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Boost your Sales: Five Insider Tips from a Farmers' Market Manager

Trevor Hayle at farmers market booth for Smij Spicery

Farmers’ markets can be an easy on-ramp to start selling your fresh produce, pastured meats or cottage food products, but how can you ensure your items stand out?  Catt Fields White, San Diego Farmers’ Market Manager at several farmers’ markets, has seen it all and offers some advice to get you on the fast track to market success. 

“Remember you are, bottom line, selling you:  your farm, your personality and what makes you unique,” shares White, a powerhouse of insight into what makes a successful farmers’ market and a profitable vendor. She currently manages three markets in the San Diego area, including the Saturday morning market in Little Italy and a Thursday evening market at North Park.

The growth of farmers’ markets continuing to boom nationally, from just under 2,000 in 1994 to more than 8,600 markets currently registered in the USDA Farmers Market Directory.  So, it’s important to think strategically about your marketing and booth presence so you can stand out and attract a loyal customer base to keep your weekly sales rolling in. 

White launched the Little Italy market in 2008, which has grown into the largest market in the region with over 22,000 weekly shoppers on average. How did she do it? A steadfast commitment to prioritize farmers and a realization that committed vendors will drive growth. “I first worked on convincing one high quality, long standing farmer to come, try it out and see the potential. He then invited his farmer friends and we quickly developed a track record for great product, which grew customers to where we are today.”

With roots in the restaurant and retail industries along with now over a decade managing farmers’ markets, White’s background gives farmers a unique perspective into using this sales venue to add to your bottom line. Here are five of her key tips:

Market your Booth

“A good farmers’ market manager will bring customers to the overall market, but remember, it’s then your job to get them to your booth,” advises White. Post photos of your display to social media as soon as you are set up and tag the market. Mention anything you might be bringing to the market for the first time as special “first of the season” items. Also note anything you might have in peak abundance for those canners and food preservers.

“Remember, by promoting your own booth you are also helping the whole market and supporting other vendors,” she adds. “By creating an image for the market as the place to be with lots going on, it’s a win-win for everyone.” 

Collaborative marketing roots in the heart of White’s farmers’ market success strategy as she knows supporting each other’s businesses cross-pollinates. Area chefs and bakers like Joanne Sherif of Cardamom Café come to the market to share recipes. At face value, this may seem like an odd strategy. Why would you want to “give away” what your business produces? But as I write about in Soil Sisters, the women farmer and food entrepreneur community realize by sharing our authentic stories, customers appreciate what we produce even more. All our businesses succeed.

Don’t Run Out of Product

“When a vendor tells me that they keep running out of product before the market ends, I first suggest they increase their prices,” White shares. “It may not be that you don’t have enough product, but rather your price point is too low. Slowly adjust things higher till you have a balance of sales that last through the market and you’ll end up with more income overall.”

Of course, your inventory will still decrease in volume over the course of the market. As this happens, pull your produce and wares together and consolidate in the middle of the table, rather than spread it out with gaps. “People always want to see abundance. Sure, it’s great that you are selling, but folks want to feel like they are still buying your best items, not your leftovers.”

Change Your Display Weekly

It’s the same rule as in retail:  Mix things up regularly to give the appearance of newness. Shoppers, especially your loyal weekly customers, will naturally stop seeing things if they are always in the same place. Move items from one side to another every week and change your display to engage attendees more.

One way to vary your market display is bringing a variety of cottage food products, non-hazardous food items you make in your home kitchen under your state’s cottage food law. It’s an easy way to bring different seasonal items such as zucchini muffins in July and pumpkin bread in October. Our Homemade for Sale book provides you with the key information to get started out of your home kitchen, without the investment of a commercial kitchen.

 Tahnohn Hayes at farmers market stand for Nut Frusion

Stand and Smile

In her informational materials that White sends to new market vendors, there is one thing missing in her “list of things to bring”: a chair. “Stand up behind your table and greet folks directly with a warm smile from the beginning of the market till the end and your sales will add up,” recommends White. Create every reason and opportunity for someone to come and talk to you. Skip the sunglasses, too. Even if you are squinting, it’s a much warmer welcome to look someone in the eye than be behind shades, observes White.

Learn and Share at InTents Conference

White amplifies the collaborative learning model through launching a new conference, now in its second year, called InTents, held in San Diego, California. The next InTents Conference is February 26 and 27, 2018. This one-of-a-kind event focuses on farmers’ market businesses, from vendors to managers. Conference panels feature farmers sharing their success stories and expert led sessions, like Charlotte Smith of Champoeg Creamery and 3 Cow Marketing in Oregon, who offers first-hand advice on do’s and don’ts for market success. 

Lisa Kivirist is a writer, the author of Soil Sisters and founder of the Rural Women’s Project of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. She is also Senior Fellow, Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Minnesota. With her husband and photographer, John D. Ivanko, she has co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef. They also operate Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.

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Iowa State’s New Organic Milk Testing Method

cowFor milk to be considered organic, it is required that the cows producing the milk have outdoor access, and must spend at least 120 days a year outside with fresh grass to eat. However, recently there is reason to believe that this is not always happening, and that farms re fining way to cheat this system while maintain their label as an organic product.

The Washington Post’s Peter Whoriskey published an exposé, accusing Colorado’s Aurora Dairy company of serious fraud, claiming that the organic company does not let their cows graze outside – at all. The average organic dairy farm has around 100 cows, while larger Aurora Dairy has approximately 15,000 cows. Whoriskey reported that every time visited the property, the fields were empty, which was confirmed by satellite images. Aurora Dairy denied the allegations, stating that the cows “happened” to not be out the day of each “drive-by”. To prove his point, Whoriskey tested the milk; organic milk produces more good fats in the final product, and when Whoriskey tested Aurora’s milk, he found that it was chemically closer to conventional milk.

This is only one example of an organic-labeled dairy that may be cheating the system and charging the more expensive organic price for non-organic milk. While there are methods of discovering the liars among the honest dairy farms, most methods are incredibly time-consuming and costly.

However, an Iowa State study may have found a new and immediate way to test for the real deal amid the organic milks. The Iowa State scientists used Fluorescence Spectroscopy—a method that can be thought of as a kind of molecular fingerprinting, one that involves beaming light at the product and measuring for luminescent signals in response. With this method, the results re visible immediately, saving the time and money it would take to send samples to a lab for testing. Not all foods are able to be tested this easily with this method, but organic cow’s milk should have lingering traces of chlorophyll that have been metabolized by the cow.

“Spectroscopy is easy,” says Jacob Petrich, an ISU biochemist who co-authored the study. “There’s really no sample preparation involved. You just need to shine light on the sample, and there are signatures in the milk that you can see. There’s very little preparation to be done, and you get the answer almost immediately.”

The research team tested their methods using Radiance Dairy, a pasture-based dairy farm where the cows’ diet is comprised of 85 percent pasture grasses, as a control sample. The control samples showed a chlorophyll concentration of about 0.13 to 0.11 micromolar. Store-bought organic milks ranged from 0.09 to 0.07 micromolar, and conventional milks came up in numbers as low as 0.04 to a mere 0.01 micromolar.

Logan Peterman, an agricultural research manager at Organic Valley, the country’s largest organic dairy cooperative, believes that Spectroscopy could level the playing field for dairy farmers, and help make the process behind organic milk more transparent. “Human ingenuity is incredible,” Peterman says. “I would say one of the things human beings are the most gifted at is cheating.” Organic Valley hopes that Spectroscopy could also bring potential finical benefits; if Spectroscopy could help a more transparent, it would also make a new premium market, in which consumers would bring their business to organic milk products that are verified by science, instead of spending money on a fake.

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