15 Ways To Win At The Farmers Market

New to selling at the farmers market? Make the most of your time there with these tips from veteran farmers.

by Lisa Kivirist
PHOTO: Gemma Billings/Flickr

It’s no longer big news: Farmers markets are flourishing across the country. According to the USDA Farmers Market Directory, farmers markets grew nearly 35 percent between 2010 and 2015, now adding up to more than 8,000 regular venues where farmers gather to directly sell their wares.

Farmers markets go beyond just a financial transaction,” says Jen O’Brien Cheek, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a national nonprofit organization that works to provide the growing farmers market movement with information, tools and a voice in public policy. “Locally-owned retailers, such as farmers markets, return more than three times as much of their sales to the local economy than do chain competitors.”

Whether you’re a seasoned vendor or going to market for the first time, amp up your success potential with these nuggets of advice.

1. Be Consistent

“Remember, people are creatures of habit, and they look for you at the same time and same place each week, so plan your harvest and product lines so you can show up on a regular basis,” says Jane Jewett, a third-generation farmer on family land in Minnesota. Entering into her 20th year farming, she runs Willow Sedge Farm and sells meat at the Grand Rapids, Mich., farmers market. “Similarly, try to have your market stall in approximately the same location each time.”

2. Dress For The Day

Take time to plan what you’re wearing the night before market, for comfort and to increase your marketability. Temperature will vary throughout the market day, so start with layers you can easily take off as things warm up.

“Investing in some quality T-shirts with your farm name and logo adds a serious tone of professionalism to your stand,” advises Brett Olson, creative director at Renewing the Countryside, a Minnesota-based nonprofit organization supporting beginning farmers. “These shirts will also help increase sales because potential customers immediately know who is with the farm and who to pay or ask questions.”

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Likewise, invest in comfortable shoes that you can stand in during market hours. “It’s important that vendors are approachable,” says Liz Comiskey, membership and outreach coordinator of the Farmers Market Coalition. “As tough on the feet as it is, a vendor standing pleasantly is going to be more approachable than someone sitting in a chair staring at their phone. Look professional.”

3. Keep Yourself Fueled

Remember to eat a solid meal before market, and drink plenty of water throughout the day. Markets run for a limited number of hours, and you want to be on and available all that time to not lose a potential sale with a meal break. Additionally, while your booth is all about food, it can be a turnoff for customers to watch a vendor eat.

4. Inspect Your Booth’s Front View

While you’ll spend most of the market hours behind your booth, regularly walk in front to check how oncoming potential customers see you. “Have a stand that is attractive and well-organized to particularly attract those new, first-time customers,” offers Pam Walgren, farmer/owner of Perennial Journey who regularly sells at the Monroe farmers market in Wisconsin. “We create a tidy appearance by using home-sewn tablecloths that match our tent canopy and that reach all the way to the ground on the outside sides that face the customer, but are cut short on the inside allowing us to access the space under the tables to store bins of additional produce out of sight.” From the customer’s viewpoint, all they see is a pretty tablecloth and stand.

5. Create Checklists For Market Day

Keep the weekly process of packing for market stress-free with a permanent checklist of everything you need, from change in the cash box to your business cards. It’s easiest to have one permanent bin with all your key supply essentials for the season. Don’t forget a few clear plastic tarps in case of a surprise downpour.

6. Clearly Communicate Pricing

Make sure your pricing is clear and that the information is right where your customers are already looking: at your vegetables,” shares Chris Blanchard, host of the Farmer to Farmer podcast. “Forcing customers to look through a list on a chalkboard works well in a coffee shop because the chalkboard is a menu, but at a market the price should be right next to each item, directly where the customer will be looking.”

7. Share Your Story

“My customers love to hear stories about my farm, so I display photos of my pigs,” advises April Prusia of Dorothy’s Grange, specializing in heritage-breed hogs in southwest Wisconsin. “At first, I wasn’t sure if folks would want to see photos of their food when it was in the form of a live pig, but it turned out to be a great way to open the conservations and especially engage kids, who are always drawn to animal pictures.”

8. Create An Engaging Display

Add a dash of whimsy to your display, with unique items, such as chalkboard signs or a rustic piece of art. If electricity is available, a string of lights creates a fun, party-like feel.

9. Sell Your Best

“We make an effort to sell only first-quality produce, especially with our main crop, heirloom tomatoes,” Walgren says. “Several customers comment that we must be the best growers around because we never have damaged or imperfect tomatoes, but the truth is that we just don’t bring them to market. By sorting out our imperfect produce, our customers can rely on the quality of what we sell them and our credibility as growers is enhanced.”

What can you do with the less than perfect produce? Get out your canner and make value-added items in your home kitchen to sell if allowed under your state’s cottage food law. With nearly every state now having a cottage food law on the books and most allowing high-acid foods to be sold at farmers markets, your odds are good.

10. Share Recipes

Providing printed cards with your favorite recipes encourages purchases, especially if you focus on recipes for some of your more unusual items that don’t sell as well, such as a recipe for fried green tomatoes. This strategy also works well for produce you have in over abundance, such as a unique recipe that uses a large amount of zucchini.

“I’m always sharing techniques for how we love to cook our pork, such as how easy it is to overcook a pork chop and just cook it for seven minutes on both sides,” Prusia says. “I need to remind folks to not be afraid of the fat on our pork chops because it’s actually good for you and high in omega 3s and vitamin D because our hogs spend time on grass and in the sunshine, unlike mass-produced pork they see in the supermarket.”

11. Share Samples

“Having samples is critical for selling processed items from pickles to cheese,” says Jodi Parins, market manager for the Kewaunee County Farmers Market in Wisconsin. “My vendors report selling four to five times as much when they have samples out for an item than when they don’t.” Check with your market manager on any regulations or requirements for sampling at market.

12. Know Your Farmers Market Manager

“Partner with your market manager to help support outreach for the market,” Parins says. “Take photos at the market, post to social media and share like crazy.” Remember that the success of the market will depend on a collaborative approach between the market manager and all the vendors.

13. Befriend Fellow Farmers

Don’t think of the farmer in the booth next to you as competition. Rather, seek out ways you can positively support each other’s businesses, and it will be a win-win for everyone.

“Team up with other vendors to promote each other’s complementary products,” Jewett says. “For example, I have a recipe card out for my honey-garlic pulled pork recipe. I sell the pork but note that folks can buy all the other ingredients at other vendors at the market. The other vendors then return the favor by directing customers to me if they are looking for ground beef, bacon or other meats.”

14. Start Conversations With Farmers Market Customers

“Producers who engage with customers will sell more,” Parins says. “In retail, we call that ‘hand-selling’ and it’s a proven technique at farmers markets as well. Beyond good morning, ask people where they are from or if they are looking for anything particular.”

Know all your varieties and breeds for those discerning customers, especially local chefs, who have begun to increasingly shop at farmers markets. Landing a regular restaurant client can be a boon to sales.

15. Appreciate Your Customers

An attitude of gratitude goes a long way in developing loyal customers. Try to identify and remember your key weekly customers by name. Ask them how they used your products and if they were satisfied with them. Farmers that get to know their shoppers get return customers. The relationship can be built by friendly exchanges during the market and through email and social media communication between market days.

As with any other farming endeavor, consider success at the farmers market an on-going journey of learning. Keep experimenting and trying different approaches and, whenever possible in your travels, visit other markets and bring new perspectives back home to your neighborhood.

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