by Sally Colby
When a farmers market for the Greenville, SC area was proposed, farmer Deb Potter went to the original meeting. She recalls the conversation that led to what the market is today.
“Two independent business people in Greenville said, wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a farmers market like the one that was here about 100 years ago? There’s a state-run farmers market in Greenville that’s open six days a week, but that’s where you can just as easily buy a trucked-in Florida orange as a zucchini someone grew in their backyard.”
Deb says the original organizers knew what they wanted: an on-the-street, event-type farmers market. “When we first started kicking around ideas, the city and business owners were supportive,” she said. “The two people who helped get it off the ground would pull off the road if they saw someone selling tomatoes and ask them if they’d be interested in selling tomatoes at the market.”
One of the original organizers had a vision of how she wanted the market to look, which meant the market would provide tents and banners. “You look down the street and see a line of white tents with uniform banners hanging,” said Deb. “Right from the start, that was raising the bar,” said Deb. “We didn’t want to be a truck market. A card table with a stack of goods is not how we do this market. We want it to be a place people will come to buy groceries for the week.”
There were 15 vendors the first year, and Deb says market traffic was often so slow that vendors would pass the time by reading the newspaper. But Deb and some of the original vendors waited out the slow time, and the wait was worthwhile.
Today, the Greenville Saturday Market has 90 vendors (and a waiting list) and more than 3,000 people visit the market on any given Saturday. The market manager is a full-time city employee who promotes the market and obtains sponsorships, which helps keeps prices down. Farmers pay a $675 fee for the season.
When a vendor is first approved for the market, there is a one-time fee that includes the 10’ banner. That fee also helps pay for the Certified South Carolina label, if the farmer is eligible, that they’ll hang on the banner. “The city stores and sets up our tents every Saturday morning,” said Deb. “Penske is one of our market sponsors, and they provide two trucks to store our equipment for the season. We load in, then our vehicles must be off-site. There are no trucks behind the displays.”
When vendors apply to participate in the 25-week seasonal market, they indicate which weeks they plan to be there. “The rule is that if you aren’t going to be there on a particular Saturday, the market manager must be notified by the previous Wednesday,” said Deb. “She prints a map for the staff on Friday.” If a vendor has a last-minute emergency and can’t attend, that tent is taken down and the vendors are moved together so there is no empty space.
One of the requirements is that vendors must be local, which is within 100 miles of Greenville. The exception is seafood from the coast. Market representatives make farm visits, so if a vendor claims to be selling particular vegetables, that vendor should be able to prove that he is indeed growing those on his farm. The market has carefully designated percentages of farmers, craftspeople and those selling prepared foods. “We do not look like a flea market,” said Deb, “and there are no vendors selling jewelry.”
During market hours, vendors must stay within their tent — no hawking is allowed. However, vendors are encouraged to be creative and use their own personal touches within their 10’ x 10’ space. Deb keeps an album of photos from her farm on her table, and has noticed that about 20 new people page through it each week. It’s a conversation starter, which leads to authenticity and customers who connect. “It generates more conversation and a feeling of authenticity than any marketing I could buy,” she said. “As a vendor, it’s important that you tell your story and represent who you are. People want to know your story, and vendors also like hearing customer feedback.”
No one is promised exclusivity as far as products, but if there are already several vendors doing mesclun and spring greens, the market management won’t accept another vendor who wants to sell the same thing. “We really try to balance,” said Deb. “Someone who applied to be a vendor brought samples of his bread to a meeting, and the committee agreed that it was different from the bread already offered by a vendor. We want to be fair to the vendors, but we also want to be interesting to customers and have a reason for them to come here. We get very consistent customers.”
The market features music each week, but Deb points out that the goal is to enhance customer experience. “We aren’t there so people can grab a cup a coffee, listen to music and walk on by,” she said. “The intent has always been to bring farmers and their products into town.”
Deb says that the opportunity for connections is excellent, and many vendors use such connections to sell their products the rest of the year. Before an upscale restaurant in Greenville opened, they took advantage of the market and visited with vendors to see what they could source through the market.
“We really have a community here,” said Deb. “We’re selective about the vendors going in, but we look at ‘what’s your story, what’s your product.’ Our managers are good about pointing out rules. The vendors who end up being a ‘thorn in the side’ usually resolve on their own. If you’re going to sit in a chair and play on your phone, you aren’t going to sell things, and you’re going to be disappointed. I hustle, but I hustle politely.”
Deb says that most vendors are aware of marketing techniques to make their space and goods attractive. But the bottom line is the same: are you proud as a farmer to make the extra effort to do that? Even an inexpensive tablecloth helps a display. Market rules require signage that indicates prices. For those who aren’t creative, a template is available. While many vendors come to market themselves, some send an employee. For those, it’s important to have someone who represents the farm and can answer customer questions.
Deb believes the reason the market is so successful is because it started out with a very good vision and the original team crafted everything to fit that vision. “The people who started it weren’t farmers,” said Deb. “They were business people who were supportive of and intrigued by farmers.”