Advice and perspective for new market applicants

This was written by Janet Weaver and Tom Roberts in the Winter of 2013 as an introduction to the world of farmers’ markets to be given to new market applicants.

Why are you joining a market?
Is hauling your wares to a farmers’ market going to be your only income source? Is the Market a stepping stone to introduce the public to your farm’s location or your CSA? It’s visibility to restaurants and other potential wholesale accounts? A way to advertize your u-pick or farm stand? Will farmers’ markets become your major source of income into the indefinite future?

Not everyone is good at selling at a farmers’ market.
Farmers often think they are “eliminating the middleman” by attending a farmers’ market. This is not true. Instead, they are becoming the middleman, needing to adopt all those responsibilities that come between production and retail sale. Beautifully grown farm produce alone will not always make the sale (although it certainly helps!). An attentive, friendly and helpful manner while at market is every bit as important as product quality. And you will have to pull this off regardless of whether it’s sweltering or freezing, sunny or raining, whether your cat just died, you just had to fire a farm employee, or your last customer was incredibly rude. You also have to re-create your eye-catching display every time you set up. Some folks grow great produce, but have difficulty with all those retailing skills that bring success at market.

What is my part in a farmers’ market?
A farmers’ market is not itself a business, but rather an association of separate small and micro businesses co-operating at a common retail location. Market members work together to provide exposure, product development, marketing, and income for their businesses. They also provide non-economic services: a space for communities to gather, support each other and educate the shoppers about all the local foods available to them. For the towns they operate in, markets provide a customer draw, an anchor for their retail zones, and an awareness for their town centers. For market members, markets are a place to learn and to gain exposure so that they can become independent, successful enterprises that have become connected with their communities.

New Vendors.
We love to bring new vendors into the market. Shoppers enjoy finding new items, meeting new faces, and truly enjoy being part of building the success of a small business. New vendors can contribute fresh inspiration to a market. However, it is unreasonable for new applicants to expect be automatically handed the customer base, the free advertising, the location, and the working relationships with town and local businesses that have been developed by a long standing, prosperous market. These things took years of dedicated hard work by market members volunteering time away from their own businesses to establish. Joining a Farmer’s Market is by no means an entitlement!

Many hands make light work.
Each Market has a responsibility to both the town they serve and the vendors who make up the market to assure that their site is a well rounded, pleasant, exciting, clean, friendly and compassionate place. As a vendor in a market, you are part of an association of members who are cooperating to create a larger and more varied retail experience than any of us could do alone. You should not expect to simply show up, make money, and leave. The market is a living thing and you are not only responsible for your own business’s success, but for the market’s success as well! The better the market does, the better we all do. There is work involved in making the market happen, and this should not entirely fall on a few people. It has been demonstrated time and again that markets whose members are involved in helping make the market function well are the most successful markets for their members.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Many market members also use other marketing outlets, such as stores, restaurants, buying clubs and wholesalers—along with their participation in one or more markets. It is also important for new vendors to realize that their display, marketing, customer service, and product might be well served by joining 2 or 3 smaller markets their first few years to “get the kinks” out of their market setup. It’s a process—give yourself time to experiment. Markets are a safe zone to learn.

You might not be accepted into the market.
Don’t fret, it happens to us all, and often says more about the market’s own current needs than it does about your value as a vendor. Some markets, especially newly forming ones, are looking for as many new members as they can find. Smaller markets, ironically, are often easier to get into than larger markets. Other, usually well established markets, are careful to accept only those new applicants whom the members believe will help balance the offerings at the market. Furthermore, the needs of every market change from year to year, so a market that doesn’t accept you one year may be looking for what you have to offer the following year. So don’t be afraid to reapply next year.

What does your future hold?
Sometimes members who have left markets over the years are “graduates”, meaning that they have established wholesale, CSA, even mail-order businesses, or develop their own customer base and no longer need to go to a farmers’ market. We’re sad to see them go, but very proud that we were part of their success! Others have discovered that, for one reason or another, their sales were not what they had expected, and were able to back out without incurring the huge debts of a brick and mortar obligation. The market was a great venue to let them try out their dream. They too, graduated.

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.