To peddle or not to peddle

by Tom Roberts (from 1990’s Selling Outdoors)

Whether to allow market members to buy some or all of what they sell could be a hotly debated subject or an easy consensus. Which occurs at your market depends upon your market’s history and its current makeup, as well as on your members’ vision of what your market should be. If you already have members in the market who are making a portion of their income from selling items they purchase, then they may feel very defensive during a discussion of a “No-Buy Rule.” On the other hand if your market is made up primarily of people who sell only what they grow or make themselves, then they are likely to feel defensive about opening the market to other kinds of sellers, i.e. resellers.

The act of buying and selling has been practically raised to the level of a sacrament in this country. There is an enormous set of customs, laws, myths and emotions involved with the right of anyone to start a business by buying a product wholesale and selling it retail.

It is indeed the entrepreneurial spirit which, as they say, made this country great. This spirit is exercised via the freedom, in our economic system, to develop an economic niche in which to do business. Few places is this better exemplified than the selling of produce, a commodity which requires considerable care in purchasing (or harvesting), handling and displaying.

The image of the farmers’ market as a direct-market retail focuses primarily on the grower, the one who produces and sells. This self-image of a market is also something that can be “marketed” to the produce-buying public, and the ability to buy direct from the farmer (gardener, baker, crafter) is what brings most shoppers to the farmers’ market in the first place. However, it is in the nature of the market mechanism to develop; that is to say, that markets actually have a life of their own, quite apart from the farmers who come together to create them. Thus the market, created by farmers, becomes a place where demand has been created, demand that is seen as potential sales, and not only for what the original farmer-founders are able to grow. When customers ask for strawberries and there aren’t any, there is a perceived need on the part of those selling that there should be strawberries at the market (to “satisfy demand at the market”), so some attempt is made to bring strawberries to market. This could be done by the existing growers deciding to grow strawberries, by recruiting strawberry growers to come to market, or by allowing current or new members to buy strawberries for resale at market. The first two solutions are in keeping with the direct marketing aspect of the farmers’ market; the later is letting the mechanisms of the market (and not the growers) take lead in market development.

When market members cater to the need of the market to satisfy consumers (the demand side) instead of focusing on the needs of the producers (the supply side), they take a step in a fateful direction. They move toward losing control to market forces of what is of the highest value in farmers’ markets to both growers and shoppers, the direct relationship between producer and consumer that is so rare and so valued in today’s anonymous mega-marketplace. We are, many of us, knee-jerk trained to want to satisfy any consumer demand, but so doing leads down an alienating road of sales anonymity; just look around you.

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.