Selling Produce at Local Farmers’ Markets

Tips and tricks to make finding your niche at local farmers' markets easy.

Farmers' Market Sign

Find a way to set your booth apart.

iStockphoto.com/Sean Locke

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Your local farmers’ markets can be festive cultural outings for you and your family. It is a place where friends and neighbors connect, children are welcome, and people reunite with foods from their past.

Our farmers’ markets in Knoxville and Oakridge, Tennessee, offer a wide array of local organic and conventionally grown produce, artisan breads, bedding plants, conventional pastries, organic whole-grain pastries, flowers, fruit trees, grassfed beef, cage-free eggs, goat cheese, sheep cheese, specialty vegetables, granolas and more.

If you’re looking for a variety of locally grown produce or baked goods, your local farmers’ market is the place to go. It’s also a logical place to turn if you are trying to find healthy markets for your own suitable products.

For people who may be trying to reinvent themselves during these challenging economic times or who simply want to do something different, the farmers’ market may be a venue for your new business. Nearly all the vendors come from careers far removed from a farmers’ market. Vendors at our local markets include former educators, landscape architects, therapists, electricians, career military personnel, builders and nurses. Producers were willing to trade their scrubs, classrooms, suits and commutes for hard work, independence and creativity.  

Do your research

If you are thinking about selling your products at a farmers’ market, check out the markets in your area, and contact your local farmers’ market association. It’s easy to Google this information or find a contact through your local extension agent. (One great resource is FarmersMarketCoalition.org.) Here are a few points to keep in mind if you decide to sell at a farmers’ market:

  • Location, location, location. The farmers’ market should be located near preferred shopping areas with easy access.
  • Is it well managed and clean?
  • When you’re studying markets, notice the quantity and quality of the vendors. Do their products look good, or are they sparse, shriveled and unattractive? Their displays should be striking and bountiful.
  • If it is a new market, do you know other producers who would be an asset to this market?
  • Find out from your farmers’ market association and extension agent what the requirements are to sell produce, eggs, baked goods, cheese and meats.
  • Your extension agent can supply you with class schedules and requirements to pass inspections.
  • Generally, someone from the market association will inspect your farm to make sure you are, indeed, raising what you sell.
  • When you visit the markets in your area, observe the customer traffic. Are they business people on their lunch break? Families? Retired people? Students? What are they buying? Their purchases will vary.
  • Find your niche. What do you see missing from your local markets?
  • Have a website and collect customers’ e-mails. Send out weekly product updates, post recipes and nutritional information, and enable customers to purchase online.
  • Remember your customers shop at farmers’ markets because they are looking for special tastes that can only be grown locally and fresh produce that is picked at its peak to be sold at its most desirable stage and flavor.
  • Local farmers have the advantage of a quick field-to-market trip for their products, so they don’t have to pick produce green for shipping. Growers should offer a range of products and have a core product of reliable varieties that produce well in their area. These products should include varieties the local consumers are familiar with and prefer. Fulfill these expectations. 

Check what’s selling

We chose our current markets because we were impressed with the vendors and their products. The produce and baked goods were appealing, the displays were attractive, and there was a lot of diversity among the producers. The markets were also located in popular and affluent areas. Prices stay at a premium all summer, fall and winter, and sellers are encouraged to stay within 20 percent of each vendor’s prices.

A popular feature at the markets is the variety of baked goods. If you have the gumption to bake, you will generally find eager buyers. We have conventional bakers selling cookies and cakes using refined flours and sugars, and we have holistic bakers who use freshly ground flours, cold-pressed oils and natural sweeteners. Both do well. Many of the bakers e-mail customers with weekly updates, then deliver their “paid-for products” to the market.

Baked goods and locally grown produce would be an incredible combination. This would take more work on the production end, but would hold a great attraction to customers. I have not seen this combination yet. We may network with other bakers and sell their products along with our vegetables. The main obstacle in doing so is that most farmers’ markets want producers to only sell what they themselves grow and make to protect the integrity and quality of the products offered.

Remember to sell what is familiar to your area. To find old food favorites, ask local people and acquaintances. In our area, purple hull peas are a big seller. For some reason, not too many people grow them, but many consumers have fond memories of these peas and eagerly purchase them. Local people are also partial to certain green beans, like half runners, and turn their nose up at anything else. New foods are an interesting feature, but make sure you know what the old favorites are, too. Suitable varieties can be determined by consulting with local extension agents, area growers and potential customers.

Closely observe your customer traffic. The downtown market crowd is generally more interested in grabbing an interesting sandwich, pastry, trail mix or a few tomatoes as opposed to perishable items like salad mix or heavy foods like watermelon. Other markets may cater to families and retired couples where traditional garden foods like beans, tomatoes, squash, melons and corn are good sellers. Students and young professionals seem to like the salad mixes, arugula, specialty eggplants, Asian greens, pastries, breads, exotic cheese, and pasture-raised beef and eggs. 

Find your niche

What do you see missing from your local market? Be observant and find your own niche. Ask your customers if there is anything in particular they can’t find. Are there organic growers? The demand for organic food is growing rapidly. The demand for organic products in international markets has increased significantly, and experts say the demand will continue to rise. According to a 2010 industry survey by the Organic Trade Association, organic food sales in the United States grew from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009.

Even as greenhorns to the farmers’ markets, we had no trouble selling our chemical-free food. It was a huge selling factor to be able to state that we did not use conventional sprays or fertilizers on our produce. We have chosen to go with certified naturally grown, a grassroots alternative to certified organic (Naturally Grown.org). If you haven’t considered farming organically, it is well worth your time and effort to explore this market and method. You would be providing a tremendous service to people who want safe, nutritious food but do not have the time to raise it themselves.

Another niche we found was as “the lady with the melons.” Our ambrosia cantaloupes were so incredibly aromatic that people could follow their noses to our stand. Food raised with generous amounts of nutrients speaks for itself. If I could get them to buy it or sample it once, I had a guaranteed return customer.

Find out what farmers do not want to raise. We discovered that a lot of growers do not like to raise the salad mixes and baby lettuces. They are labor intensive and require a lot of water and careful timing. We plunged into that market and have remained the only producers to sell it thus far; they’ve done quite well for us. We found that prepackaging the mix in three different sizes increased our sales. It is convenient to grab, and people can immediately determine how much they feel they can eat that week. 

Design a gorgeous display

Once you’ve determined what you want to sell, what certifications you need, and what markets you wish to participate in, you need to design your displays. Take photos of displays you find attractive.

Fruits and veggies are so colorful that it doesn’t take an art major to have a showy arrangement. Vary the colors for the food; mix reds and greens and oranges, etc. Use colorful banners that you design yourself (one way is through VistaPrint.com) with your farm’s name, website and phone number. Bright country tablecloths, wicker baskets, vintage crates, conspicuous signs and striking flowers catch the attention of people passing through.

Make sure you have an abundance of fresh produce to take. Skimpy produce displays look defeated from the beginning, and those farmers do not do well. You want your table to look bountiful and extravagant. As you sell your produce, use smaller baskets so that the display still looks full.

Make sure you know your products and what they taste like. If you won’t eat it, why should your customers? It is annoying to ask a producer what something tastes like only to have that person shrug disinterestedly. Be enthusiastic and share ideas and recipes.

Another idea is to group some of your fruits and vegetables according to what one can make with them. For example, why not take some of your sauce tomatoes, garlic, onions and bunches of fresh basil, and set them a bit apart as a group, along with a sign that says something like, “Ingredients for your own homemade tomato sauce,” and put out some recipe cards, too. Depending on how much sauce the customer might want to make, you can help them select the right amount of each ingredient. Perhaps you might even price that sauce combination as a group by weight.

Shoppers love free samples. Cube melons and spear with a toothpick, grill or stir-fry some veggies and serve on a toothpick, and, if possible, serve samples of salad mix so people can see how fresh it is. The most convenient samples are those that can be eaten with the fingers or on toothpicks, cutting down the cost for small plastic utensils, not to mention the waste. Offering free samples is a great way to draw shoppers to your table and show off how tasty your homegrown fruits and veggies really are. Regardless of what certification you have, you are able to give away free samples. This is great for those brave customers willing to try new foods.

Also important to your display is good signage. Clearly and colorfully label your products. You can print out your own or have someone do it for you. Laminate your signs so they won’t stain or tear. (Laminating kits can be purchased at office supply stores.) Clearly state what your product is, the nutritional value and how it is used.

Finally, photographs of your farm are always appreciated. Laminate photos of your current food growing, green houses, animals, barns and your home; this will give your buyers a better idea of who you are. 

Get selling

These few simple guidelines can help you begin selling at a local farmers’ market. If you are willing to learn and work hard, it is not at all unrealistic to expect to make a good living.

These markets have become a viable source of income for farmers and bakers. As of mid-2010, there were 6,132 farmers’ markets operating throughout the United States. This is a 16 percent increase from 2009 – however, not all of these markets succeed. Local support and advertising are fundamental to their future.

Farmers’ markets provide local farmers with fair prices for their crops, new opportunities for aspiring entrepreneurs, and, most importantly, fresh, locally grown food for urban dwellers. If we are serious about healthful, locally grown foods, farmers’ markets are an essential piece of this urban/farm link and must
be sustained by local patronage. Please remember to support your local farmer and your local farmers’ markets.   

Chris Arnold writes from the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. She, her husband, and two youngest children, Ashley and Seth, operate Herb and Plow Farm, a 12-plus-acre sustainable produce farm. Their website is HerbAndPlow.com.