Posted February 16, 2006: If you are trying to
start or turn around a farmers’ market, it’s easy to
get distracted by all the possibilities of signage and events and
promotions. Before you order your banners, though, make sure you’ve
mastered the basics. Each step should set the foundation for the
next to make sure things unfold as planned on opening day—and
finish strong at the closing.
The following are the basics to start or save your farmers’
- Every business needs a business plan, and that includes your
market. You should write your bylaws and vendor application as
soon as your plan is complete. Review all three documents to make
sure there are no conflicts. Remember the bylaws are the rules
you use to achieve the goals set out in your business plan.
- Find a minimum of eight qualified venders (producers who can
make a living selling their products).
- Offer a broad spectrum of products (honey, baked goods, fruit,
flowers, meat, eggs, milk, cheese and produce).
- Try to balance the number of vendors with the anticipated number
of customers. A good balance will keep both customers and vendors
Okay, you already had these four steps in mind. So when do you
write your business plan? How do you find the qualified venders
with a broad spectrum of products? What is the right number of venders
for each type of product?
At your first market meeting, you must decide what you are trying
to accomplish. Your primary goal may be to supply fresh produce
to inner-city residence or it may be to provide the freshest high-quality
produce to suburban customers with more disposable income. Different
distinct goals such as these will greatly shape your planning and
Once planners agree on a goal or set of goals, it’s time
write your business plan. Make sure to set major milestones—determining
the location of your market, minimum number of vendors—and
the timeline to reach each.
Follow up by creating market bylaws—the set of governing
rules that will assure the market operates in a way that will allow
it to achieve its goals. The rules need to enable vendors to be
successful individually so that the market succeeds overall.
Finding the vendors
How are you going to locate the types and number of vendors you
need? Not all farmers’ markets are open on the same days,
so pick some that are on different days than your market. (The USDA
has a great website for locating farmers markets www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm
in your area.) Take the time to go to those markets and talk to
their vendors. Ask if they know of anyone looking for additional
market days. Search the web for sites that list producers (try The
New Farm Locator) and contact vendors in your area. Call the
agricultural associations and extension agents in your state and
ask them if they can help you locate possible vendors for your market.
Run an advertisement in your local agricultural newspaper. Visit
any agricultural colleges in your area to see if you can place a
notice on their bulletin boards. Check with local stores that carry
produce from the community and region.
Why vendors should chose your market
Just as customers are looking for a good selection of fresh local
produce, potential vendors are looking for a constant flow of customers
during market hours. You must convince producers that selling through
your farmers market will offer them a greater opportunity than other
forms of marketing.
Once the vendor is convinced that a farmers’ market is the
right place to sell their products, you must persuade them to choose
potential vendors what you are doing to attract customers, and be
specific about how you plan to support your producers throughout
the season in ways that other markets in the area have overlooked.
While many farmers’ markets have a market web site, your market’s
site could offer each vendor their own web page on its site. They
could list their available products, pricing and availability on
the page you provided them.
Show marketing plans—Let
potential vendors know how you are going to promote the market so
that it will attract a large number of customers each week. Show
them the handouts you have for customers that address issues like
need to know what makes your market different from the others markets
in the area. They need reasons to believe that it may pay for them
to invest time away from the farm and other markets to try your
market. Give them a copy of your market rules and vendor application.
Show them how the rules were set up to help each stand be as profitable
Open the process—Invite
potential vendors to your next planning meeting to enable then to
communicate with other vendors. When they come to your meeting,
make sure you ask them for their ideas. You want potential venders
to know that you consider their input and ideas important.
Once they decide they want to join, request that they fill out
an application that tells you everything you need to know to determine
whether whether fit the quality, product and character role of the
market. Make the form just long enough to work, and allow them to
express the individuality of their operation.
Which vendors should you chose
You found a number of possible vendors and you can convince them
to choose your market. How do you select which ones you want?
Think about what your market needs to be successful in attracting
and satisfying customers throughout your season. Give serious consideration
to establishing your market as producer only; in other words, you
can only be a vendor if you grew it or made in yourself. This model
supports the local economy and offers customers a face-to-face relationship
with the person who grew their food, two primary reasons more and
more people are supporting farmers markets with their food dollars.
Produce resellers, aka hucksters, tend to bring down the prices
for the products they sell. Remember, your farmers need to make
a profit if they are going to stay in business. And you can exercise
better overall quality control when the producer of a product is
the person selling that product at your market.
The following should help you to set up your criteria:
- Determine which products your market needs, so your customers
feel they have the diverse selection they want.
- Estimate how many vendors it will take to provide the quantity
of each product your market will need.
- Review the applications. If a vendor has a product you need,
are they able to supply your market from the beginning to the
end of your season? If so, can they meet your demand for quality
Find out if the vendor is selling at any other markets and which
ones. Ask people at the other markets if the vendor is dependable
and cooperative. What’s the quality of their products, and
is it consistent? Farmers’ market customers like to talk to
vendors. Make sure the vendors you are considering are friendly
and willing to engage your customers when conditions allow.
Once you’ve got the people with the products you need—willing
to work creatively within the rules you set that will accomplish
the market’s goals—you’re ready to launch the
season and find out if you have market that works.
Now, go ahead and order that banner!