Brian Moyer, discussing everything you ever wanted to know about farmers markets. Photo by Stephen Wagner

by Stephen Wagner

“I’ve had 20 years’ experience with farmers markets,” proclaimed Brian Moyer, Penn State Extension educator. Farmers markets, he said, “are open-air, once a week (maybe three or four hours long).” Public markets also fit in, like Lancaster Central Market, York Central Market and Reading Terminal Market. “During the pandemic, farm markets were deemed to be essential businesses, and they were hit hard. These were markets that were really well used. More of the public had discovered local food again, so much so that spenders in farmers markets pulled back because demand was so high at their own farm.” Moyer was speaking at the 71st annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. He thought it would be a good idea to talk about what it’s like to be a vendor at a farmers market, and whether it’s right for you.

First of all, said Moyer, “the fees are the same as what I charged 20 years ago” – so there isn’t much of a cash outlay. You have a ready audience, and when people go to farmers markets, they expect to find produce. The main reason they go is to find fruits and vegetables. One of the advantages of selling at a farmers market is that it’s the cheapest storefront you have. Some of the disadvantages include varying income, dependence on the weather and being able to follow rules set by the management. Can you bring high quality products to the market? That’s a key question you should ask. If your answer is no, it’s back to square one.

Questions that should be asked as part of your marketing plan are who is your target customer? What are you marketing? How do your service and products match the needs of your customers? And how will your customers know whether you have what they need or want? Moyer said you’re flying by the seat of your pants here. Do some research. Visit the market(s). Check the website and social media.

“Overwhelmingly, the demographic of people who are shopping at farmers market are over 50 with no kids at home,” Moyer said. “The kids are off at school, or they married and left, so you have older people left.”

Sometimes websites will have a vendor page where you can get an application and see what the rules are. And check the insurance and booth requirements. Booth appearance is important because you don’t want things to look like pig sty (which is easier than you might imagine).

Those who know and practice these things suggest what they term “display principles” have a look of “abundance” about them. In other words, don’t just throw some tomatoes about here and there to pass as a display tactic. A look of abundance can, without too much trouble, look exactly like that: A three-dimensional presentation of artistically arranged tomatoes that can actually gleam. Give it dimension. Use color. Appeal to the senses. A caveat, though – don’t over-decorate!

Workers used to re-stocking supermarket aisles are taught to place prime products no more than 48 inches off the floor. Place small items up close. Keep bulky items low. Larger items create a “mass” effect. Above all, tell your story: Use your farm name, name tags, hats, T-shirts with your farm name on them, brochures, business cards, product lists and farm photos.

There’s also “the Silent Salesperson,” better known as signage. For example: Imagine a display that says “Golden Delicious” in a headline, and beside it a drawing of an apple that’s telling you “grown right here on our farm,” followed by three bullet points, such Very Sweet, Delicious Pies and Sauce and Without adding sugar.

“A lot of markets have winter markets,” Moyer noted. “Are you able to grow products over the winter that you can take advantage of? Maybe you can get into some lower popular markets that don’t have room for you in the main season.” It might be a good way to get a foothold into that particular market. By the way, if you decide to visit some of these markets to check out competitive factors, don’t go the first hour if you want to talk to the market manager. It’s just too busy. Go the last hour, which is usually the slowest hour of the market.

Think of enhancement too. What are the special sidebars that make your location a more comfortable place to do business? “Vendors have to come in and unload their truck and go to a designated area, set up and do the reverse at the end of the day,” Moyer said. “But does your market accept food stamp programs? Is there an ATM on site? Is there running water? Restrooms? All these things can make your life easier if you’re going to sell at a market.”