Fancy

I’ve got a few things to tell you, so you had better listen up. (We farmers market vendors tend to be an independent somewhat bossy lot.)

When I did my first farmers market on June 1st of this year, I as so excited and so so nervous. There was so much I couldn’t plan for. When I was researching becoming a vendor, I had a lot of questions that I don’t know how to answer.

As the season winds down, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned over the last 4 months.  So here are the top 10 things I learned as a newbie vendor at a farmers market. Hopefully it will help some other farmers market vendor hopeful.

10. The right market (or markets) can make a big difference. If you have more than one market going on in your area (Spokane and the surrounding areas literally have one every day of the week, but they are almost all fairly small) visit all that you can reasonably get to and check them out. Try to get there either in the first hour (usually busy) or about 5:30 pm (as people get off work) if it’s an afternoon market to see how much foot traffic there is. Is there food available to eat on site? Is there music? Do customers seem festive and happy? Talk to the person running the market and ask about fees, rules, space available, how long the market has been going etc.

Also talk to a couple of vendors (one larger, one smaller, who have similar products to what you want to sell) about the management of the market and how successful it is for them. Keep your questions light. You don’t want to be perceived as someone who thrives on drama before you even start.  “I’m thinking of having a booth here next year. How long have you been coming to this market? Do you like it?” Don’t expect them to tell you what they make per market – it’s considered rude to ask. Is the manager hands off? A micro manager? A sticker for the rules? I chose not to do a market that was closer to me because I got a bad vibe off of the manager, something that later proved to be borne out based on feedback I heard. Some managers spend a lot of time recruiting vendors rather than customers. Twenty booths and no foot traffic does no one any good. Make sure the market has a good balance and that the vibe fits your own style well. And notice too what everyone seems to have, and plan to try something slightly different. Finding a niche can really boost your sales.

If you can do two markets about equal days apart in the week (Wednesday/Saturday etc.) it is hugely helpful with produce. Most produce will hold over a few days if you don’t sell out at one market (if kept under optimal conditions), but it won’t hold for a week. And for things like summer squash, green beans, peas and cucumbers that ripen almost daily, having two markets instead of one allows you to pick produce at its prime and not have to sell baseball bat sized squash for $1.

9 . You don’t have to spend big bucks on a tent. Most outdoor markets require some sort of canopy cover, which can be a big expense when you are just starting out. After researching canopies on the internet, and checking out a lot of reviews on Amazon, I determined that it didn’t seem to matter much if you spent $100 or $250. They all had their problems. Because I was mostly working alone, which meant I needed to be able to put up and take down the canopy by myself, it couldn’t be too heavy. (Heavier canopies do better in the wind because the cross pieces tend to be stronger). I ended up buying a “first-up” tent from Wal Mart (gasp), and had quite a few fellow vendors ask me where I got it, as it seemed to shed rain better than the expensive ones (whose canvas would sag and puddle rain water). We did have one cross-piece bend during one hell of a wind gust, so paid the price in other ways for the lighter tent, but thankfully, the bend hasn’t been fatal. I also, following directions and not wanting to replace the canopy before necessary, take off the top when taking it down rather than folding it all up together as most people do.

OnionHarvest

Borrettana cipollini onions, which to-an-onion sent up a flower stocks, causing me to dub them onions on a stick. I planted them too early and the cold made them go to seed. They still taste fine, but won’t store well. Not everything can be a success.

8. Bring enough change. How much to bring? I was so worried about running out that I brought way too much for the first couple of weeks. I think a good rule is to bring enough to equal the amount you hope to sell. Expect to make $100? Bring $100 in change and you can’t go wrong. Some days everyone gives you small bills and you won’t need much of it. Some days, everyone has a $20. I seem to get low on $10’s more than anything else.

If you are by yourself, carry your cash ON your body. At a busy market it would be easy for a cash box to walk off while you were distracted with a customer at the other end of your booth. I ran across this tip somewhere on the internet, and it IS a good one. I purchased a small fanny pack for this purpose.

7. Make up some business cards and carry them with you. I’m surprised how often I am asked if I have a card. If cash is limited, you can buy a generic version of an Avery template from an office supply store and use a template on Microsoft Word to make your own cards, which is what I did. This has also allowed me to tweak what they say, as I was having a hard time deciding exactly what I wanted. I could print one sheet (about 8 cards) at a time and keep evolving the message until I liked what it said. Print both sides, but keep your message down to short digestible points. Once you are settled on a message, you can get great deals on cards on the internet or from a lot of local printers.

FMBoothJune

An early June market. I was still getting my feet under me. It looked a little sparse.

6. You won’t get a second chance to make a first impression (at least on each individual day you are at the market) and so presentation matters. We have all been subject to marketing our whole lives. We respond to things that look clean, organized and interesting without even thinking about it. Don’t just throw up an old table and pile stuff on top of it. People will walk right by you and not take you seriously. An inexpensive vinyl table-cloth, some old wooden boxes or interesting pots, clean plastic bins, open coolers spilling out with produce…these are the things that make you look like a legitimate business.

Visit other markets (or even your local grocery produce department) and pay attention to your own reactions to different displays and booths. Ask yourself, “why do I want to shop with this person, and not with that person”. See your booth from a consumer’s perspective. Ask friends to critique your booth. Take a picture of your booth from across the aisle. You don’t have to spend a lot of money, but you do need to look like you care. And don’t forget your own appearance. One vendor and I wondered if it was a bad sign when the cleanest you were all week was when you were selling at market. Ha!

5. Invite people in. When you first start out at a market, no one knows you. If you are small, you will be easily overlooked. You need to invite people over to your booth. Here are some of the things I used over the season.

  • “Would you like to try a lotion sample?” I was amazed at how many bottles of lotion I sold to people who were walking quickly by my booth without giving me a second glance by asking this question.
  • “What’s a vegetable you love now that you would not eat as a kid?” I wrote this question on an erasable board, and took an informal survey to engage customers. Most common answers? Spinach and Spaghetti Squash.
  • “Would your dog like a homemade dog biscuit?” I make them for my dogs, so bringing a few to market gave me a way to engage dog owners. And no issues with permits to sample edibles (which is required in Washington if you want to offer fruit slices or other food samples to consumers) since it was meant for animals.
  • “Would you like to see the most beautiful lettuce ever?” I grew a lot (too much) lettuce this year, but it was stunning. I kept it in a cooler to keep it from wilting, so invited people over and opened up the cooler to show it off. It worked, because once people had seen it, the product sold itself.
  • Offer free recipes. After quite a few people asked me what to do with kale, I typed up a double-sided sheet with information and recipes and offered them to anyone who bought a bunch.

I also smiled a lot, said hello to EVERYONE, and often complimented people on something visible like a great shirt, an interesting tattoo, or a piece of jewelry. If you want to do farmers markets as a way to make some cash, but really don’t like talking to people, you might need to rethink your strategy.

cauliflower

Stunning fall cauliflower, after the spring crop failed miserably. I sold this for $2 a head, a screaming deal, because I didn’t want to take it home.

4. It’s a business. You should expect to compete! Figuring out what to charge for my product was the hardest part of doing the market. Always check a few local grocery stores to see what similar items are going for to get a bench mark. Also do a gut check on price. Yes, your cauliflower is stunning, but would you pay $7 for it if you were on the other side of the table?

Nothing makes me more crazy than price-fixing at farmers markets. All markets generally have something in their rules about “not pricing below cost to undercut another vendor”. But you should be able to have a blow out sale on beets if you have a lot that are going to rot if you don’t sell them. If you want to sell your flower bouquets for $4 and another vendor has them for $8, there should be some reasonable discussion about what is fair to both parties. You should NOT be told you need to sell your bouquets for $8. (These are both actual market examples, though neither happened to me.) That said, try not to whine when you have beautiful zucchini that isn’t moving because everyone else has the same beautiful zucchini, or your lettuce is beautiful, but a larger grower is selling lettuce 3 heads/$5 because that is what is a reasonable cost for his business structure.

It’s common for vendors to check out each others prices (especially when you show up with something you haven’t sold before) and price similarly. But as Joel Salatin emphasizes over and over in his books, it’s your product, and you should sell it for what it is worth to YOU. If you think your product is better, and you want to charge more for it, do so, but know that you will need to educate your customer as to why you charge more. And if your Chinese Cabbage has earwig chewed holes in it, but no actual earwigs (because you soaked it in a bucket of water to make them leave) you might want to cut your price a bit, even if it IS organic (personal experience on this one). When someone else had essentially organic potatoes for $1 a pound, I decided to just keep mine and eat them this winter rather than sell them for that price. Read more on my pricing experiences here.

WinterSquashHarvest

Winter squash harvest. Not exactly “abundant”. Six spaghetti squash, about the same number of Buttercup and Acorn. Three pie pumpkins.The Butternut were a failure, and the four Delicata are still on the vine. I was being conservative. Squash take up a LOT of room.

3. Abundance sells. Just starting out this year, I was conservative with my planting. It was my first year gardening in this climate, I was doing it on my own, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to be able to handle. So I often only had a few of each vegetable at each market; Four bags of green beans. Ten summer squash. Three heads of cabbage. Often it’s hard to know what isn’t selling because people just aren’t interested (kale) and what isn’t selling because you look small and kind of pathetic. Go to a big farmers market and look around. You’ll likely find yourself drawn to the busiest booth. If everyone else is shopping there, it MUST be good. We’re programmed, either by instinct or marketing, to believe that more is better. We like to have the option of choosing one from 30 rather than one from 3. It’s a balance, and not an easy one with number 2 below, but human nature is drawn to plenty. Keep it in mind.

2. Diversify. I sell soap (liquid and bar), lotion, bath salts, lip balms and hand salve, earrings, and a variety of produce. I’ve sold extra concrete reinforcing wire tomato cages, Jerusalem artichoke starts, applewood smoking chips and poppy seeds. I have plans to sell bluebird houses made from old barn wood, along with bat houses and mason bee blocks. Early on, I sold a lot of lotion. But after a month or so, I had pretty much saturated my market, and didn’t sell much more until people had used up what they already had. The more different types of things you can sell, the more interesting you will be to a variety of people, and the more consistent your sales will be, especially when you are just starting out. The old adage “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” really applies here. I wish I had planted less lettuce, less kale, and many more carrots, but because I had a variety of product, it was OK in the end.

1. Show up. Show up. Show up. When you start out at a market no one knows you. Over time, people get to know you and you develop a following. Eventually, you’ll get people who arrive at the market and walk directly to your booth. But this takes time. I don’t know how many times this season I said, “Yes, I’m here EVERY Wednesday”. Woody Allen said 80% of success is showing up. It may not be 80% with a Farmers Market, but it is huge. Commit to being there, even if the weather isn’t supposed to be optimum, or you have a cold, or you are really busy with other stuff, or you’d really just rather go have a pedicure. It will pay off in the end. You’ll develop a relationship with your customers. And after all, isn’t that a big part of what the whole “local foods” movement is all about!

Other resources I wish I had known about (or could have afforded) at the beginning of the season:

Tips for Selling at Farmers Markets article by the Rodale Institute: Great piece, which I was able to find before I started, and it was a huge help. You may not be able to do everything on here (for instance, offering samples is difficult in Washington without a lot of permits and hoops) but it is ALL good advice.

Garden Web Market Gardener Forum: great for learning what other small market gardeners are doing and a place to ask for advice. Really fun to read about what is selling well, and not selling at all across the country.

National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) Sustainable Agriculture Project website: Amazing database of articles on market gardening including best practices, harvest protocols, greenhouse production and much more.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE): possible grants for different sustainable ag projects by state.

Growing for Market: Newsletter and archive of articles on market growing. Several good books as well. A subscription service, but some free content on their website.

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2011, where were miles away from knowing it all, but at least we have one season under our belt.

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