Starting a farmers’ market the right way


By Andy King
Originally posted on February 16, 2006

If you are trying to start or turn around a farmers’ market, it’s easy to get distracted by all the possibilities of signage and events and promotions. Before you order your banners, though, make sure you’ve mastered the basics. Each step should set the foundation for the next to make sure things unfold as planned on opening day—and finish strong at the closing.

The following are the basics to start or save your farmers’ market:

  1. Every business needs a business plan, and that includes your market. You should write your bylaws and vendor application as soon as your plan is complete. Review all three documents to make sure there are no conflicts. Remember the bylaws are the rules you use to achieve the goals set out in your business plan.
  2. Find a minimum of eight qualified venders (producers who can make a living selling their products).
  3. Offer a broad spectrum of products (honey, baked goods, fruit, flowers, meat, eggs, milk, cheese and produce).
  4. Try to balance the number of vendors with the anticipated number of customers. A good balance will keep both customers and vendors coming back.

Okay, you already had these four steps in mind. So when do you write your business plan? How do you find the qualified venders with a broad spectrum of products? What is the right number of venders for each type of product?

Market planning
At your first market meeting, you must decide what you are trying to accomplish. Your primary goal may be to supply fresh produce to inner-city residence or it may be to provide the freshest high-quality produce to suburban customers with more disposable income. Different distinct goals such as these will greatly shape your planning and recruiting.

Once planners agree on a goal or set of goals, it’s time write your business plan. Make sure to set major milestones—determining the location of your market, minimum number of vendors—and the timeline to reach each.

Follow up by creating market bylaws—the set of governing rules that will assure the market operates in a way that will allow it to achieve its goals. The rules need to enable vendors to be successful individually so that the market succeeds overall.

Finding the vendors
How are you going to locate the types and number of vendors you need? Not all farmers’ markets are open on the same days, so pick some that are on different days than your market. (The USDA has a great website for locating farmers markets www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm in your area.) Take the time to go to those markets and talk to their vendors. Ask if they know of anyone looking for additional market days. Search the web for sites that list producers and contact vendors in your area. Call the agricultural associations and extension agents in your state and ask them if they can help you locate possible vendors for your market. Run an advertisement in your local agricultural newspaper. Visit any agricultural colleges in your area to see if you can place a notice on their bulletin boards. Check with local stores that carry produce from the community and region.

Why vendors should chose your market
Just as customers are looking for a good selection of fresh local produce, potential vendors are looking for a constant flow of customers during market hours. You must convince producers that selling through your farmers market will offer them a greater opportunity than other forms of marketing.

Once the vendor is convinced that a farmers’ market is the right place to sell their products, you must persuade them to choose your market.

Promise support—tell potential vendors what you are doing to attract customers, and be specific about how you plan to support your producers throughout the season in ways that other markets in the area have overlooked. While many farmers’ markets have a market web site, your market’s site could offer each vendor their own web page on its site. They could list their available products, pricing and availability on the page you provided them.

Show marketing plans—Let potential vendors know how you are going to promote the market so that it will attract a large number of customers each week. Show them the handouts you have for customers that address issues like buying local.

Build trust—Farmers need to know what makes your market different from the others markets in the area. They need reasons to believe that it may pay for them to invest time away from the farm and other markets to try your market. Give them a copy of your market rules and vendor application. Show them how the rules were set up to help each stand be as profitable as possible.

Open the process—Invite potential vendors to your next planning meeting to enable then to communicate with other vendors. When they come to your meeting, make sure you ask them for their ideas. You want potential venders to know that you consider their input and ideas important.

Once they decide they want to join, request that they fill out an application that tells you everything you need to know to determine whether whether fit the quality, product and character role of the market. Make the form just long enough to work, and allow them to express the individuality of their operation.

Which vendors should you chose
You found a number of possible vendors and you can convince them to choose your market. How do you select which ones you want?

Think about what your market needs to be successful in attracting and satisfying customers throughout your season. Give serious consideration to establishing your market as producer only; in other words, you can only be a vendor if you grew it or made in yourself. This model supports the local economy and offers customers a face-to-face relationship with the person who grew their food, two primary reasons more and more people are supporting farmers markets with their food dollars. Produce resellers, aka hucksters, tend to bring down the prices for the products they sell. Remember, your farmers need to make a profit if they are going to stay in business. And you can exercise better overall quality control when the producer of a product is the person selling that product at your market.

The following should help you to set up your criteria:

• Determine which products your market needs, so your customers feel they have the diverse selection they want.
• Estimate how many vendors it will take to provide the quantity of each product your market will need.
• Review the applications. If a vendor has a product you need, are they able to supply your market from the beginning to the end of your season? If so, can they meet your demand for quality and presentation?

Find out if the vendor is selling at any other markets and which ones. Ask people at the other markets if the vendor is dependable and cooperative. What’s the quality of their products, and is it consistent? Farmers’ market customers like to talk to vendors. Make sure the vendors you are considering are friendly and willing to engage your customers when conditions allow.

Once you’ve got the people with the products you need—willing to work creatively within the rules you set that will accomplish the market’s goals—you’re ready to launch the season and find out if you have market that works.

Now, go ahead and order that banner!

Andy King resumed a long-deferred farming quest after 9/11 when he realized that his successful endeavors in insurance and business consulting had distracted him from the more important goals of his life. He combines family time with producing and locally selling naturally grown flowers, herbs and produce.

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