing the space (and the rental fee) with other farmers or gardeners you know. If this is a possibility, you should take time in winter to plan your growing season together, so you have different things to sell at different times. While you’re selling eggs, your partner could be selling a variety of fresh produce, for instance.
Yet another possibility is helping an established vendor you know with the rental fee and work load at the market. This gives you an opportunity to learn how to sell vegetables and goods from an experienced marketer — and gives the vendor some occasional time off!
“Take yourself seriously from the first day,” says Lynn Byczynski, founding editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine. “Think of your vegetables, fruits, eggs and flowers not as excess, but as extremely valuable products. Only sell good-quality stuff, and sell it at a price that’s not going to undermine established growers.”
“Good quality” defines fresh produce that has been cleaned and packaged appropriately. Pick produce as close to the time of selling as possible, and keep delicate vegetables, fruits, and all meat and dairy products chilled. Don’t sell bruised, browned or otherwise damaged products. Vegetables and fruits should be washed ahead of time (aside from obvious exceptions such as sweet corn), and your farmstand and personal appearance should be neat and clean. Display items attractively and create signs that clearly state prices and growing practices.
Learning safe growing and handling procedures is important so you don’t make anyone sick. As a beginning resource, Byczynski recommends Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower’s Guide. It covers Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) for raising fruits and vegetables from seed to sale, and is available for free. “The guide raises awareness about the places where you could possibly have problems — irrigation water, cats and dogs in the field, and washing with water that isn’t safe,” Byczynski says.
Play by the Rules
In most places, occasionally selling vegetables, fruits and small quantities of eggs doesn’t require a food license, permit or other form of government blessing. Exceptions do exist, however. The easiest place to find information is often on your state’s department of agriculture website, usually in the marketing section. You should be able to find which marketing methods and which types and amounts of food require permits, licenses, or compliance with specific food safety regulations to be legally sold.
Go to your county or municipal website to find out whom to contact in the zoning and administrative departments. Inquire about regulations specifying whether you’ll need a license or permit if you’re selling at a farmers market, from door to door, or from a home-based vegetable stand. Many states and municipalities allow you to sell small quantities of processed, plant-based foods — baked goods, pickles, jams and jellies — without a license. Most states also allow on-farm processing and sale of poultry without a license as long as you have less than a certain number of birds (quantity allowed varies by state).
On the other hand, if you want to sell additional types of meat, dairy products, or bigger quantities of processed fruits and vegetables, you’ll almost certainly have to follow specific guidelines, including processing in a licensed facility and using proper labeling. Raw (unpasteurized) milk is an especially tricky item. In some states it’s totally illegal and is a heated political topic, while in other states there’s no objection. Find out the regulations in each state at the Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund website.
Liability and Insurance
Though liability for food poisoning and on-site accidents (if you bring in help at harvest time, for example) is not a huge concern for most small-time sellers, you should call your insurance agent to inquire whether your homeowner or farm policy covers any potential problems. If not, and you intend to sell a little more regularly in the future, ask about getting a simple rider for incidental business. Touchette recommends that even if you decide to expand into a regular direct-marketing business, nothing is better than working with your own insurance agent. If a business insurance policy is not available through your agent or is prohibitively expensive, search for an insurance company that specializes in farm businesses.
If you’re less concerned about making money than about your food going to waste, many places and people would be happy to accept your donations — from friends and neighbors (though maybe don’t offer late-season zucchini!) to food banks and senior centers. For years we’ve hosted a harvest party to get help with picking our apples. Usually about 30 friends and relatives show up to harvest and then make apple butter and cider. Or, you may be able to do some bartering — the extra tomatoes I give to my retired neighbor down the road always come back to me in the form of a few jars of his fabulous home-canned soups and juices.
If you really can’t find a home for your extras, you can always invite gleaners to your property to pick excess fruit and vegetables that you don’t have time to harvest. Many of these groups are church-based. If you’re interested in harvest help and donating the pickings, inquire at a church or even look into starting your own group. To find food banks in your area that accept fresh-food donations, check the list at Feeding America: Hunger-Relief Charity.
Market Farming Resources
Market Farming Success by Lynn Byczynski
The Organic Farming Manual by Ann Larkin Hansen
Sustainable Market Farming by Pam Dawling
The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) offers a wealth of tip sheets, booklets and other resources for direct marketing of farm products; call 800-346-9140.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service maintains a national database of farmers markets.
“Selling at Farmers Markets,” a free, 20-page article published by Growing for Market magazine, is available for download.
Ann Larkin Hansen has marketed and sold eggs, chicken, pork, beef and hay, and has given away a lot of apples, potatoes, rhubarb, firewood, homemade jelly and who knows what else. She is the author of The Organic Farming Manual.