Category Archives: Educational

Selecting A Farmer’s Market – Part 5

This article will wrap up the series on Farmer’s Markets which has covered the Market Master, location, timing of the market and how you can research a market before taking the plunge.  Today I’ll focus on how you know it’s time to pull the plug as well as some additional thoughts on markets in general.

Lets face it:  Not every market is going to work out. That has been the case for us and the reasons for leaving have been various.  If all you hear is price, price, price, price….you are at the wrong market and need to make a change.  We were once recruited to a mid size market of about 35 vendors on the Northwestside of Indy and it appeared to be a perfect fit for us.

There were two things in particular that really drew my attention to this market: 

First they did not have a steady meat vendor, which meant that while this was a smaller pond, we would be the only fish in that pond.  Second, this particular suburb has the highest income per capita in the state of Indiana!  And to polish it all off, we had a few customers on that edge of town that wanted us there as well. What could go wrong?  Well, as it turned out there was plenty to go wrong.

The first issue we ran into were the sales hours, as the market was only open for three hours each Saturday.  If you spend all that time to pack, drive, setup, tear down, drive home and unpack you want as much time under that tent each week as possible.  Three hours cut our sales by potential by 25% right from the get go.  We knew going in that this could be an issue but we proceeded on anyhow.

Also, the market didn’t start until mid May and wrapped up at the end of September.  Most Saturday markets in our area run from the first week of May thru the end of October, giving you a full six months of sales at that market.  This compliments our winter market time frame nicely and keeps us in front of customers 50 out of 52 Saturday’s per year.  But this scheduling structure cut the length of the sales season by 25%!

Next, the city owned the lot that the market operated out of and shut down the market about 10:00 a.m. once per month for a festival, carnival, parade, etc so that they could have the additional parking required for said event.  Every time we turned around, our potential sales hours were nibbled away until there was so little left that it simply didn’t make the effort worthwhile.

Lastly, and we could have never seen this coming, all we heard up there was how we were more expensive than Kroger and Marsh Supermarkets.  Seriously, this city is loaded with wealthy business people who easily have the means to support local food but just chose not too.  And in addition to this curve-ball, what we witnessed once there was that this was a social gathering and not a shopping excursion.  Ladies dressed to the nines came out and bought cut flowers, a bag of pasta, and a couple tomatoes while drinking a cup of coffee and eating a danish.  They weren’t there for real food, that simply wasn’t the culture and I wasn’t about to stick around to try and change that.

It was blatantly obvious that the market leadership had no desire to move the location, change the hours or fix any of the other issues we discovered.  Even though we did our due diligence in research, or so we thought, sometimes you just hit a dud.  If you find this to be the case, don’t be afraid to finish up your commitment and simply find a new market to do the following year.  If it is really terrible, then consider pulling out immediately if you can get into another market mid season.  You just never now until you try and again, if you don’t fail here and there then you probably aren’t trying hard enough.

You may also find yourself wondering if a once good farmers market is worth continuing to attend if you see a major drop in sales due to mismanagement, a change of venue, over crowding of similar products you are selling, etc.  Just about the time you get things figured out, things change and this can happen for the worse.  You’ll need to continually reassess your options and how your existing markets are doing in order to remain profitable and viable.  Marketing is a fluid and moving target and you have change with the times to stay ahead of the curve.

Some additional considerations:

Only you will be able to decide for yourself what the allowable travel time is to a farmers market to make it worth your while to attend.  But it is my opinion that even if you have to drive one and a half hours each way (or more) you can probably justify the time spent for a good farmers market.  You will also want to find out what insurance requirements you need to meet in order to sell at a particular market, and what permits might be required by the city or county in which it is located in.  Know that at many markets in our litigation happy society you can’t sell if you don’t have liability insurance for not only yourself, but for the market entity as well.  The market master should be able to easily answer all of these questions for you.

Also, ask what the fees are for a booth space on a weekly and seasonal basis and don’t let a bigger number scare you.  Often times, you get what you pay for!  If a market only charges $50 for an entire season, expect $50 worth of management and marketing in return!  If they charge $350-$500 for the season, then ask how those funds are allocated.  The markets we attend use those funds to hire a part time market master that does a great job of managing the market and all of its functions which in the end benefit our business and bottom line greatly.  They also use a lot of those funds for advertising and marketing efforts.  $500 to attend a top-notch market is a drip in the bucket from my perspective, that investment will pay itself back ten fold if it is well run.  It also helps to dissuade the re-sellers and hobbyists from attending, and what you end up with are a solid core of full-time farmers and unique artisan products that draw customers in.

While farmers markets are not for everyone it is absolutely the fastest way for you to come into contact with a great number of consumers who are looking for the type of product you have for sale. This is the best format I’m aware of to build a large customer base that you can market all of your products to through the use of a free email list and a top-notch website.  While farmers markets are not the only means to sell thru, you should give them ample consideration before deciding to pass.  If you want to capture every possible dollar of profit, this is a great way to do just that.

Selecting A Farmer’s Market – Part 4

So far in this series I have covered various components of how to select a farmer’s market worthy of your time, energy and money.  I’ve covered how a Market Master is the single most pivotal individual at the market, how location is key to sales and why the day and time the market is held matters so much.  In part four of this series, we’ll cover why the market should marketing for you and what research you can do ahead of time to help choose the best option for your business.

Marketing

A huge aspect of farmers markets that is often overlooked is that of marketing. You need to dig deep and ask a lot of questions about what any potential market is going to do to help you be successful. You should be doing everything you possibly can do market yourself, but what are they doing to market themselves and hence you?

One of the markets that we attend works with local businesses to sponsor a gift certificate giveaway once per month. On that Saturday morning the first 300 shoppers who walk through the door receive a five dollar gift certificate token that can be spent with any vendor in the market. This is a huge draw for shoppers! They show up early and on fire to go shopping just because they have a free $5 token in the hand. You wouldn’t believe how that changes the entire chemistry of the market.

You’ll also want to make certain that they have an excellent web, e-mail and social media presence. They should be actively promoting their vendors and what products that can be found at the market, especially seasonally available products. The same market mentioned above sends out a weekly e-mail indicating which vendors will be in attendance, and highlights one of them each week in great detail. This helps shoppers to build a relationship with those vendors.

Is a perspective market going to consistently ask you what product you’ll have in stock so they can pitch that to their audience in they days leading up to when you’ll have something available? Also consider any advertising they might do on behalf of the market. Ask what kind of marketing budget they have and how is it allocated. Ask if they seek out sponsors in order to increase revenue for additional marketing efforts.

Research!

If it all possible prior to applying and attending a market I would encourage you to do some reconnaissance work. Take your family out on a Saturday morning and walk through a handful of farmers markets that you are considering applying to.

Consider the following as you stroll about in the market:  How busy are they? Do you see a wide variety of products available for sale? Are there lots of actual farmers there, accented by artisan vendors like locally roasted coffee, baked goods, raw honey and mushrooms? Do they have not only veggie farmers, but local small fruits and orchards as well? Are the other vendors happily engaging in conversation with shoppers? Is there an information table that is operated by market staff where shoppers can get their questions answered? Do they have a hospitality tent were shoppers can elect to sit down and drink a cup of coffee or some prepared food they have just purchased from vendors at the market? What is the overall feel and ambience of the farmers market? Do you see any amenities like live music or kids activities? Is it a market you yourself would want to attend and shop at? What are the hours of operation? Is it logistically easy to walk around and see what products are available? Is the product you are raising underserved at this market or saturated? How many weeks is it open?

A well run and busy farmers market will be Open from the first week in May to the last week of October. Conversely, a good winter market will situate itself to be open from sometime in November thru April when the outdoor markets are closed. In warmer climates, and outdoor market should be open nearly year round.

You also want to inquire of the market master how they balance the number of vendors from each niche that are allowed into the market. There are two modes of thought that I have on this subject. One market we attend in the summer on Saturday mornings is so large and so well attended that the market staff operate it on a true free market basis. In short if you apply to the market and your products qualify for sale at that market you are allowed in – period. There is no discretion given to how many tomato vendors are there or meat vendors or people selling flowers etc. All of that said this market is so popular that seniority is used to divvy out the permanent spots at the beginning of each season. As such a new vendor may not get a permanent spot and may have to move around from week to week for the first season or two. However in time you can earn enough seniority that you get to select a permanent spot at the beginning of the season. Now this may not sound like a great way to run a farmers market, but in this case it works just fine due to sheer numbers. An average Saturday in the summer might see 5000 to 7000 people walk through this market in only five hours. With that kind of foot traffic there are ample customers for all 100 vendors that might be in attendance.

The other aspect of how a smaller market might be run in which there is much less attendance is to make certain that there is a balance of vendors allowed to attend. Another market we attend on Saturday mornings usually has about 45 to 50 vendors. And on an average Saturday we might see 2000 people walk through this market in four hours. Since this market is smaller and there are less customers, they pay very close attention to the number of vendors from each niche that they’ll allow to participate each season. If you have too many of one niche, that can cause the sales to be divvied up so much that it becomes not worthwhile for all of them to attend.

Any good market worth it’s salt is going to have hard concrete data they can give you as a perspective vendor when you ask these questions. As the market grows, they can add additional vendors based on sales data you provide and requests from shoppers of that market. To that end, you should inquire if the market conducts surveys of not only its vendors but also its shoppers and if it is constantly tweaking the makeup of the market to meet demand.

Something else I would strongly encourage you to do while you are out investigating markets is to carefully interview the other vendors who sell there. Be courteous and observe when a vendor is not busy with a customer, and then ask if you can pick their brain about the pros and cons of that market. Do yourself a favor though if you are selling pastured meats, and pick the brain of a chemical free veggie guy, baker or value added food vendor. Because in that conversation you are going to get asked what it is you will be selling, and if you tell a meat guy you are selling meats you may not get all straight answers!

Ask them how well attended the market is and ask them if the customers who attended are actually there to shop. While there should be a healthy social aspect of any farmers market, I have seen markets that are so social people are there to be seen by their friends instead of there to purchase real food. No market is perfect and you will have to do your own research, but there are a lot of key little things to consider when choosing a market. And make no mistake about it, you can do all the research in the world and think that you have found a real gem of a market to attend that is underserved in your niche and have it fall flat on it’s face. This is one area where I don’t mind telling you that if you don’t fail you are probably are not trying hard enough. Finding a good market and a good fit for your business is a bit like fishing – you just have to keep throwing lines in the water until you catch a good one. That being said, it does take time to build up a clientele at a market. Expect to spend two or three seasons at a good, well established, busy market before you really start to get things rolling. The lesson here is not to give up too soon and give it some time to develop.

Once you think you have found a winner, apply with zeal! Give them every reason you can think of to bring in your farm as a vendor. Supply references, offer product samples, talk about the environmentally friendly aspects of how you farm. You need to sell yourself well in many cases to get into a well established, highly sought after market. And if you don’t get in the first time, take it with class and keep trying each year. Ask to be placed on a waiting list or as a fill in vendor and don’t give up. Be pleasant and communicate with the Market Master that you understand and are willing to wait until they can work you in. You need to be open to selling at a second tier market until you get your shot at a larger market, but remember that is okay! If a market is that tough to get into, then it’s a place you want to be and is worth waiting on.

Selecting A Farmer’s Market – Part 3

Late last year, I kicked off a series on selecting a farmer’s market.  In part one I discussed the most pivotal part of any market:  The Market Master.  In part two I covered how location can play a much larger role than you might think towards the success of a market.

While summer markets may seem like they are a long way off, applications for those markets could be due as soon as the end of January!  You should be doing your research now to determine which markets you’ll apply to.  And while you are thinking about which market to select, the next thing to consider when choosing a market is what time of day and what day of the week it is open. Attending a market for six months or more takes a tremendous amount of energy, do your best to make certain you are not spending that energy in vain and that it is well worth the investment of time and money.

Trust me when I tell you that I have tried every type of market possible in terms of variation in the time it was open and the day of week it was open. Again while there are exceptions to any rule, generally speaking your best bang for the buck is going to be to attend a busy market that is open on Saturday morning from 8:00 a.m. until at least 12:00 noon. In my experience markets that are open on weekdays simply do not do very well, but I’m sure there are some out there that are just the opposite. The ones I have attended do okay and when you’re first starting out you may have to do a midweek market in order to get your customer list built up, or in order to increase cash flow for the sake of running your business. You might also not have any other options if all of the Saturday markets are full with vendors in your niche, which is a distinct possibility.

If you go and do a midweek market and only earn $300 to $400 that may not sound like much, but over the course of six months you could be looking at $6,000 to $8,000 in income. Long term, that is a drip in the bucket for a full-time farming income but in the short term it is huge. This is exactly how we started out at farmers markets before graduating to Saturday markets! If you have the time and energy to do a midweek market by all means explore that option. But your long-term goal should be to attend two or three prime time markets that are held on Saturday mornings. If you offer a delivery route option to customers during the week, then picking up a mid-week market located in the same general area could be extremely advantageous. Just realize that you’ll be investing an entire day into marketing and that you or someone have to care for the critters back home at some point.

Early on, Wednesday was by far my longest day of the week. I would wake up at 4:00 a.m., go out and do animal care then run back in to clean up for market. I would pack my coolers and head out by 7:30 a.m. to be in downtown Indy by 8:15 a.m. I wouldn’t get back home and unpacked until about 3:30 p.m., precisely the time I had to back out and take care of the animals again. By 6:00 p.m. that night I was beat! But alas, the kids need attention and there are e-mails to return, marketing to be done, etc. Choose your battles carefully!  If you don’t, you’ll never make it to the finish line.