The farmers market has become a stalwart symbol of the local food movement—a place that works hard to bind the community with the people who grow their food. But in terms of business, does the farmers market make sense for every small farmer? I’m not so sure anymore.
Certainly the farmers market has much to offer. For one, it offers a venue from which to sell your food at the highest possible price, an important prospect for a job that even at that highest price is hard to make profitable. The farmers market also offers a steady flow of customers, camaraderie, press and advertising, but the key word here is “offers.” Not every farmers market is going to be able to come through on these promises, not consistently, not year after year. So just because you have access to a farmers market doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for your business.
A farmers market has to be a viable part of your business model. If you’re investing five to eight hours every weekend to sell food, it should sell. If it doesn’t sell, that’s not viable. A lot of energy is placed in cleaning, packaging, labeling, cooling, traveling, and then setting up and selling. If you can make roughly the same amount of money selling to restaurants and stores, delivering straight to customers or on-farm pick-up, those options should be heavily weighed against joining a farmers market.
Of course, plenty of farmers make their livings off of market sales, but with rising competition, many farmers markets have been stretched thin on attendance, and it’s hard to know what the popular market will be in the beginning of the season. Paying that booth fee only to find out the market isn’t going to help you meet your budget is a hard hit to take.
So How Do You Avoid Taking A Hit?
First, do your research. On everything. Research how the market has done for the last few years, which farmers are coming back and which are leaving. Call the market manager to see who has signed up and if there are any CSAs—something which reliably brings customers to markets, even on rainy days. Also research the going prices for what you plan to sell at restaurants and nearby retailers. Would it be more worth your time to spend a couple hours every week contacting them and delivering than giving up several hours selling produce at a market booth?
It’s a cliché at this point, but it’s undeniable: People love convenience. If you can bring their veggies straight to them—through a delivery CSA or food club—that may fill a much needed local niche and save you hours of standing at an empty farmers’ market on a rainy morning or a holiday. And to further harp on the cliché, sometimes the farmers market just isn’t convenient for everyone. Not every customer wants to or even can—because of work or what have you—give up their Saturday mornings. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to still support local farmers. The market just might not be what’s convenient for them—maybe they’d prefer a more lax on-farm pick-up.
The farmers market is special, there’s no doubt about that. But a farmer should not feel obliged to be a part of that. Markets have a lot to offer, which, unfortunately, includes risk. And because everything about farming is already defined by risk, each farmer has to weigh for him or herself how much more to tack on.
There is in effect no definitive answer to whether or not it is worth doing a farmers market. I can’t tell you, and every situation will be different. For that reason, there is only a definitive approach to making that decision: Does the farmers market meet your goals as a farmer and as a business? For some, I suspect—maybe even many—the answer may very well be no.