Nothing is quite as satisfying as slicing a fresh heirloom tomato in August and enjoying it with a bit of fresh basil, olive oil and salt. If you don’t grow your own, you can head on down to the local farmers’ market for the freshest in seasonal produce – if such a market exists in your area. Farmers’ markets seem to be everywhere these days, and more are getting started every year, but, as I recently discovered, getting a new market off the ground is not as easy at it sounds. Here's how I was involved in starting a local farmers' market in my area.
In August 2008, Hernando, Mississippi’s Deputy City Planner Shelly Johnstone and local developer Mickey Davis decided to start a farmers’ market. Armed only with the idea, they recruited vendors and chose Hernando’s historic square as the location. After receiving an overwhelming, positive response, the pair decided to expand the market for 2009 and invited me to help manage the enterprise.
Although I have managed groups within large organizations, I hesitated. What did I know about running a farmers’ market? My only qualifications could be found in my passion and interest in local food networks and my small, working farm located in Como, Mississippi, the hill country above the Delta. Despite my doubts, I accepted.
A new market resembles the old chicken and egg conundrum: Which comes first, the public or the vendors? It’s difficult to recruit vendors without an established consumer base, yet consumers won’t come unless a market has quality vendors. The 2009 Hernando Farmers’ Market proved to be a tremendous success, teaching us all new lessons in the first year.
We hit both sides hard through word-of-mouth, newspaper and radio outlets, the local extension service, signage and online marketing. Throughout the season, we added live music, children’s events and cooking demonstrations to increase traffic and sales.
From the start, we decided to remain focused on the primary goal of getting local agricultural products to the consumer as directly and simply as possible.
Our market grew from six to an average of 20 vendors each week. Products included fresh produce, homemade breads, canned jellies and pickles, pork products, grass-finished beef, fresh eggs, milk, plants, herbs, handmade baskets and goat’s milk soaps.
Market guidelines limited the number of craft items, and we drew a hard line against becoming a flea market or even locating one nearby. Artisan goods were required to be tied to agricultural, kitchen or garden only.
In the way
As I researched existing markets, I observed two distinct barriers to engaging producers, growers or vendors: booth fees and rules. While it’s crucial that a market charge a fee to cover advertising, marketing and managing costs, I found the bigger city markets charged at least $25 per booth and several hundred dollars to sign up. We listened to seasoned vendors who felt markets had become too bureaucratic.
We decided access was vital and charged our vendors $10 each week, with $5 covering my time and the other half going into a fund for advertising. Vendors had the option of paying a discounted rate for the entire season or simply paying each week. During our preseason market in May, we didn’t charge booth fees as our main goal early in the season of the new market was to create a buzz and encourage participation. The benefits we reaped far outweighed the small loss of income.
Our focus on rules was aimed squarely at fresh produce. Referring to our original goal, we emphasized our commitment to providing consumers with a safe, local food source. As the season progressed, we undoubtedly fulfilled our vision for reliable and safe products, but buzzwords like “local” proved to be an interesting point of debate.
As markets across the Southeast have exploded, and buzzwords like and locavores power a trendy marketing machine, we found ourselves asking important questions about the definition of local. Since we only had a limited number of large growers in our area, we knew we would need to draw vendors from farther away – either that or allow vendors to sell produce they didn’t raise.
As we wrangled with the issue of product origin, I approached our growers and asked for help in understanding their challenges bringing produce to market.
I specifically asked for their input about nonlocal products and made it clear I sought an open dialogue as we wrestled with this issue. In the end, I educated myself about the produce supply chain to grocers, understood our local limits and gained our vendors’ confidence that I wanted to educate our consumers. Even so, we still had no clear rule to guide our original vision of a local, seasonal market.
I spoke with Mississippi State University staff, inquired at other markets and considered our geography. While markets in the mid-state area promoted Mississippi produce, our geographical location, 20 minutes from Tennessee and 30 minutes from Arkansas, means growers can easily come from a tri-state area. While I prefer to promote our state’s products, geography dictated a different reality.
In the end, our rules reflected a mixed philosophy. Our first priority remained to provide local, seasonal produce. We defined local in terms of driving distance and freshness from time picked. If vendors chose throughout the season to sell a tomato from Alabama, we asked for signs indicating the product was nonlocal. We found these cases to be the exception. We prohibited resale of artisan items and out-of-season produce.
Reap what you didn’t sow
The subject of brokering produce at the market was also of concern. Our approach was to encourage vendors to find market partners when practical. For example, if a farmer had great watermelons but no time for or interest in direct consumer contact at the market, a local teenager selling the melons for him was a win-win-win situation for the farmer, vendor and the market. By keeping the market rules broad and flexible, compromises generally can be struck that will satisfy a seller’s need while maintaining the market’s integrity.
As summer vanished and school started, our market crowds diminished greatly. Seasoned growers recognize this as part of the cycle. Near the end of September, vendor profits were down considerably, so one Saturday, we surprised everyone by charging only $5 for the fee, and another morning, we waived the fee altogether. Unexpected gestures like these created more goodwill among our vendors who remained loyal through the slow times.
Near the end of the season, the state approached us about becoming a pilot site for a senior voucher program that enables low-income seniors to buy fresh produce at farmers’ markets. We agreed, since the program fit with our market’s philosophy and engaged even a greater segment of our community that we couldn’t reach.
Based on the feedback we’ve received, the 2009 market season was an overwhelming success. We’ve learned a few good lessons and have accumulated even more ideas for 2010. Our main role as organizers is simply to help farmers and consumers connect and bring good food and products to the table. And after all, that’s what a farmers’ market is all about.
Why not start one in your town today?
A freelance writer for more than a decade, Karen Ott Mayer lives on a small farm in the hill country of north Mississippi.