Buying in for resale

(article from 1990’s Selling Outdoors)

There are few questions which bring more division among market ranks than whether to allow buying for re-selling, and if so under what terms. The state law, of course, says a seller at a farmers’ market must have at least 75% of their items grown by them, and 100% of it must be native. The law is vague on 75% of what (Today’s sales? Average annual products? Display space?), preferring to leave that to the discretion of each market.

First off, you need to ask yourself the question: What and whom is the market primarily for? Have you ever done a purpose statement? Look it over. Of course there are many components, many constituencies and interests involved in a farmers’ market, but you have to ask yourself what is the market primarily for, what is the principle and most important purpose of the market? Is it the customers (who will always want more, cheaper, earlier, better—you know, the corporate-trained consumer psychology we are all burdened with). Is it the farmers, gardeners and bakers who show up every week to create for themselves a market with their sheer will, work, and presence? Is it the local businesses or town officials or non­profit group for whom the market may be a feather in their cap, a low-budget way to good karma, or an improved flow of shoppers into the neighborhood? Yes the market may be all of these things and more, but what is its essence? Ask yourself who you are working for, then answer the question, “What is the market for?”

Many markets have a more or less strict “no-buy rule,” meaning members are not allowed to buy in anything for resale. I say more or less, because several markets make exceptions. Some of these include:

Brewer says that if you are leaving early you may sell or consign the remainder of your stock to another member selling that day and they may resell it for that day.

Orono says that a member may, on three separate occasions during a market year, send their items with another member due to illness, vehicle damage, or other such reason, and that the items shall be labeled as to the origin.

Unity allows “ghost members,” that is, members who join (but never attend) for the express purpose of being able to send their wares in with another member for them to sell. Brewer, Orono, Fairfield and Pittsfield all expressly disallow ghost memberships. Orono has even adopted a policy that if a person joins the market but never attends, then next year they have no seniority as a member and must apply again as a brand new member. Unity also allows, on a case-by-case basis, a member to buy in an item agreed to be a void in the market.

Pittsfield has an on-the-spot meeting of members in attendance when a questions about buying in an item arises. Considerations are made as to whether another member is already bringing it in, if there is already enough at market to meet market demand, and where it is coming from. Generally if there is already some grown by a member, buying in is not allowed, unless demand far outstrips supply.

Camden allows a member to buy in a product that would be a void in the market, but if another member who grows it brings that item in, the member who bought the item has to wait till the member who grew the item has sold out of theirs before offering the bought in item for sale.

Note that all the exceptions markets make are just that: exceptions. It is generally accepted that the no-buy rule pertains, EXCEPT in given circumstances. In other words, the no-buy rule is the starting point.

Markets who go by the 75% rule usually wind up regretting it because 25% bought in can stretch to 50% or more if you are looking at sales volume.

Several markets allow for a “short season membership” at a reduced rate and without voting privileges. This allow voids in the market to be filled for such items as strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, peas, etc., by growers who have these as their main or only crop. Short season memberships are usually for three weeks. Regular daily dues or short-season fee apply.

Most markets started by third parties (downtown revitalization committees, do-gooder non-profits, etc.) tend to be a bit dense about understanding the point of a no-buy rule, under the assumption that the more a market offers for sale the better for the sellers and for the shoppers. In other words they put the emphasis on the MARKET instead of on the FARMERS. Some market members even get the “retailing bug” and just love to sell. They see the opportunity to sell product as so great that it would be a shame not to buy in more to sell to supplement or even to replace any that they might grow.

I have often thought about what kinds of directions that farmers’ markets can and might evolve in over the years. It seems pretty clear to me that if marketing is allowed to take precedence over farming, then the farmers’ market as a marketing outlet for small farmers and gardeners will be short lived indeed. It is in the nature of a free market system to eliminate the small sellers in favor of the larger ones, and to concentrate economic power in the hands of those who can provide the widest range of goods at the lowest price. The simplest way to do this is to buy in what you sell, and not to grow it. So a balance must be maintained between the marketing and the farming aspects of the business called a farmers’ market. And who better to maintain that balance than the farmers themselves.

But developing a policy is not going to be easy. The main sticking point for us seems to be the following:

  • farmer number one says she will be producing corn, for some reason the crop does not come in at the same time corn is available in the area.
  • farmer number two wants to buy in as people are asking for it, but is unable to do so because farmer number one will have some, sometime, maybe.

It isn’t easy ever, for any market, because various people have divergent ideas about what a farmers’ market is all about. Of course customers will have divergent views, but when farmers at the market can’t agree, then we have a source of conflict in how the market is to operate. The most important thing is to come to a policy that everyone can live with. One (of many) ways to do this is to make the policy active on a “trial basis” for a year, to be revisited next year.

Note that the Camden market has a policy that says the buyer has to wait till the grower is sold out before selling the bought item.

In the situation noted above, it seems farmer two is operating under the assumption that the customer is king, and we must cater to their every whim. Including having everything they expect us to have whenever they expect us to have it. In Pittsfield, there is a tailgate marketer about half a mile down the road from us, and we mention to customers that he is there with corn when the market didn’t have any. (He was about two weeks ahead of anyone in the market.)

In other words, none of the eight of us were so worried that a customer couldn’t get corn that we felt it necessary to modify the market’s rules. The rules are, after all, for the long term benefit of the market, not the short term benefit of any particular farmer or customer.

Analyzing just how farmers are thinking about a problem, what thinking is behind their position, is an important first step in under­standing where they are coming from and properly addressing their concerns.

Sandy River Farmers’ Market policy right now does not allow anyone to buy in if a member farmer will be producing a product (as listed on their application). TRICKY things rules are.

The want-to-buy-in camp may feel that we lose customers when things are available but not at market. If someone goes to Shop ‘n Save for com then they will also buy carrots and bread… The no-buy-in camp wants to protect what they produce.

Well if the market has carrots and bread, wouldn’t the customer buy those at the market since they were there anyway, before heading off to the Shop ‘n Save? We always tell customers to shop the farmers’ market first, because you never know what just came into season. A good farmers’ market shopper uses the supermarket as a backup.

I feel that it is our job as good and effective marketers to educate the public, not just about when and where the market is, but what to expect from the market. We are just a group of small farmers, so we’re not going to always have everything. If we try to meet the shopper’s expectations that have been developed and coddled by the chain stores, we are only going to lose, because we can’t beat them on that score. If we think of ourselves as bigger and more powerful than we are or can be, we will expend what we are doing beyond what we do best.

How do you balance this act?

I remember when I first started going to market that I was so dejected whenever someone didn’t buy my produce. This was good, because it provoked me to look at my quality, my display, my attitude in greeting customers, in short, my whole market presence. And I improved a lot in the next few years. But there is still, and there will always be, the customer you can’t satisfy, and you won’t always know the reason. But I have decided to completely reject the customer who wants me to be the low priced bargain outlet for farm produce. Sometimes I say to customers, “This is better produce than you’ll find at the supermarket, and we aren’t a yard sale.” This is as a parting shot, after I have decided they aren’t going to buy anyway. But it gives them something to think about and maybe they’ll be back later on, and with a different attitude.

Shopper re-education is one thing most marketers could use help on. Some of us are very good at it, at least some of the time, especially those who have been doing it for a few years. Others, especially newbies, feel we have to take the shoppers as they come, and we either satisfy their needs or we don’t. Although I have some sympathy with this way of operating (as does your farmer number two, I suspect) and sometimes it is necessary when the close-minded come to shop, I try as often as I can to share some of my agri-culture with my shoppers. The real repeat customers are generally looking for more to the buying experience at market than just the exchange of money for food.

I do go on at length sometimes. Hope this was of some help. Instead of suggesting a particular solution, I feel it’s better in the long run to get marketers to think about all aspects of what they are doing, and hopefully develop their own unique and local solutions.

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.