How to Start Selling at Farmers Markets
Expert tips for selling produce and goods at farmers markets
Do you grow a bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes that friends and family rave about every year? Or do you prepare the tastiest roasted corn and poblano salsa on both sides of the Mississippi? Perhaps you’ve got a few blue-ribbon pie recipes up your sleeve. If you’re looking to introduce these goodies to more people and make a profit doing it, setting up shop at farmers markets can be a great way to launch your business.
Farmers markets build community; marketgoers can talk directly with the people who grow and make their food. Plus, for vendors, the costs of getting a business up and running are far lower than opening a brick-and-mortar shop.
But while farmers markets may seem simple, success requires personality and business savvy.
“You have to be a great business person,” says Peter Hidalgo, owner of small vegetable farm Son of Something in Auburn, California. “Second, you have to be a really good marketer and salesperson. And third, you need to be an OK farmer. When it comes to the farmers market, you’re really doing all those.”
Research Local Farmers Markets
Son of Something specializes in spring mix, pea and sunflower shoots, head lettuce, and tomatoes—what Peter calls high-value, short date-to-maturity crops. These crops have a high consumption rate, meaning they’re not as likely to sit in the crisper drawer or on a shelf for weeks like carrots or onions might. That means many of Peter’s customers rely on him every week to stock up.
Given the growth of farmers markets (there are now 8,771 farmers markets listed in the U.S. Deparment of Agriculture’s directory), some are particularly competitive. If you want to get into a popular market (more people can mean more sales), you’ll have to do your research.
Survey the landscape in your local community; visit markets and check out the competition. This may take some time. Peter drives 20 minutes to get to each of the three markets where he currently sells, which he considers close. If you’re based in a rural area, you may have to travel an hour—or more—to get to popular urban markets with a lot of foot traffic.
Once you arrive, take notes: What kinds of vendors have booths? What is missing? Can your products fill a gap?
And don’t hesitate to talk to vendors and ask questions: What do they like about this particular market? What do they dislike? What’s the clientele like? How’s the parking?
No two farmers markets are alike. You should also visit the organizer’s tent or table to get to know who’s running the show. Ask about permits and licenses required to sell your particular wares. A home canning operation for that smoky salsa will likely require more paperwork than handmade birdhouses, for example, and it’s good to know that type of information early on.
Peter says to set realistic expectations: “You’re never going to get into the best farmers markets at first.” Start at a smaller market and gain the experience that will allow you to get your name established and learn more about your customers’ buying habits.
Running Your Farmers Market Booth
“Pile it high, watch it fly.” The adage is well-known among farmers market vendors, and Peter says it rings true. People are naturally drawn to abundance, so while you may think you don’t need to bring a lot of products, the more you stack and show, the more enticing your booth will look.
Here’s another phrase to remember: “Fail to plan, plan to fail.” Prepare in advance and work out the logistics for:
- Unpacking and setup
- Tables, umbrellas, and other large items
- Bins, baskets, and anything else you need to display products
- A system for tracking inventory
- Cash for making change and a safe
- A mobile payment system like Square
- Business cards
- Water and snacks to keep you going all day
It may take a few tries to get everything right, so don’t get discouraged. The more markets you attend, the more experience you’ll gain, and you’ll soon become a pro.
Put the Finishing Touches on Your Farmers Market Display
Peter likes to visit other markets and high-end grocery stores for ideas on how to display his produce, which is paramount for attracting customers. “No one wants to rifle through a bunch of produce that looks like it’s just been gone over. Having a really good-looking stand means you’re maintaining it,” he says.
“I’m a small farm and I can focus on just a few things,” he says. “One of the big things I focus on is produce with the highest quality,” which Peter shows off of by keeping his stand as appealing as possible. He even mists his produce just like those automated misters you find in the produce aisle.
Watch Your Farmers Market Sales
Tracking sales is important not just for good bookkeeping, but for helping understand customers’ preferences—and catering to them. “Being a small farm means we can adapt as quickly as possible,” Peter said. “If there’s a crop that’s not performing well, we can just cancel that and plant something else in its place, and we’ll have another crop in 20 to 30 days.”
Be sure to stay flexible and optimistic, especially in your first year. While you should see patterns in your sales, factors like bad weather and local events that boost or hinder foot traffic can cause significant swings.
Over time, though, getting into more markets will help even out the ups and downs. And it may even open up opportunities for sales outside of the market, such as to restaurants, boutiques, and other businesses. You never know who might stop by your booth.