Start a farmers market or roadside stand: Structure plans, tips for starting & succeeding

by Amy Rose

Copyright National Lilac Publishing, LLC

There's nothing like the great group event of a farmers market or even a roadside stand or on-farm store. Want to start one? Let's jump right in.

Roadside stands are usually considered an outlet at the edge of just one farm. Whereas farmers markets are more often a group of farmers gathered under temporary or permanent shelter in a more public place.

But a roadside stand can expand into an entire on-farm store as what happened with the farmer described in the book "Micro Eco-Farming" who started by putting out a little left-over corn and cucumbers from the family garden, and ended up grossing $200,000 a year after building an on-farm store with baked items and other value-added products. Roadside stand owners also sometimes collaborate with other farmers in rural areas, turning them more into rural farmers markets.

Building structures for farmers markets, on-farm stores and roadside stands:

Structures for on-farm stores, farmers markets or roadside stands can be unique and part of the customer draw.

But roadside stand structures can be as simple as a card table or the kids' wagon if it's small and set up only during warm weather. If you want to build more of an on-farm store, or a permanent attractive roadside stand that advertises to passersby all year even when not in use, consider a wooden building with character and interest.

Farmers' markets are sometimes affairs where each vendor sets up his or her own temporary structure. But picnic tables and other gathering places can greatly benefit a farmers market's customer draw.

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Tips to start a farmers market, roadside stand or on-farm store:

- The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (www.ams.usda.gov) has a whole section on farmers’ markets and local food marketing from their home page.

- Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic’s toolkit for communities seeking to make changes in their food and agriculture system is entitled “Good Laws, Good Food: Putting State Food Policy to Work for Our Communities and is downloadable at  http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/foodpolicyinitiative/  

Resources for finding farmers market regulations at the state, county and city levels:

- Most states have a farmers market association one can search for online.

- Farmers and vendors can also search their state’s Department of Agriculture website for state codes regarding farmers’ markets.

- The state and local Department of Health must be contacted for a description of their rules, as they regulate value-added and prepared foods at markets, including conducting  inspections. For a list of all state departments: www.healthguideusa.org/local_health_departments

- Local cooperative extensions can be helpful in understanding regulations and pointing to local resources. A list of all state extensions: www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/

- A growing number of areas now have unique local non-profits engaged in sustainable agriculture and developing local food systems. Ask around, and keep an eye out for them at food co-ops or other local areas of shared interest.

- Home based cottage food laws:https://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/industry/ucm322302.htm#home

- More information on cottage food laws: http://cottagefoodlaws.com/

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Tips to operate a farmers market:

Signs with prices: Customers can be shy about asking a price, and will sometimes move on rather than take a risk. Vendors with clear signs that give name, price, as well as a little bit of description create a more customer-friendly atmosphere.

Shallow displays versus deep displays: This tip comes from Linda Chapman of Harvest Moon Farm in Spencer, Indiana. When displays are shallow and parallel to the customers' walking path, customers feel safer approaching the stands. This way, they don't have to walk into narrow aisles off their path.

Freebies for children: Handing out free cherry tomatoes, surplus bachelor buttons, goose or or peacock feathers helps children (and therefore their parents) enjoy the market, as well as helps keep young hands off the saleable merchandise. Make sure all health department procedures are properly followed.

Taste samples and "loss leaders" vs. undercutting and catering to last-minute vultures: Everyone likes a bargain. But backyard farmers especially need to discover that farmers markets or a chain of roadside stands work because no one undercuts the other. A new backyard farmer can't show up late in the season and dump a load of overly cheap extra produce at the farmers market, take business away from the regulars trying to earn their living that way, and leave after receiving a quick wad of money.

Also, "bargain hunters" sometimes purposely wait until the last moment to buy from farmers, hoping in a desperate attempt to get rid of perishable produce, they'll give it to them half price. But, farmers markets and even roadside stand owners can satisfy the desire for bargains by offering free taste samples instead.

They can also try using loss leaders. This is when stores offer an item at an especially low price, knowing they'll lose money on it, just to attract customers to come in and buy other products at full (or inflated) prices at the same time. Farmers can agree ahead of time on loss-leader items that are an equal risk for all, or ask each farmer to provide one per week that does not compete with other vendors, never allowing one vendor to always be the cheap one of the pack.

Friendly farmers: Tony Manetta, director of Greenmarket in New York, has expressed that the actual farmers are one of the biggest draws for the market, and that sales always increase when the farmers, rather than their employees, are present at the market. Friendly contact with farmers can make the difference between a customer stopping off at the supermarket, or returning next Saturday for field-fresh lettuce. If farmers don't like people - that's okay, but they need to find another outlet to sell through. One rude vendor can cast a dark cloud over an entire market. These gathering places of farmers and customers are considered one of the greatest public relations programs for agriculture.

Diversity: Many choices among vendors will bring a greater number of different customers with different needs to the market. Unusual items, new introductions, along with familiar staples customers can count on make a very good mix. A regular supply of organic, vine-ripened tomatoes and ongoing supplies of lettuce and greens complement such hard-to-find products as fresh trout and just-picked gourmet mushrooms. There are exceptions, especially for roadside stands, such as small honey or cut-flower stands that people come to expect to buy only certain specific items.

Promote sustainable agriculture: The rise in farmers markets paralleled the growth in health consciousness as the last century turned. Farmers' markets are a good place for posters or brochures describing the methods and benefits of organic farming. This educates as it adds to the appeal of being at the market, reminding citizens that they are contributing to the greater good.

Product networking among vendors/farmers: The University of California Small Farm Center promoted local farms by creating holiday gift baskets which included products from 15 farms and a brochure describing the farms. Participating farmers were thrilled with the success, and all of the baskets sold. Such products create a further sense of cooperation and unity, create another outlet for farmers products, and promote the farmers and their market at the same time.

Promotional extras: Free promotion through a well-timed press release is invaluable. So is word-of-mouth promotion that comes about when customers leave the market with a sense of goodwill. If the market is small, informal and utilizes volunteers, one successful method is to have each vendor choose a month and volunteer an 'extra,' such as writing a press release, organizing a cooking demonstration, or printing up recipe cards that include items from each vendor.

If the market is larger and can hire a director, larger undertakings, such as a farmers market exclusive cookbook or ongoing contact with the press can turn a quiet market into 'the place to be on Saturday.'

Market events: Special events, especially those put on in conjunction with the harvest of local produce or locally celebrated holidays, will attract more customers and more media attention. Here is a list of some successful events put on by farmers markets around North America:

- An opening day if the market is not year-round is very important. In Bellingham, Washington, a bagpipe band marches around the grounds, the mayor does the "cabbage toss" and fresh cut tulips (a signature crop of nearby farmers) mark the event.

- Mothers' Day. Vendors are encouraged to create Mothers' Day specials of flowers, garden gifts, hanging baskets, and value-added products.

- Strawberry (or blueberry or other berry) Festival with special booths for shortcake.

- Local entertainment. Scheduling local entertainment will attract more customers, including the musician's own families. The Davis, California market regularly schedules local talent, such as the youth Suzuki strings group, local school bands and the civic choir.

- Pancake breakfast. In the small town market of St. Mary's, Ontario, the vendors and board put on a pancake breakfast each month to encourage regulars to return and to attract new customers. The breakfast is made special by using homemade pancake batter, real maple syrup, and fruit that is in season.

- Chalk Art/Kids' Day. In conjunction with a local arts association, Bellingham, Washington's farmer's market hands out awards for the sidewalk chalk art produced by local citizens, and allows local kids to rent space to sell their wares.

- Salmon/Corn Festival. A very popular salmon barbecue cooked and served by market vendors is put on by a maritime farmers market.

- August Peak Season. Markets that offer this find creative ways to sell surplus, whether it be with canning demonstrations or free salsa recipes.

- Fall Harvest Festival. Popular at markets across the country, customers are drawn to pumpkin carving demonstrations, creative scarecrow contests, fresh-pressed apple cider, and a large assortment of ornamental gourds, multi-colored corn and pumpkins that local farmers have been aiming to harvest for this day. One market has expert pumpkin carvers available to carve customers' pumpkins for a donation, which is given to a local women's shelter.

- November Food Drive. Canned foods are collected at the market by volunteers for local food banks, creating a sense of community spirit and goodwill.

- Closing. A last market day of the season can be enhanced by emphasizing winter storage supplies of squash, honey, preserves and Christmas gifts.

Fair fees: Fees for vendors at markets vary greatly, depending partly on the size of the market and the number of people drawn to it on a regular basis. But some market directors feel that the percentage fee is the fairest, as well as the best for the overall health of the market. As long as the percentage is reasonable and there is perhaps a minimum fee (to keep extra garden produce from being dumped at cheap prices next to the serious growers) the percentage system can create a wider variety of produce. This helps assure the diversity necessary mentioned above. The larger producers provide familiar staples, and the smaller growers can participate with unusual specialties without paying as high of a price.

A collective web site: A web site containing such links as a directory of vendors, recipes for seasonal eating, parking map, directions and calendar of events is proving beneficial to more and more farmers markets.

Remember the most important product customers shop for: Fresh-picked, local, vine and tree-ripened produce grown by the vendor. While some markets add a small percentage of permanent craft and entertainment booths, the feel of a farmers  market is still usually maintained. This can be done through independent market rules that designate only a certain percentage of booths be non-farm related and that all (or a certain percentage of) vendors must grow their own. Or, markets can have formal certification such as in California, where certified markets assure genuine farmers sell their crops directly to the public. These markets are approved by the county agricultural commissioner guaranteeing that certified farmers offer for sale only those agricultural products they grow themselves.


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