Jeffrey Helton here, representing the Grow Appalachia mothership and AmeriCorps VISTA. This week, I’m going to be writing for the market growers in our audience.
As you all know, finding financial success at farmers markets is no easy task. Whatever we may wish, it’s not enough to grow decent produce and show up; most of your fellow vendors will be doing the exact same thing. You have to find your own way to stand out from the competition, whether that’s through higher-quality produce, distinct vegetable varieties, or through offering a unique customer service experience. What follows are some tips that will help you in your quest to carve out your own successful niche at your local farmers market.
Again, it’s not enough to “grow up and show up.” To participate in a farmers market, you’ll have to meet certain standards, and even if these standards are low, the standards of your customers will not be. They’ll naturally gravitate towards the vendors who look prepared, because people don’t like to gamble on carelessness when it comes to food.
At the bare minimum, your market booth is going to require containers of various sizes, some for display, some for sales; a scale, at least you plan on selling by weight; a cash box full of small bills and plenty of change; and promotional materials for your farm. Of course, if you anticipate running into any bad weather at the market, you also want to make sure there’s some kind of shelter for your customers; you might have a tent or some kind of tarp.
Once you’re all set up, you’re still going to need to find ways to make your booth stand out. You can this by finding creating some kind of theme at your booth, selecting colors and decor that match one another and give your farm a unique flavor. A more rural theme might feature a lot of browns and greens, with homemade signage. You can draw your theme from the brand of your farm, or you can look for inspiration in the changing seasons or in the history of your area.
The idea of theme is a little abstract, so something that’s a little more manageable is the idea of keeping your booth neat. Make sure that any trash is out of sight and try to cover your table(s) with tablecloth or something that looks nice. (Burlap is also a popular option!)
Another easy design technique is creating an appearance of abundance at your booth. Make sure that your containers are filled to the brim, and if they’re too big for the amount of produce you have, get smaller containers. If you’ve got a handful of turnips in a gigantic basket, no one is going to want to buy that, because it ends up looking like the stuff that no one else wanted.
This one should go without saying, but customers aren’t going to approach your booth if you’re not approachable. If they catch you playing around with your phone or chatting with whoever else is manning your booth, they’re most likely going to move along to the next vendor. It’s as simple as smiling and treating your customers like you would a good friend. If they feel good and like you, they’ll want to come back, if only to chat. (Which is good, because getting them to approach is the hardest part.)
Another element of approachability is being confident enough to communicate about your farm and the produce that you’ve grown. If you don’t feel too comfortable about this, you can make your job a little easier by preparing materials. You can take photos of your farm, any livestock you’ve got, etc. so that you can charm folks. The more that they understand about your farm and your process, the more loyalty you’ll develop.
Another simple way to set your booth apart from your fellow vendors is to offer small things that might entice customers. If you’re in the middle of a particularly scorching summer, having bottled water might get your customers flocking your way. Free samples and relevant recipes also work well as an enticement, the latter of which we at Grow Appalachia tried out during our own farmers market experiment last summer.
You can also provide jams or salsas or other processed goods made with your produce, although you should make sure that you are properly licensed to do so. Similarly, you could even sell seeds or tools or other supplies, so long as you’ve got the capacity to do so. One difficulty here is that certain farmers markets might not allow, so it’s good to verify.
Pricing is yet another crucial problem area for vendors, and you want to be extra careful, because if you set your prices too low for you to make a profit, people are going to be awfully unhappy once those prices start rising. You might be tempted to base your costs on the those of your competitors, but those numbers can be misleading. (Maybe they’ve got an excess of produce to sell and can afford lower prices, or maybe they’re even running their business into the ground.)
The ideal price is going to be somewhere between what your costs of production were, at the low end, and the most your customers are willing to pay, at the high end. Wherever you land on your prices, try to keep them simple for you signage; things like “50 cents apiece” or “A dollar a pound” are ideal. Furthermore, try to incentivize folks to buy in bulk. In the “50 cents apiece” example, you can encourage people to spend more if there’s a deal where they can get three of whatever the produce is for a dollar.
Finally, here are some final resources for you market growers out there:
Thanks so much! I hope you all have a great day.