The farmers’ market

Running a farmstand is a highly rewarding experience, but it ties you down when you have gardening and other responsibilities aplenty. A good alternative is to set up at a local farmers’ market, where you’ll be selling for only a few hours on Saturday (maybe Wednesday also). A farmers’ market is, to a grower, one the most friendly places imagineable, and the most profitable (everyone’s there to shop), and the most tiring (you have to be “on” for at least four hours straight. That’s why it’s good they usually end at 1 p.m. so the growers can take a nap.)  Don’t hesitate on this: the next most powerful feeling after growing your own food is sharing it with others.  Yours is the best: don’t forget it.

            Now, two things to absolutely know about selling your produce: (1) quality is everything, and (2) marketing is everything. Every carrot, every bean, every herb and flower you bring to market must be perfect. Your booth or table must be the same way: friendly, inviting, well-marked, and clean. Anything that’s not for sale shouldn’t be on the table, except for your moneybox.

            Every market has a market master, and rules as to what can or cannot be sold. Crafts, for example, usually must be locally made, and foodstuffs as well. But herbs, vegetables, and flowers are all fair game, so long as they’re local. See if you can find a niche, such as fresh herbs, or garden plants in spring, or a tub of water on ice. Heirloom tomatoes are a nice niche, because once people have tasted them they’ll come back for more, and buy cabbage and corn. Expect to pay a fee for joining the market. This is standard. We paid $30/week for two tables, but it’s cheaper by the season.

            To start out, you’ll need a folding plastic table or two, and a pop-up canopy if the market is outside and doesn’t provide them.

            Now, here’s a survival list for those trying a farmers’ market for the first time.

  1. Have plenty of change on hand: I bring $100 in fives and ones, and several rolls of quarters. Customers don’t pay sales taxes, so you don’t need little change.
  2. Have twice as many T-shirt bags as you think you’ll need. Keep an extra box in the truck to be safe. (We buy these at WalMart, but there are other sources.)
  3. You’ll need baskets, boxes, or bins of some sort to hold your produce. Have different sizes. If your bushel of corn sells out, have a peck basket to put the rest in. Everything should look full. The hardest thing to sell is your last potato.
  4. Keep standing whenever possible, or seated on a high stool. Move around, cleaning and arranging things. It makes for a bit of psychological excitement, which draws customers.
  5. Make eye contact, say “good morning,” and be sincerely interested in those who stop by. Make them feel important, but don’t ever “hawk” your wares. It’s off-putting, and your produce should speak for itself.
  6. Invest in a large banner proclaiming your farm’s name. and be proud of it.
  7. An easel or notebook with pictures of your place helps make you personal, and proclaims you’re local.
  8. Bring a scale, calculator or cash register, pen and paper, and recipes. A water spritzer is priceless in keeping your produce fresh, and fresh-looking.
  9. Label prices clearly, ideally on individual boxes or baskets. Customers often want to know the variety of potato, corn, bean, or tomato you’re selling. My bean sign reads “Blue Lake beans,” and customers come over just for that.
  10.  Price fairly, but don’t be afraid to price at a premium. Customers at a farmers’ market generally don’t price shop – and besides, your stuff is the best. Remember that. Just don’t undercut the market. You won’t make friends with other vendors that way.
  11. (You thought I was going to stop at 10? Ha!) Bring a notebook so your customers can write down their email addresses. Make sure they do that. You’ll be able to tell them, every week, what you’ll be offering on Saturday, and throw in a personal note or two. Maybe a recipe.
  12. Enjoy. By all means, have fun.

About lifegrower

Peter V. Fossel has been gardening since he was nine, and has been an organic farmer for the last 20 years. His most recent book, “Organic Farming, Everything You Need to know” was published by Voyageur Press, Minneapolis, 2007. He’s written numerous gardening articles for Organic Gardening, Horticulture, Country Journal, Out Here, and American Profile among others. He was Gardens Manager for The Hermitage, home of President Andrew Jackson in Tennessee before returning to Cape Cod to start his newest organic venture, Swan River Farm in Dennisport, MA.
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