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Dirt Under Your Nails

Small farms, local foods, alternative agriculture, acreages, sustainability
farmers-market

Getting Serious About Selling at Farmers Markets


So you planted too many tomato and zucchini plants (again), the hens in the backyard are laying eggs faster than you can make omelets, and your neighbors are clamoring for your fresh, homemade bread with strawberry preserves. So you've got great products and a little demand for them, maybe you should take advantage of the interest in local foods and start selling at a farmers market! There are some important factors that go into this marketing decision.  Selling at a farmers market is not a commitment to be taken lightly or decided upon at the last minute. On the surface, it seems like it should be simple – load up the truck, back into a stall, sit on the tailgate, and wait for the sales to roll in – but, for better or for worse, increased popularity and swelling crowds have led to additional oversight and new costs of doing business. Farmers markets have become a premium marketplace with many vendors and newbies need to know what they're getting into.

Farmers markets are now a fixture of the local food and entertainment scene in many towns. The biggest farmers markets with numerous stalls and lots of foot traffic generally having a waiting list to be a vendor, and whether you are signing up for a whole season or just selling for the day, most will have a stall fee. Also, there is a good chance that you won't be the only vendor selling tomatoes or eggs or preserves, so you have to be willing to expend the effort to differentiate yourself in the marketplace and build a following. If you are looking to make a part-time income from farmers market sales, you're going to have to attend a market where you can move a substantial volume of product, and you're going to have to grow enough product to approach the level of demand. Also, you better have a pretty accurate idea of your cost to produce whatever it is you sell. If your sticker price doesn't cover your production costs and sales taxes, plus some profit margin to cover your overhead and your marketing costs, you may actually be losing money on the whole endeavor!

Interview the local farmers markets and see which is a good match for you.  Not every farmers market is a bustling bazaar with the capacity to create impressive sales revenues for its vendors. Many farmers markets are small, new, out-of-the-way, or inadequately supported. Still, if your financial objective is basically just off-setting some of the costs of feed or seed, and you're really at the farmers market for an enjoyable pastime where you can socialize with locals, then you don't have to be quite so discerning about where you set up shop. Realistically, if your local farmers market ever going to reach critical mass and help revitalize your downtown, some local vendors invested in the community may have to bite the bullet for a while to create a shopping experience that will attract newcomers. Even if you're not in it for the money, though, try not to undercut the prices of the farmers that are doing this for a living.

Whether you're at a big city farmers market or a rural market on the square, farmers market vendors need to know how to protect their customers from risk and themselves from liability. Concerns about foodborne illness are still prevalent, so state and county health departments are going to great lengths to ensure folks selling food adhere to a strict standard of safety. Strike up a good relationship with your local health inspector and stay informed about permits for selling at farmers markets, permits for sampling at farmers markets, and permits for selling foods prepared in your home kitchen – all of which are separate and may require separate fees. Also, even if you currently have a farm liability policy, you should talk to your insurance provider to make sure that the risk associated with marketing away from the farm is covered. If it is not, you may need to purchase a separate product liability or commercial liability policy, and possibly even consider additional umbrella coverage.

In addition to choosing a market and getting the necessary permissions in place, a new vendor has to plan out the booth or stall that will be their physical presence at the farmers market. The booth needs to be an extension of your farm, your brand, and your personality. Feature your logo, stick with a color scheme, match the fonts on your signs, and provide customers with an abundance of information on everything from varieties to recipes to farm news. In our culture of limited attention spans, create connections with your customers quickly using visual appeal, product samples, and customer service that goes beyond their expectations. Ask people about their product experiences, correct mistakes graciously, and keep in touch between markets with newsletters or social media updates.

All this may sound like a lot of work, but farmers markets can pay off if we make plans with realistic expectations. You really can sell your tomatoes and eggs and homemade bread at farmers market if you aren't deterred by a little paperwork. Selling at farmers markets is a great way for growers to get their names out in front of consumers and build a reputation. And there is money to be made when a farmer's expectations are appropriately matched with a compatible farmers market because new vendors who raise excellent products and also raise the bar for professionalism in their marketing and merchandising will always be welcomed at the best farmers markets.

If you are interested in attending a program on marketing for farmers market vendors, please drop me a line!  We have a 2-in-1 farmers market workshop coming up on April 15th, 2017, with a morning program for vendors on marketing and merchandising, and an afternoon program for managers on building awareness and foot traffic.  Details and registration at https://web.extension.illinois.edu/registration/?RegistrationID=16134.  Hope to see you there!



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