When does your market’s season begin?

While over a dozen Maine farmers’ markets now stay open year-round, others do not open for the season until June or even July,  still others close for the season by mid-September. The reasons for late openings and early closing often—but not always—has to do with the market being dependent upon summer people and tourists. Markets on MDI, the mid-coast area, or in the Belgrade Lakes region come to mind.

I’m not arguing that there isn’t something to be said for a short market season making your life easier, but I also know there are markets who could open earlier and remain open later in the season if their members could have products for sale at those times and if more local year-round residents became regular shoppers.

Even the folks attending year-round markets know that summer and early fall will be their busiest season, yet many market members enjoy the easier pace and extended income periods that the early and late season markets provide.

Members of “short-season” markets might be able to expand their marketing season if a group of them can commit to attending the market earlier or later than has been previously scheduled. If several members are pretty sure they can provide items in May or even April, then they should make this known to the rest of the market members in the form of a request for the market to be open earlier.

Earlier opening

Although you will connect with some of the off-season tourists and the early arrival summer people, earlier opening markets in areas of highly seasonal sales (due to tourists & summer people) will have to depend mainly upon year round local residents to shop at their market.  This may—especially in the first years—result in lowering sales expectations when compared to the busier summer months. Nevertheless, it can provide those earlier sales that are so helpful in getting your farm season underway. Meanwhile, when the summer traffic does arrive, you will be already selling to a committed group of local folks.

For veggie growers, there are items offered for sale at earlier markets that are unavailable at later markets, items whose seasonality means they are only available in April, May and/or June. Rhubarb, asparagus, dandelion greens, perennials and garden seedlings make up a great portion of early season sales. Add to that the possibility of spring hoophouse production and you can be selling spinach, carrots,  beet greens, spicy greens, lettuce, radishes, salad turnips, bok choy and a host of other crops to folks before most local gardens are even planted. Add to that spring dug parsnips and sunchokes and overwintered parsley, scallions and Swiss chard, and early field plantings of spinach, lettuce and radishes and you are offering a remarkably wide range of veggies prior to mid-June. Greenhouse growers find that flower sales on Mothers Day represent a big sales event for them.

I once thought that selling seedlings at market in May might be shooting myself in the foot, since later in the season those folks wouldn’t then be buying the produce that I grew. But, on the contrary, it resulted in making very good connections with local gardeners (all of whom are year-round residents!) and they soon began growing only those things that they liked growing or had space for, and relying on me for the rest. Since we are the professional growers, we often had plenty and in a more consistent supply than casual gardeners would, too.

Of course the market members with non-seasonal products may be interested in extending their selling season, too. Producers of meats and dairy products, cheeses and eggs, and all sorts of baked goods and crafts can design their production schedules to be able to be at market earlier and later if there is perceived demand.

Staying later

I often find it hard to believe that some markets close in September. Three of our five markets stay open until Thanksgiving, when in October and into November we’re selling rutabagas, pumpkins and winter squashes of all sorts, onions, shallots, scallions, leeks, kale, chard, lettuces, beets, carrots, parsnips, sunchokes, canning tomatoes, garlic, celery, celeriac, and other crops directly from our gardens, hoop houses and from early storage.  We make at least a quarter to a third of all our farmers’ market sales after October 1. But again, there aren’t many folks “from away” who are buying at this season, so it is imperative to connect with local residents, and those connections made at your spring markets will be of great help.

And, like with exclusively spring items, there are items only available in the fall. Apples (at least the best ones!), pears, cranberries, sunchokes, and parsnips will complement  the continued availability of all the early fall harvest of squashes, onions, etc. And garlic sales increase to gardeners as garlic planting season approaches in October.

When we started expanding markets into the fall, we always had to fight the expectation that we wouldn’t have any produce after the frost had hit. This false assumption requires continual shopper education (a good thing, no?) and takes time to show them year after year that there is still plenty to offer after Jack Frost visits.

Looking to the future

If you take a long view of where you’d like your market and your farm to be five or ten years from now, extending your growing season and selling over a longer season may be the best way to develop. It is easy to see that extending your growing season requires extending your marketing season. There may be some in your market who would like to eventually move to a year-round market, and the best way to move in that direction is to begin creeping up on winter at both ends. The number of shoppers who bemoan the market’s closing at the end of the season is your best barometer for keeping the market open a while longer. The market members who only arrive at market later in the season will be very glad the early attendees have “gotten the ball rolling” for customers showing up. The best way to expand your season is to do it a little at a time, extending it a few weeks this year, a few more in a year or two, and so forth, all the while gauging shopper response to determine your next move.

We are still amazed and heartened when we see shoppers arriving at a late fall or winter market all bundled up against the cold, but as ready as ever to buy some of those great locally produced veggies, meats, cheeses, dairy and baked goods. We have photos of our markets happening during a November snowfall, and we make sure to publish these online as a demonstration to shoppers that “We’ll be there”. It requires some skill and determination for the vendors to dress warmly enough and to protect their goods from the cold, but the reward is a ever-more-loyal base of market shoppers.

And when spring  finally rolls around, there is that base of shoppers who have never stopped shopping at the market, resulting in better spring and early summer sales as a bonus to all market members.

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.