It seems as though everyone has at least a passing dream of selling at a farmers’ market. From backyard tomatoes, to foraged wild morels, to grandma’s incredible pound cake recipe, the possibilities often appear endless. My own journey started in 1990, when at age 16 I shuttled eggs each weekend to my local market in Shepherdstown, WV from our family’s flock. More than twenty years later, I’ve filled out nearly every application known to man, received dozens of different health department permits, and attended perhaps twenty different markets over my career. Each and every experience has been different, which makes the following question almost impossible to answer:
“Excuse me,” a bright-eyed young woman politely asked a few weeks back, stopping by my market stand. “I make banana bread, and I want to sell at this market. Do I just bring a table and set up or… umm, well… how do farmers’ markets work, exactly?”
Great question. How does it work, exactly?
Once spring arrives, everyone gets excited about farmers’ markets. But the real planning starts far earlier, back in December and January. This is when the market meetings usually take place, months in advance of the start of market. Applications are reviewed then, too, so if you’d like to attend your local market, get your ducks (or potatoes) in a row by January, not June.
Whether it’s run by your local government, a not-for-profit volunteer, or a professional manager, all great markets have one thing in common: they are run as serious businesses. How much planning and coordination does it take to block off a city street, select a diverse candidate pool of farmers, provide ample parking, restroom facilities, weekly marketing etc.? Most markets take several years to conceptualize, and several more years afterwards to grow into successes. If you have a bustling weekend market in your neighborhood, rest assured that it’s no accident.
Be sure to treat your own enterprise with the same degree of professionalism, starting with Business 101: Identifying your market. Does your local market really need more tomatoes, or could it use a seasonal variety of fresh berries? Speaking of those tomatoes, what happens come late summer, when the entire planet seems overrun with tomatoes? Look around… is anyone offering jarred tomato sauce, or salsa, or value-added products (vegetarian chili? sun-dried tomatoes?) to sell during the winter months?
Identifying a real need, not just what you think the market might want, will greatly increase your chances of acceptance. And to do this, you should…
The best way to identify a need is to visit your local market, and shop there. Show up week after week, month after month. After all, you’re planning to attend as a vendor, right? You should become intimately familiar with your new business setting. And yes, that means showing up in the rain, heat, and even snow. After all, if you can’t make the effort to show up, why would your customers? Committing to this habit will not only build familiarity, but show your dedication to your fellow vendors and the market manager. Which leads me to my next point…
The one person who might hold a stronger bit of influence as to your acceptance into market is the manager. Seek this person out, and ask them for advice. Take them out for coffee mid-week, and inquire what products the market could use. Learn how you could help. After all, it’s always better to…
Okay, so you’ve got a fig tree in your backyard, and for a few weeks summer it’s loaded with fresh, ripe fruit. There’s no harm in just picking a few dozen pints and selling it for a dollar or two at market, right? After all, it would just go to waste otherwise.
Not so fast, my figgy friend. Please be respectful, and at least check-in with your fellow farmers before doing this. Chances are, whether it’s fruit, vegetables or whatever else you might grow “in the backyard”, there’s a farmer who’s staked his or her entire growing season on that very same crop. At a minimum, don’t undercut your fellow producer just because you’ve got extra rhubarb for a week or two each summer. It’s not only rude, but wide discrepancies in pricing can be terribly confusing to the customers as well.
Full-time producers run their operation like a business, not a hobby. And finally…
Want to know more? Check out my book, Gaining Ground: A Story Of Farmers' Markets, Local Food, And Saving the Family Farm, filled with hilarious mistakes (and the occasional triumph!) I made on my own farmers’ market journey.