5 Steps to Starting a Rural Farmers’ Market

No farmers' market in your area? Create a place for you and your fellow farmers to sell their wares by following these tips.

by Dani Yokhna
5 Steps to Starting a Rural Farmers' Market - Photo courtesy Suzies Farm/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Suzie’s Farm/Flickr

Are you looking to sell more of your farm’s produce, meats or other harvest locally but don’t have a nearby farmers’ market? If you’re tired of driving long distances to the nearest urban market to find customers looking for and willing to pay for your product, this might be an opportunity for you to both grow your farm business and increase the local food available in your community by launching a farmers’ market.

As the local-food movement continues to grow and people increasingly want to know where their food comes from, the number of farmers’ markets is steadily growing, according to the Farmers Market Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening the farmers’ market movement across the country. In 1994, there were about 1,755 farmers’ markets nationally. By 2010, that number tripled to more than 7,500 registered markets in the USDA Farmers Market Directory. More than 3 million people purchase goods at farmers’ markets from the more than 70,000 farmers selling at these venues, totaling in excess of $1.5 billion annually in sales, according to the coalition. While most of these markets fall in urban and suburban areas with population volume, there are also inspiring stories of rural market startups by visionary farmers and local leaders ­committed to bringing fresh, healthy food options to their communities.

“It’s a sad irony that often those who live rural and closest to farming areas can’t always readily buy the product because these farmers often need to travel to city markets to get the best price and customer volume for their harvest,” says Stacy Miller, project director with the coalition. “A key to success for any market, but particularly those in rural areas, is to put the time into the planning process and building strong collaborations and local partnerships.”

If you’re intrigued by the idea of starting a farmers’ market in your area, here are five key steps to help ensure a fruitful planning and start-up process.

1. Garner Interest
Begin by studying the local food scene and assessing potential interest and commitment from prospective customers and farmer vendors.

“Before you get caught up in the actual creation of the market, it’s vital to take the time to understand the ‘why’ behind this potential new market and what purpose it will serve,” says Larry Johnson, market manager for the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wis. “Analyze your potential new market from various perspectives, such as what does the community want and how does that relate to what a vendor may want. Multiple market goals can be good as long as you understand the ‘why’ behind each of them and act accordingly.”

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Consider the niche of what you and surrounding farmers can fill well. Ryan Fahey and her husband, Michael Dennett, are beginning farmers who launched Crescent Run Farm in Maine in 2012, producing vegetables, pork, lamb, eggs and chicken. They participated in three farmers’ markets the first year that were not very lucrative and required traveling a fair distance. Fahey also found that some of the more established and profitable markets were saturated with vegetable vendors and turning new farmers away. Rather than being discouraged, she began researching the idea of starting a market in the nearby town of Thomaston, a small seaport with a population around 2,800.

“I was curious why no one had already started a ­market in Thomaston,” Fahey says. “When I spoke with the town managers, they showed me reports that documented local community demand for a market for the last seven years, but they just needed someone to take the ball and run with it.”

2. Assemble Partners
While there needs to be a leader with vision to bring things together, that person must drum up buy-in and support from everyone, including farmers, customers, downtown-business associations, public health agencies and school groups.

“There’s a common thread among all sustainable, long-lasting, dynamic markets,” Miller says. “Lots of partner­ships and collaboration among the different groups that add up to the market’s success.” Use state farmers’ market associations to gather partners that will serve as both an overall resource and objective sounding board for advice.

“My first step was to contact the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets, and they walked me through the entire process of starting a market,” Fahey says.

By better understanding the process, Fahey could educate community groups on the importance of a local market, resulting in local partners, such as the public library, that jumped aboard the initiative. When the Thomaston Farmers’ Market opened in 2013, it was held Saturday mornings on the library grounds, and the library changed its Saturday hours from afternoon to morning to help support the burgeoning market.

Listening to the needs and interests of farmers and potential vendors during the planning process will help the market launch go more smoothly. When Patty Villa initiated a new farmers’ market in 2013 in her small town of Orting, Wash., she knew a challenge would be luring some of the seasoned growers in the area to this new and unproven market. She created a survey asking local residents what times would work for market hours, and the local utility company inserted the survey in customer bills for distribution.

“We learned that Friday evening would work well for local shoppers, which also worked well for some of our area farmers as they were already getting ready and harvesting for market on Saturday,” Villa says. By partnering with both farmers and customers—along with the local utility company for survey distribution—she was able to settle on a market time that best served everyone.

3. Develop Policies
Developing formal policies and procedures might seem like the dry and mundane side of starting a farmers’ market, but give this part of the process due diligence, as it will play a vital role in future success. It’s much better to ask questions and have structure and policies in place before things start and grow. The coalition’s free online resource, “Farmers Market Manager Frequently Asked Questions,” covers a range of important questions to ask, as well as resources.

Be sure to involve vendors in policy development. Vendor contribution and connection invokes a sense of responsibility to the market and can ultimately lead to market success.

4. Spread the Word
Once logistics are squared away, it’s all hands on deck to support publicity for the market. A basic website and Facebook page, along with additional social media outreach can give your market immediate presence. Flyers and newsletters posted around town are another cost-effective way to advertise locally.

“Our weekly newsletter is a highly critical part of our marketing outreach,” says Lois Federman, co-manager of the Mineral Point Market, launched in 1996 in Mineral Point, Wis. “It’s an easy reminder that goes out on Thursday and lists who will be vending and what they will have available at Saturday’s market.” Federman also found that local radio advertising is a good way to get the word out and proves more cost-effective for their market than print ads.

Public education is also important to help community members understand and appreciate (as well as be willing to pay sometimes higher prices for) the quality of items provided. Encourage your vendors to engage in product sampling, chef demos and recipe-card distribution to help customers understand the quality of the products being offered.

5. Adapt and Diversify
If things don’t get started quite as you anticipated, have patience. “Lots of things start clicking and successfully connecting when you get to the third year of a market, but you need to hang in there, keep patient and keep at it until then,” Federman says.

Being open to trying new things can also help your market succeed. “For a long time, we were a producer-only market but realized we didn’t have enough customer volume to support that, so we started to allow vendors to sell items they didn’t personally produce, like honey,” Federman explains. “We also opened up to area artisans and officially changed the name … to reflect this broader diversity.”

While the goal of a farmers’ market is providing a venue for farmers to successfully sell directly to customers, the benefits and community perks of what you’re starting reach far beyond the sales transaction, creating a social venue where local-food supporters can connect. A successful market launch can’t be bought or learned from a website—passion and willingness to put in long hours are in order. The result is well worth it as you begin to build the health and economic vibrancy of your town with each transaction.

About the Author: Lisa Kivirist runs Inn Serendipity farm and bed-and-breakfast in Wisconsin with her family. She and her husband, John Ivanko, are co-authors of Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011), Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers, 2009) and ECOpreneuring (New Society Publishers, 2008).

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