Whether they are located in a major city like New York City or Washington D.C. or in a more rural town in Ohio, farmers markets are becoming increasingly common. Currently, there are more than 86,000 markets registered in the United States Department of Agriculture’s directory, viewable at bit.ly/2m0SkB6
But what exactly is a farmers market? According to the Farmers Market Coalition, a national nonprofit organization working to strengthen farmers markets’ business acumen, the term is defined as a “public and recurring assembly of farmers or their representatives selling the food that they produced directly to consumers. Farmers markets facilitate personal connections and bonds of mutual benefits between farmers, shoppers and communities.” In short: Farmers markets can serve as an impetus for creating a mutually beneficial relationship between producers and consumers.
For growers, farmers markets can be an effective avenue for reaching new consumers, increasing business and better integrating their business into the community. But how can a grower get involved? Is it always a good business opportunity? And what crops are typically sold at market?
Christie Welch, a Program Specialist in Direct Agricultural Marketing at Ohio State University, shares her perspective on what growers need to know to successfully participate in their local farmers market.
Start planning now
According to Welch, the first step is almost always to start early and research the existing farmers markets in the area. Typically, she says, a market will determine which vendors will be allowed to sell months before the market opens. In Ohio, for example, she says six months is the recommended time for determining whether getting involved at a market is both plausible and the right decision.
“Many markets have waiting lists [for vendors],” Welch says. “Start reaching out early, ideally in January or February. The sooner the better.”
She also notes that it’s important to know how the goods a grower wants to sell are regulated. While it differs from state to state, the general rule is that fresh produce can be sold with little to no regulation across the U.S. But if a grower wants to use his tomatoes to make salsa, it becomes a more complicated process. In Ohio, for example, a producer should prove that salsa or any other cottage or homemade goods were produced in a commerical facility. Typically, a state’s department of health also gets involved to monitor food safety. This could involve inspections, food labeling and/or taste testing from state officials.
Welch, though, notes that the process of getting involved is fairly straightforward for growers not producing cottage goods. Sometimes, registering can be the simplest part of getting started. And in many states, there is no cost to register as a state-approved market.
“Typically, it goes pretty fast depending on the people involved,” Welch says. “In Ohio, the regulations to establish the farmers market are pretty minimal. All you must really do is register your market with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. There’s a form you fill out and once it’s filled out, you’re a farmers market.”
For information on regulations in your state, contact your state’s department of agriculture. Most states also have downloadable resources on their websites. A full list of contact information can be found at bit.ly/2kKuc1d
Consider your local market
According to Welch, the most important part of research involves understanding the market for different goods. For example, a grower producing eggplant, cucumber and tomatoes in a greenhouse could decide that he or she wants to sell those products at the farmers market down the street as a vendor. Before approaching that farmers market about becoming a vendor, the grower should vet the situation and determine whether there is a need for his or her crops. He or she could also decide to open their own, independent operation.
“Check to see if there is enough consumer support,” she says. “It’s been pretty tough for new markets to get started in the last couple of years. The challenge, ultimately, for a new farmers market is to find if you have a location that has enough consumers that are willing to spend enough so that it’s financially feasible for producers to participate in the farmers market.”
In some states, there are other restrictions to consider. In Ohio, for instance, farmers markets can determine on a case-by-case basis what can and cannot be sold by individual vendors. Another factor to consider are new, emerging niche markets that grocery stores may not be able to supply. For example, a recent study from the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) extension indicated that Asian varieties of vegetables could become a profitable market for growers. To read more on the UF/IFAS study, read “Asian vegetables’ untapped potential” from the Jan. 2017 issue of Produce Grower at bit.ly/2kKmTqn
“It all comes down to visiting the market you’re interested in and seeing who their customers are and what their interests are,” Welch says. “You have to ask, ‘Do they fit your market?’”
Welch also says that location does matter when mapping out a business plan for a farmers market. But she says that visibility — whether a market is in an urban city center or on a back road in a more rural environment — is typically the most important factor.
“Have a location that’s visible because people — and we tend to hear this a lot — say ‘Oh, I forgot the farmers market was today,’ Welch says. “But if they see it, they might stop because it made them remember that the farmers market is today. Making sure you have adequate parking for consumers and vendors is key as well.”
Put an emphasis on marketing and telling a story
Every grower needs to consider marketing and how their message can better resonate with consumers. According to Welch, however, this is especially true at farmers markets where it’s as much about the story as it is growing a high-quality tomato.
“In ag in general, we don’t do a good job of telling stories,” she says. “So, if you’re growing greenhouse tomatoes, you have to explain why you’re doing that and what the benefits are for the consumer. From a farmers market perspective, getting all the growers that come to market to promote each other is key because then it feels more like a community.”
Welch does note that this is easier said than done and what works in one community might not work in another. There are also budgetary concerns and income shortages to consider, especially in communities with less disposable income. But by enlisting volunteers, budgeting any excess funds for resources and finding alternatives to paid marketing, there are ways markets can be successful.
“I know that can be a challenge because everyone is so busy,” she says. “But if you can get vendors to work together, that could be really helpful in telling that story and showing people why they should be shopping at the farmers market.”