How Do I Start Selling at the Farmers Market?
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Recently I received another letter from my good friend Ivan. He started a farm a couple years ago and now wants to sell his products at the local farmers market. Here’s what he wrote.*
My farm is going great. I went to NC Farm School and attended several N.C. Cooperative Extension workshops and conferences. Using all the great information I learned, I am now raising an abundant supply of products. I’d like to sell some of my products at the local farmers market. How should I start?
Ivan Toby A. Farmer
Congratulations on your success! Are you getting your soil tested?
First, I don’t want to sugar coat this. Selling at farmers markets is hard work. You have to get up early, load the van, drive to the market, unload the van, set up your display, be nice to customers for several hours, take down your display, load the van, drive home, unload the van, and put everything away. I’m tired just from writing all that, but I hear that farmers have more stamina than writers, so you’ll probably do just fine.
Now that we’ve got that on the table, here’s my step-by-step advice.
Step 1: Visit the local farmers market(s) – There are several reasons to do this. First, you want to know what other vendors are selling. If there are four blueberry vendors, maybe you shouldn’t bring blueberries. You also want to get an idea of what price vendors are getting for various products. If the average price for squash is $2 per pound, and it costs you $2.25 per pound to grow it, will you be able to charge a price that is profitable? Since you’ve already created a business plan and developed enterprise budgets, it will be easy for you to determine what price you need to charge. It would be a good idea to visit your local farmers market a few times over the season to get a more complete sense of customer traffic, product availability, pricing, atmosphere, etc.
Step 2: Decide which products you will take to the market – I think the key to maximizing success at a farmers market is finding your niche. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be the only one bringing a certain product, but it needs to stand out somehow. Maybe you find a unique variety of sweet corn, or you have a certain item earlier or later in the season than other vendors. Maybe you can package or display it in a certain way that makes it stand out. Or maybe the quality of your product will stand out because of the care you take in transport, handling and display. Find your niche, and be willing to adjust based on customer response.
Step 3: Figure out how you will transport your product – Farmers and pickup trucks are like barbecue and coleslaw, you just can’t have one without the other. However, an open pickup bed invites temperature fluctuations, plus exposure to rain, dirt, bird deposits and more. A camper top over the bed will protect against contaminants, but does little for temperature management. In my opinion, a small van is a better option. If I were starting a small farmers market venture, I would consider picking up a used van or minivan, preferably one with rear air conditioning, and convert it to a small cargo van by removing the rear seats. But however you decide to do it, try to keep product quality and food safety at the top of your priority list.
Step 4: Gather/purchase the supplies you need to display your products – An attractive display could help you bring in customers and increase sales. When you visit markets, pay attention to how other vendors arrange their products for sale. Which ones are you more likely to buy from? I suggest colorful baskets and tablecloths, neatly arranged, with attractive and legible signage showing prices, farm name/contact information, etc. Baskets made of natural materials may look nice, but cannot be sanitized sufficiently. Plastic baskets may be a better choice, or use a liner in the basket that can be washed or thrown out. Try setting up your display at your farm to get a feel for how it looks. Try to see it from the customer’s perspective. Get more ideas. Note that providing free samples can be very effective, see step 5 to learn about doing it safely.
Step 5: Learn about food safety – The last thing you want is for a customer to get sick from consuming something you sold them. This is not a hypothetical risk, there are many recorded instances of farmers market customers getting sick from consuming product they purchased. From planting to market, the practices you follow make the difference. Contact your local office of N.C. Cooperative Extension about training opportunities. You can also find some basic reference information from the NC Fresh Produce Safety website, from UT Extension and from University of Tennessee Food Safety. I also recommend that you consult with professional advisors about whether some type of liability insurance would be wise.
Step 6: Learn about rules and regulations that may apply – For example, for certain products you need to charge sales tax. If you are selling products by weight, your scales need to be certified. The “egg law” spells out packaging, labeling and other requirements for egg sales. Meat must be processed and handled according to strict guidelines. Processed foods such as canned goods and baked goods have to be prepared and labeled properly. The specific market where you plan to sell will also have a set of rules that must be followed. Other rules and regulations could also apply depending on what you plan to sell. Do your research, and contact your Extension Agent for advice.
Step 7: Bring your products to the market and have fun – One of the best parts of being at a farmers market is the social interaction and sense of community. You will get to know the other vendors and, if you provide a quality product, build customer relationships that lead to repeat business.
Step 8: Market your products – You might think that by coming to the farmers market, you don’t have to advertise. You’d be wrong. You want customers to know and recognize you and your business so that when they arrive at the market they come to you first (or at least regularly). There are lots of ways to do this, such as: collecting customer e-mail addresses and sending a weekly product update; sharing pictures and updates on social media; displaying a banner or wearing a t-shirt or apron with your farm name and logo; posting pictures of your farm and/or family on your display. Many farmers market customers are seeking a connection to the people that grow their food, so figure out a way to tell the story of your farm, through words and pictures.
To sum it up, selling at farmers markets will take significant effort, but can offer many rewards in the form of fun, friends and profits. I wish you great success!
All the best,
*Spoiler: Ivan does not really exist. His letter is made up.