How to join a Maine farmers’ market

It’s never too early to start the process! Summer is a good time to visit markets in your area to see how the atmosphere at each is different and get a sense of what products and activities they feature.  (Find markets within a 25 mile radius of any location using our search tool.)  If the market isn’t crazy busy when you’re visiting, ask to speak with the manager and introduce yourself as a possible future vendor.

Winter is the time to apply to join a market. Most markets accept applications in January, sometimes as early as December. Visit the market’s website to find out details, and download the application, if it is accepting applications this year. (Not all markets have open spaces each season.) Take care filling out the application, and submit it on time.  After submitting the application, confirm that it was received by the correct person, and find out whether you will be required to attend an in-person meeting.

Keep in mind that most markets will be looking for specific types of products, as they like to offer their shoppers a wide range of products, and need to be sure to have as many of the basics available as possible.  You may be an absolutely amazing baker but if the market only has one space available in a particular season and there is already a baker it is unlikely you’ll get the spot, which will go to someone with eggs or honey or whatever product the market is clearly missing. (Unfortunately, this is sometimes seen as “protectionism,” whereas its an essential strategy that benefits the market as a whole.)

If you apply to a market and are invited to attend a meeting, here’s what to expect (but ask for details in advance):

  • You’ll probably be asked to give a brief overview of your farm/business, your products, and your marketing style to a group of current members. They will then ask questions, somewhat similar to a job interview. You will likely be asked what else you can contribute to the market besides your great products, so consider that ahead of time. (Perhaps you have artistic skills and can help design posters, or perhaps you’re a great fundraiser, or you’re a Girl Scout leader and can provide a team of volunteers for spring cleanup, etc….) 
  • Bring samples of your marketing materials (fliers, business cards, menus, etc…) to pass around. Consider bringing some kind of photo album or book showcasing your farm/business, products, and marketing style. If you can bring samples of your product, that’s even better!
  • Make sure your paperwork is all in order and bring copies of your licenses (kitchen license, nursery license, etc….) as required.  (Learn what the Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry requires for various products on this page.)
  • You may be able to listen in while the market interviews other potential new vendors, or you may just have a few minutes to talk about your own work. Either way, it’s a great time to observe the current market members and the way they interact with each other.  Does it seem like a group you would like to join?
  • Come prepared with any questions you may have. (It’s better to get the answers now, before committing for a season.)
  • After all the new vendor interviews, the market members will discuss and vote. You can expect to get a call, usually within a few days, letting you know whether or not you’re being invited to join the market.

Frequently asked questions:

Q: Can I fill out one application for multiple farmers’ markets?

A: There are a few Maine markets that are operated by associations, but the vast majority are operated independently, which means a separate application for each. Ideally, information about applying to individual markets will be easy to find on their websites and social media pages. However, this isn’t always the case, and it may take some sleuthing to find out details about the market’s application process. If there is no information available online, look for contact information for the market manager, and send the manager an email. (Keep in mind that the markets are operated by volunteers, most of whom have farms and winter jobs, so be prepared to be patient and persistent.)

Q: I’m not sure I have what it takes to be a successful farmers’ market vendor. How can I figure that out?

A: Joining a farmers’ market is a long-term commitment. Consider the time it will take each week, not only to be at the market, but to prepare your products, travel, set up, and take down. Can you maintain that level of commitment, month in and month out? More than half of Maine’s markets are on Saturdays. Are you willing to commit to the market every Saturday all summer?  Take a hard look at the market’s season.  Does it start early? (It can be cold outside in May!) Does it run into the fall?  You’ll need to not only maintain a consistent presence at the market, but maintain a relatively consistent quality and quantity of product throughout the season, and be prepared to be friendly and cheerful to customers, week in, week out.

Some markets accept guest vendors. Consider seeking out a few such markets and signing up for guest vendor spots as a way to try out the waters. (This approach works well for value-added producers with products that store well or who can make product on demand.)  You should also visit a number of markets and talk to vendors about what it takes to be successful.  Sometimes the challenges may not be what you think and some advanced preparation can make a big difference.

Q: What should I list on the application in terms of the products I plan to sell at the market?

A: You should list everything that you realistically intend to bring. Be thorough, since often this is your one opportunity for the year to get approval to bring a particular product. Be honest, and let people know if there is a product you are working on adding, but that may not possibly be ready in time. (For example, if you’re working on getting a recipe tested by the University of Maine, let the market know it’s a product in development that you expect to start bringing by whatever date.) Be realistic, and don’t overstate your capacity. (You may want to be careful about putting down, say, mixed vegetables, even as secondary, if all you were thinking of bringing was some extra cucumbers and there are already a lot of veggie vendors at that market.)

Q: Every year, I apply to a bunch of markets, and get declined. What is happening?

A: It’s important to realize that farmers’ markets are closely networked groups of hard-working farmers and entrepreneurs. When a market invites a new member to join, each member is essentially inviting that person to join a key component of their business for  3-6 months. Consequently, the decision is made very cautiously. They will be looking for outgoing, professional people with excellent social skills, a solid business plan, sufficient capacity, and no big red flags. (Red flags might include an appearance of being over-extended or too inexperienced for the demands of that market, a reputation for being difficult, a history of quitting other markets, or an inability to follow the application process properly, for example.)

Q: I’ve been invited to join the market as a “provisional member”. What does that mean?

A: This is standard. It means that you won’t be a full member of the market for the first year, which probably means you can’t vote regarding issues the market is deciding, and you can’t expect to automatically be invited back. If you do a great job during your first year, and are invited to become a full member, then you will have a secure spot at the market, as long as you continue to fulfill the requirements.

Q: I was rejected from a local market, and it seems unfair. What can I do to fight the decision?

A: When market members try to decide which new members to accept, they are essentially working a complicated algorithm. It can be almost impossible to explain the nuances of that algorithm to outsiders, but it is virtually never a matter of “keeping out competition.” (To the contrary, most vendors prefer to have at least one other vendor at a market with the same category of product.) The busier the market, the more applications there will be, and the fewer spaces. Definitely ask the market manager for feedback about why you were rejected, but don’t expect there to be a simple answer. Look for other markets that are still accepting applications (some will have unexpected vacancies mid-season, too), and consider finding guest vendor spots at various markets. Establishing a track record as a good market member will help the next time a space opens up at one of the markets you wish to join.

Q: There’s already a vendor selling the same type of product as I do at the market I want to join. Does that mean I won’t be considered?

A: Not at all. In fact, most markets prefer to have multiple vendors for products, whenever space permits. A market that has a long-term vendor of organic blueberries may welcome a vendor of conventional or high bush blueberries, for example, or a market with several mixed vegetable farms may welcome another. However, if there are just 2 spaces available, and the markets shoppers have been clamoring for goat meat and yeast bread (for example), the market members will prioritize new vendors with those desired products.

Q: Do I have to have insurance?

A: Yes.  Unfortunately, one aspect of life in the 21st century is that anyone can be sued at any time.  You might possibly find a market that doesn’t require proof of liability insurance but if you value having a roof over your head and some money in the bank account, and don’t relish lying awake at night pondering financial ruin, just consider liability insurance a necessary cost of doing business and fully inform your agent of what you are doing, to get the right coverage. (And while you’re at it, talk to your agent about increasing your “medical payments” coverage in your liability policy. It will probably only cost you a few bucks a year, but will increase your coverage dramatically, and smartly.)

Q: There’s a flea market in a nearby community and to sell there all I have to do is sign up for a table. Why is it harder to join the farmers’ market?

A: Farmers’ markets are operated collectively by the farmers/vendors. A market builds its reputation over time, by providing consistently high-quality products and customer service. Anyone accepted into the market will thereafter be benefiting from the years of work the market members have done to build a customer base, so the market members must be careful to ensure newcomers meet their standards. Additionally, most farmers’ markets carry liability insurance that requires them to verify that all vendors are compliant with food safety regulations, which requires a more formal application process than is required to sell non-food items in a flea-market type setting. (See this page for the state law defining what a farmers’ market is.)

Q: I sell a non-agricultural product that seems like a good match for a farmers’ market. Will I be accepted?

A: It depends. Some markets are big enough to have spaces for crafters (potters, artists, etc.) Many markets do not have space to devote to non-agricultural products, however, or may have rules disallowing non-ag products. You’ll need to ask around. (You should also consider signing up for guest vendor spaces at various markets, which can be an even better option for non-food vendors, since markets tend to see the same shoppers every week.)