Good market practices

The difference between struggling and success can be good market practices.

What makes for a good farmers’ market? Certainly a strong and supportive base of shoppers is an essential ingredient. Yet demand for products is simply the fuel. How well the market is organized is the engine. Some engines waste fuel whereas others are efficient and well-tuned. Here we discuss some of the important features of any good farmers’ market engine, equally addressed to new markets and to established markets.

A market is defined by its relationships

It is often overlooked that a market is a relationship among its members, not just a relationship between the market members and the buying public. In successful markets the members enjoy being at market, not just to earn an income but to be among the other market members. This doesn’t mean that all the market members have to like one another—personal chemistries make this fairly unlikely. But mutual respect for each other’s production and marketing efforts and the fact that everyone is setting up together to draw in more shoppers should generate a sense of gratefulness for everyone’s presence.

Find a good market location.

A location chosen because it is easy to obtain is not always the best location that could be found. Finding a highly trafficked area that has sufficient parking for both market members and shoppers should be the primary goal. An out-of-the-way area whose location is easy to describe is a distant second-best alternative.

Set a good market time.

While Saturday morning is often the very best time for a market, local considerations may also make other times and days appropriate, such as for a second market day or because your market location is on a primary commuting route. Weekday afternoon markets, say from 2-6pm, are frequent choices. Certain weekdays are better than others, so choose according to your community. Sometimes potential or current market members are already going to market on certain days, which may further restrict your choices.

Set a good market season.

The opening and closing days for your market define your market season. Although local situations and your member’s production schedules make longer or shorter season length more appropriate, in general the longer the market season the better. After a market’s opening day, it takes several weeks for all your potential shoppers to find the market and add it to their schedules.

Have a good mix of products at market.

The ideal market will have a broad mix of baked goods, vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, dairy, cheese, processed foods and perhaps some crafted items such as soaps, salves, knitted goods, etc. Unless a market is very small, it is better to have more than one member offering each type of product, since this gives shoppers more choice and hence are more eager to return. In some cases, having only a single member offering a product may make more sense. It is up to the membership to make these determinations based on what’s good of the market and its members.

Adopt a set of market rules.

Rules are for the day-to-day running of the market, and having them written down means that everyone understands what they are and can refer to them. See Market Rules and By-laws for examples.

Adopt a set of market by-laws.

By-laws define the structure of your market association, the officers and their duties, quorums for meeting decisions, how voting takes place, where the market assets go if the market dissolves, etc. SeeMarket Rules and By-Laws for examples.

Empower each market member.

Have at least one meeting a year where all of the business of running the market is put to the members for approval, revision or rejection. Pay attention to what each member thinks and make sure each members concerns are listened to. See Meeting Process.

Educate the market membership.

Not everyone joins a market with the same set of expectations of how to interact with other members or with an understanding of all the non-economic realities of a farmers’ market. With flyers, during at-market discussions, or at market meetings, bring up the subject of “how to be a good market member” and why this is important for the success of the market.

Price competition at market.

While most members feel it is their right to charge whatever they want for their products, product “dumping” or selling below the cost of production, is unwise and detrimental to the market and everyone in it, even the seller. Some markets even prohibit dumping. Some price variation among members selling similar products is normal and to be expected, and is often based on quality, appearance, volume of production or volume of purchase. Most often it is better to go home with more money in your pocket even if some of your product remains unsold. The last thing you want to do is to train your customers that the market has cheap food because the producer is desperate.

Many hands make light work.

Divide all of the work of the market among all of the market members, without regard for how big each job is. Some market members have more free time or skills than others, and this will influence how jobs are allotted. Develop a list of jobs needed to make the market function over the course of a year and ask for volunteers to fill those positions.

Develop an annual budget for the market.

Make a list of how much money your market is bringing in and from what sources (daily ues, annual dues, grants, etc.). Add to this your market’s bank balance (if any) at the start of the year. This is how much money you have to spend this year. Make another list of known and expected expenses the market will have. If it is smaller than the amount you have to spend, all is well. If not, you either have to trim expenses or raise more money (usually from dues). See the Treasurer’s Template for how to keep track of it all.

Understand the “triple bottom line:” economic, social, environmental.

Most everyone understands the economic effects of a farmers’ market on its members and on its community of shoppers. What is less well understood and talked about are the social and environmental effects that are produced by supporting small scale local production and direct marketing through a farmers’ market. Yet when shoppers decide to visit a farmers’ market, often it is the social and environmental factors that tip the balance in their decision. Each market and each market member should keep in mind that there’s more to selling at market than just making money. See Triple Bottom Line for more about this concept.

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.