The Beautiful Bounty of Farmers' Markets

Across America, the heart of any community is its friendly farmers' market. The question is: Are you there?

FMboytasting

A friendly 'test drive' of the product before you buy is an advantage of shopping at a farmers' market.

iStockPhoto.com/Tyler Stalman

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When Teresa Santiago arrives at the Farmers’ Market in Evanston, Illinois, at 5 a.m. on Saturdays, she doesn’t have long to wait before she’s greeting enthusiastic customers, some of whom arrive as early as 6 a.m. There’s always an eager following to buy her fresh flowers, fruits, and dried and fresh herbs from her small farm in Eureka, Illinois. Within a few short hours she’s sold most, if not all, of her offerings to many happy customers.

On any given Saturday or weekday, the local farmers’ market is the place to be. This popular community event not only brings together farmers and shoppers, but also street musicians, bands, artisans and church bake sales. Plus, there’s always a great cup of coffee or apple cider to be found. 

Meet Your Neighbors

For recreational farmers, a farmers’ market can be an excellent way to get rid of your extra produce or any specialty item that you create on your farm, such as jellies, jams or pickles. After all, you have that extra zucchini, you might as well sell some. It would be a shame to let good food go to waste. 

Farmers’ markets are great for lifestyle farmers because you can still work full-time outside your farm or enjoy your retirement. Your livelihood may not depend on your sales, but you still can get special pleasure selling to friendly folk who truly appreciate the farm-fresh fruits of your labors.

“I enjoy working on my farm, but it wouldn’t be worth it just to sell to a wholesaler,” says Santiago, who farms 1.5 acres. “I wouldn’t get the satisfaction of selling directly to the person who’s going to eat my fruits and herbs. It’s great to receive positive feedback and get to know people.

“Over the last 10 years, I’ve talked with the same people every week and watched their kids grow up. I could go to a closer market, but I would miss everyone,” she says. 

Take Advantage of the Trend

Over the last decade, the number of farmers’ markets across the nation has doubled to an estimated 5,000, according to Richard McCarthy, president of the Farmers’ Market Coalition. For an abundance of reasons, farmers’ markets continue to be popular. Lifestyle farmers can take advantage of this trend by participating in an existing market or starting one in your own vicinity. 

This growth may be due to the public’s growing interest in locally grown food. This includes locally grown, in-season produce as well as grass-fed, pastured poultry and livestock.

“The trend toward locally grown produce has been emerging over the last 10 to 20 years,” says Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association. “In addition, the media has drawn attention to food safety issues. There’s no better way to know about your food than to buy directly from the person who produced it.”

Be the Life of Your Community 

“Farmers’ markets are good for the community. People are craving authentic places to meet real people,” says McCarthy, who also is the founder of the Crescent City Farmers’ Market in New Orleans.

McCarthy believes that lifestyle farmers were instrumental in starting the market 12 years ago. 

“The full-time farmer didn’t want to take the risk,” he says. “We are most grateful to the smaller hobby farmers who were trailblazers. They created a place where customers had good experiences. These hobby farmers became the market’s elder statesmen.”

McCarthy well knows how important a farmers’ market can be to the life of a community. The Crescent City Farmers’ Market was poised to celebrate its 10th anniversary right before the massive destruction brought by the Katrina hurricane on August 29, 2005. 

With amazing resilience, the market reopened right before Thanksgiving  – providing a beacon of hope to many residents who moved back to the ravaged city.

“We reopened the market long before people had refrigerators, many of which were destroyed,” he says. “Our reopening symbolized that life will go on in New Orleans.” 

“The reopening was a wonderful day in New Orleans. Grocery stores didn’t have any fresh produce, and people came from all over,” says vendor Lucy Capdeboscq. “Some people had never been to a farmers’ market before and experienced how much better tasting everything is. Now the market is bigger than ever.”

She and her husband, Allen, both retired from big companies, love living on their farm in Amite, Louisiana, about 70 miles north of New Orleans. They grow fresh-cut flowers and vegetables on five acres. After Katrina, they worried and wondered what had happened to their old customers. 

“It was so moving to see them again. We cried and they cried,” she says.

Natural Selection 

“Farmers’ markets are looking for vendors to meet public demand. It’s a great opportunity,” McCarthy says.

It’s easy to find the closest farmers’ markets through the Internet. (See “Fruitful Resources.”) 

When evaluating markets ask: What are the hours and number of weeks?

What’s the annual fee? How many people attend? Are there rules about signage? What can you sell? Some markets stipulate that vendors must grow or produce what they’re offering. 

“Go to a few markets and talk to vendors,” Santiago says. “Ask them what the turnout is. See what’s being sold and if you offer something unique.”

Do It Yourself 

If you can’t find an existing market, you may consider launching a new one.

“Make sure you get enough vendors. The most successful markets have 20 to 40 vendors, but the best get up to 60 or 70,” Touchette says. “It’s much better to get community support and ask a community organization, church or downtown revitalization group to start and sponsor the market. Farmers have enough work selling.”

Both existing and new markets can be brought to successful heights through well-timed publicity, such as used by McCarthy to build and rebuild the Crescent City Farmers’ Market. He draws media attention to what’s in season and any unique offerings. 

“We do a lot of press when a part-time farmer specializing in Asian pears comes in for just one week,” he says. “In general, we’re educating shoppers that food isn’t like the supermarket where everything’s available all the time. We’re communicating that our food producers have expert knowledge about the region and seasons.”

Fresh Ideas 

You can use signage to easily attract customers to your stall. List “what’s new” and also “last week for.”

“It’s important to have a large sandwich sign promoting the big item that week, and one or two secondary things,” says Santiago. 

“Everything has to have a label and a price. In selling five kinds of strawberries, it’s important to say what the difference is. For example, this one’s the sweetest or best for freezing,” she says. “I have a sign for hedge apples saying they’re non-edible and are a non-toxic way to keep bugs out of the home.”

In addition to signage, provide an email sign-up sheet in your stall with space for suggestions. Emails and a Web site can help you quickly and cheaply communicate what you’ll bring to next week’s market. However, unlike professional farmers, some lifestyle farmers don’t want too much publicity. 

“We took down our Web site because we got too many calls,” Lucy Capdeboscq says. “We lead a very quiet life and put family first – nothing comes before that.”

Do Good, Do Well 

Most country folk have big hearts and would do anything to feed a hungry child. You can sell directly to low-income families through two federal programs, the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) and the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP). With these programs, checks or coupons are given to eligible people to buy produce from farmers’ markets.

To sign up, you don’t have to be a full-time farmer, just a fruit and/or vegetable vendor at a participating farmers’ market, says Phil Blalock, executive director of the National Association of Farmers’ Market Nutrition Programs (NAFMNP), a national non-profit umbrella organization. 

“To learn which markets are enrolled, contact your state departments of agriculture or aging,” Blalock says. “Each state program is run differently.”

Sharing your love of country living – and the bounty of your land – at a farmers’ market has its own special rewards. Where else would you want to be on a Saturday morning?   /G 

Freelance journalist and photographer Letitia L. Star has been a fan of farmers’ markets for more than two decades.