How to Sell at a Farmers Market

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According to the USDA: Female-run farms generate $13 billion worth of produce a year.
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"Woman-Powered Farm," by Audrey Levantino shows that women on the farm is on the rise, all across the United States, from big farms raising market crops to small urban farms bringing organic produce to farm stands.

Woman-Powered Farm (The Countryman Press, 2015) by Audrey Levatino tells women’s story, and is the first ever guide to farming written by women and addressing their specific questions and concerns. Whether you are a farmers market shopper, a homesteader, or a passionate gardener, chances are you, too, have dreamed of living on a farm. This empowering, inspiring book will show you how to do it. Filled with stories of women across the country who are leading the farming revolution, it is an invaluable resource for anyone who dreams of the farming life.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Woman-Powered Farm.

The Farmers Market

The farmers market is most often the primary source of sales for any beginning farmer. And some farmers know so well how to sell that they make their entire living selling at several farmers markets a week. Where your market is located and the quality of the management and customers will determine how big a part of your business the farmers market will be.

Our Saturday market is one of the biggest in Virginia; it has over 100 vendors and thousands of people shop there each week. Over the last five years, I’ve developed a loyal customer base of people that return year after year. I’d estimate that more than a third of my customers each week are “regulars.” And all of these customers, at one time or another, buy flowers from me outside the market.

The farmers market is not only a good revenue source, as you are selling your product direct to the consumer, but it’s also an advertisement for your farm and your products. Much of the wedding business I get comes from young couples and mothers browsing the farmers market to see which local flower and food vendors they might use for their wedding. Many are visiting the market this season to see what might be available a year from now. Even if I don’t get a sale from them right away, I may land a big wedding next year. I also get a lot of delivery and other special-event business from the market.

When you’re first starting out, you may have a hard time getting a space at the market. Most of the good markets are now very competitive and space is limited. You’ll have to prove yourself and your product. The first things you will want to do are (1) get in touch with the market manager and (2) satisfy all of the paperwork and other requirements. Also, send or drop off a sampling of your best product, even if the manager doesn’t ask for it.

Make nice with the market manager and take some time to describe what you’re doing on your farm and what you think you can bring to the market. Go to the market and observe. Find out how many other vendors are offering products you would like to sell. If there’s a lot of competition already, find a niche that isn’t being filled and try to fill it. Market managers are under a lot of stress from farmers all the time. There’s not a farmer in the world that has never had a complaint for a market manager. The manager is tasked with filling every spot with a wide diversity of products to keep the customers coming back, while also keeping the needy farmers happy. So, if you can show that you are easy to get along with and you are offering a product that fills a need, then you have a leg up. As we learned from Erica Hellen at Free Union Grass Farm, while her primary product was chickens, she only secured a permanent space at the market when she started offering ducks, which no one else was selling.

You might have to start out for a while as an “alternate” vendor. The key is to try to get in every week and be persistent (with a smile). When you aren’t able to get a spot, go to the market anyway as a customer and make sure to say hello to the market manager and express your interest in being a vendor the next week. Don’t get discouraged.

Once at the market, focus on having an attractive setup with clear signage and pricing. People don’t like to guess at what they are about to buy. Remember, some people may not be familiar with all the vegetables or other products you might offer; signage identifies what is for sale and makes them feel more comfortable buying and asking questions. Use tablecloths. They look more inviting than bare market tables. And try to create levels in your display. The more you can bring your products closer to eye level, the more customers will stop and look.

Bring only your best products. You gain nothing by selling anything that might turn out to be disappointing to a customer. And show that you have bounty. Instead of spreading out your products on a table, fill up baskets or pile them up. Bountiful displays are inviting. As you sell your product down throughout the day, combine your containers to keep your display looking full. For instance, if you have two baskets of potatoes, and you sell both of them down halfway, it’s best to combine them into one big, bountiful basket of potatoes.

Keep smiling. It will be difficult some days when sales are slow and the sun is hot. Customers will ask ill-informed questions, complain about your prices, and tell you the other farmers have better produce and visit all kinds of other indignities upon you. But part of retail success is engaging every customer as if he or she might eventually be your best. Our friend Susan Parks at Broadhead Mountain Farm has a trick for herself that she learned from her mother: Whenever a customer says something offensive or political that you do not agree with, just smile and say, “So true.” It helps to repeated it twice just for emphasis, “So true. So true.”

Best Practices for the Farmers Market

• Befriend the market manager. Gifts of produce or other products are not out of line.

• Show up at every market, rain or shine. Do not take a week off unless it’s an emergency or rare vacation.

• Create a farm sign that you hang on the front of your tent or behind your table, with your farm name, logo, and where your farm is located.

• Create a display that is a representation of your farm’s all-natural approach and that includes photos of your farm. Tablecloths, apple crates, and sandwich boards are a nice touch.

• Provide easy-to-read labels that describe your product with prices that can be read from outside your booth.

• Always have enough change. Only rookies run out of change.

• Accept credit cards. It’s now easy to do with a smart phone, and the fee for each purchase is reasonable. We gain hundreds of dollars in business a week by accepting credit cards.

• Bring only your best products to sell at the farmer’s market.

• Engage and educate your customers about your product and your approach to farming. Provide recipes on cards if you are selling food.

• Create a bountiful display, with multiple levels, and combine your products as they sell down.

• Learn your “regulars’” names.

• Make friends with other farmers — we have a lot to learn from one another.

• Keep your display clean and uncluttered. Tablecloths help hide your empty boxes under the tables.

• Attach your farm brand to every purchase that leaves your booth — stickers are a good way to seal bags or label jars if you don’t want to spend money on branded packaging. Customers will be buying from many different vendors. The chance of their remembering where they bought that delicious kale is improved if you’ve labeled their purchase.

• Accommodate special requests without overcommitting. It’s OK to say no sometimes.

• Price your product high enough that it carries perceived value. Don’t get into price wars with other farmers. “Upsell” by offering a slight discount for buying more (e.g., one eggplant for $2 or three for $5).

• Find the empty niches in the market and
fill them.

• Bring a diversity of products, including nonperishable items that you don’t have to pick, clean, and harvest each week.

• Bring plenty of business cards and try to get the contact information of anyone who takes one.

• Have fun!

For more information from Woman-Powered Farm, discover tips for finding Farm Internships and Apprenticeships.

Reprinted with permission from Woman-Powered Farm by Audrey Levantino and published by The Countryman Press, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Woman-Powered Farm.