Thriving farmers markets have loyal customers and great vendors. The customers spend money, return regularly and bring friends. Successful vendors bring great products, friendly smiles and the right pricing, week after week.
During the Rhode Island Farmers Market Manager Conference held at Mount Hope Farm in Bristol, RI, a brainstorming session revealed contribution to a successful market and what may be holding it back.
Strengths and Opportunities
The more of these benefits are available, the greater the farmers market success.
• Location and Infrastructure — Like real estate agents tell homebuyers, location is everything. Customers expect and seek convenience. A recent market survey done in Rhode Island showed that the average market customer travels eight miles or less for food shopping, three or more times per week.
• Parking — Safe, ample and close parking is required for a farmers market to draw customers beyond their immediate, walkable neighborhood.
• Bathrooms and/or port-a-johns with hand-washing stations — This allows customers (especially those with children) and vendors to stay at a market longer.
• Shade or “permanent” tents — Cooler temperatures protect foods and help keep vendors and customers comfortable on hot summer days.
• Indoor space — This is typical of winter farmers markets for northern climates. Produce and vendors should not freeze outside; customers do not want to either.
• Consistent times — Build customer habits with consistent market hours, weekly and seasonally. “Weekday evening markets can be good, but generally Saturday markets are best attended,” said Sue AnderBois of Farm Fresh RI.
• Signage — Customers must be able to find the market. Be sure there is clear, appealing signage at the market and at key intersections leading to the market.
• Festival atmosphere — Changing special events can draw people back. Events might include a chocolate festival near Valentine’s Day, egg coloring in spring, pumpkin or face painting in fall. Cooking demos with local ingredients and other seasonal events appeal to visitors.
• Socializing — Encourage people to linger at the market. Offer a picnic table or other seating. Many seniors value this time out and chatting with friends and farmers.
• Music — Vendors prefer the music change weekly. Bands like to have several regular monthly gigs and rotate among nearby markets. Bands paid in cash are likely to be on time and play until the end of the market. Some markets collect one item from each vendor to pay the band. Some bands do not need a lot of money; they put out a tip hat and get to sell their CDs.
• Culture — Sell culturally appropriate foods. Match vendors’ products to the customers’ ethnic backgrounds.
• Prepared foods — Many people eat a meal at the market. New restaurants or food trucks build a following as market venders.
• Marketing — Press releases, enews, social media and posters help remind customers of the market. A weekly e-news works best when managers and vendors regularly collect market attendee’s contact information.
Be sure to reach out to local visitors’ bureaus and Bed & Breakfasts for help attracting tourists. Farmers markets “aren’t necessarily ever going to be the most convenient place for folks to shop. But, we offer customers special social time each week,” said AnderBois.
• Manager — The right leadership makes a difference. Many markets are moving away from volunteer managers to paid professional leadership. Volunteers still help with market tables, greeting venders and shoppers and parking. A strong vender/manager relationship builds a string market.
• Bonus Bucks — Matching funds extend the buying power of SNAP or other benefits. Market volunteers might these raise funds through grants, business sponsorships or selling lemonade.
• One-Stop-Shopping — Customers like convenience. Markets that offer eggs, cider, greens, produce, cheeses, meats, fish and breads will save customers other stops. Customers love diversity. If your market also offers chocolates, granola, soaps, knitted items, herbs, flowers, potted annuals, even more customers will spend money.
• Community Groups — Invite local civic groups to exhibit. Consider 4-H, scouts, land trusts, food pantries, farm advocacy groups or other relevant non-profits.
The more challenges a farmers market faces, the more limited its success or growth potential.
• Location — Rural sites draw from smaller populations then inner city markets. Rural residents tend to have more backyard gardens and seek less produce from markets.
• Non-market CSA pickups — Some farmers use farmers market to build business. When they offer on-farm pickup instead of market pickup, it saves the farmer hauling the CSA shares to markets. Farmers may sell extra products from their own farm stand during CSA pickup. On-farm CSA pickup hurts farmers market vendors when they do not get access to CSA customer dollars.
• Traffic — Highly visible outdoor sites on main roads can still struggle with people’s traffic perceptions. Customers may be concerned with turning out of the market after shopping, so they may not go in.
• Stairs — Second floor locations or even a few steps to the door may be difficult for limited mobility customers.
• Vendors Buying In — Be sure you establish and enforce limits on what vendors may offer for sale. Many markets have an 80-20 rule. At least 80 percent of the products for sale must be grown or produced by vendors. The bought in products must be labeled accordingly. No more than 20 percent can be bought from others. Some markets insist on receipts showing that the bought in products are from local/regional sources. Other market staff make farm visits during growing seasons. They use their photos and notes to verify farm production.
• Limited Product Offerings — Encourage market vendors to grow for winter markets and to use season extension equipment and practices.
• Equipment Malfunctions — Take special care with EBT and credit card machines so they work every week.
• Administration, Licenses and Permits — Many states have market licensing requirements. U.S. and state Departments of Health oversee food safety concerns and are likely to make market visits and fine or close down violators. Managers must learn and comply with all local market and vendor requirements as well as applicable sales tax permit and collection rules.