So you’ve decided to try selling at a farmers’ market. The gardens are weeded, the harvest is starting, and it’s time to sell. What equipment and techniques will you need to help sell your produce?
This pamphlet was written by two farmers (Kate Slattery & Tom Roberts) from opposite ends of the state—one with 10 acres of gardens and one with 1/8 acre—who attend two markets—one large with 25 farmers open 5 days a week and one small with half a dozen members and open once a week. They share their experiences here hoping they will be of some value to new market members.
Car, Pickup, Van or Truck
Is your vehicle large enough? This is a major consideration, for not only will you have your produce and the containers you intend to display it in, but you’ll also need tables or some kind of structure to keep your displayed food 6″ off the ground (it’s the law). Don’t forget a sign with your name, address and phone, and maybe a chair to sit in. Practice packing before you actually are about to head out to market.
How will you be displaying your produce? Some people use leftover produce or banana boxes from the local supermarkets; these may not hold up well in damp conditions and don’t look especially attractive to potential cusotmers. Used wooden boxes such as apple boxes or grape lugs can be painted to make an attractive display. Baskets can be purchased in bushel, half-bushel, peck and half-peck sizes. Unpainted wood stays wet and cool longer when watered than painted wood or plastic. Remember to bring all sizes of baskets and containers, as this helps keep your display looking full. Display containers should blend well with and enhance your produce’s appearance, not steal attention from it. Browns, brick reds, dark greens, dark blues and natural wood colors will contrast well with the many different colors of produce in your display.
Protect your produce
Containers that can protect tender produce from drying wind and sun are more desireable than those that don’t. A watering can is the best way to keep your produce moist and fresh; bring plenty of water unless there is a source at your market site. Keeping your produce from wilting is an art, and once wilted it won’t come back. It helps to know your produce: lettuce and radish tops wilt fast; a little longer in the sun and beans no longer snap when bent; cukes & zucchini will eventually soften in the sun, and so will even turnips and beets by the end of the day. Tomatoes like being in the sun, but on very hot days they can be cooked while on display. If your tender produce is selling fast, you can place it in the best visual display and not have to worry about how long it can take the sun. But take care if sales slow down. On the other hand onions, shallots, garlic, winter squashes should be kept dry and love being in the sun all day.
Where is your market located, under the trees or in the open parking lot? Shade is very important because limp, sunburned lettuce does not sell well. Since farmers’ markets are held rain or shine, investing in a tarp or cover is practically essential. Many clever home-made designs for supporting tarps look quite attractive, but make sure your structurecan withstand the wind. Stay away from blue tarps unless the product you are selling looks good under blue light; most produce doesn’t. Beach umbrellas work well for small setups, but shade-only umbrellas don’t help much on a rainy day. Umbrellas are especially troublesome on breezy days.
Volume or Weight?
How will you be selling your produce? A legal scale maybe helpful if you are to sell by weight. Some products sell better by weight rather than unit, but there is no reason to purchase a legal scale if the size of your operation does not justify the expense. You can use “lunch” type bags to sell by the bagful, or berry boxes to sell by the quart. (Dumping the produce from the berry box into a bag when sold allows you to re-use the more expensive berry box over and over.)
The average customer is shy, and will not ask a price. A large, attractive chalkboard or individual price tags for each container of produce is welcomed, especially for shoppers new to the market or new to your stand. Develop a kit that comes to market with you. Include in it chalk and an eraser; tags (paper, plastic or cardboard), markers, scissors, tape and pens. Rubber bands or whatever you will be using to bunch products like radishes come in handy. A pad of note paper for jotting down new marketing ideas or special order requests from customers, or to give your name and phone number to a customer.
Always be on the lookout for bags, of all sizes. Many customers are glad to return or donate their paper and plastic grocery bags. Always express your gratitude while accepting them, as there will be a time you’ll run out of bags. Check out your community recycling center for an endless source of bags. Among paper bags, generally flat bottomed ones are better for produce needs; they are usually made of stronger material than the “card store” type of bag. If need be, bags can be purchased at many of the larger “wholesale-type” stores. Seedling flats may be bagged two to a shopping bag, but trays made from cardboard boxes are more efficient at transporting large numbers of seedlings. However, trays can take up a lot of space in your vehicle.
How will you handle your cash at market? Having a cash box for bringing all your bills and change to market keeps everything centralized and orderly. Some vendors use aprons, or wear clothes with big pockets so that they may roam about the stand and yet be able to make a sale from any point without having to run back to the vehicle. Others sell out of the cash box they keep on a table or in the back of the vehicle. Keep bills out of sight and where they will not likely to be blown away by wind. Some farmers find it useful to write down every sale.
Bring plenty of change, because the day you don’t will be the day your first customer will only have a $20 bill! Bring enough change to cover your first two customers handing you a $20 bill. (Remember, if YOU are the farmer breaking the big bills, that means the shoppers are going to your stand first!) Most other sellers at market will be glad to help out if you run short of change, and you should be happy to do the same for them, but don’t become a pest by relying on your neighbors to bring enough change for your operation! Sometimes one person can walk to a nearby bank if the whole market is short of quarters. Often a seller who is leaving the market early, or the person who collects the daily market dues are also good sources of small bills.
Setting your prices
There are books written on this subject, but we will include here a few tips we have used. MOFGA’s wholesale and retail price reports can give a you some idea in their listing of what farmers’ markets, supermarkets and wholesalers are getting for Maine organic produce. Note that it is by its nature weeks out-of-date for fast changing pricing situations such as for produce just coming into season. Other guides are local supermarket prices, other sellers at market, or whatever you feel you can justify charging. Walking the market to note what other members are charging and even asking them about their pricing is not price collusion, it is simply trading information. Getting together with other members to “set” prices, however, is illegal.
Bear in mind that supermarkets often make no money on produce! To them produce is an attraction to get customers into the store; they offer “loss-leaders” knowing shoppers will probably purchase more than they intended. Be honest about the value of what you are offering. Don’t be afraid to charge more if your customers agree that it is of superior quality. (And vice versa, of course.) If an item is selling very fast and you will soon sell out, you may have priced it too low for that situation; learn to judge the market by how things are selling and adjust your prices accordingly. Note, however, that a day of slow sales usually indicates few customers at market, and this can’t be improved by lower prices.
Remember that no matter what your products are worth, some people will be glad to pay what you are asking, and some will always tell you the price is too high. There is a mix of these customers types in any location, and your job as seller is to determine what the ratio is for each product you are selling in order to maximize your day’s sales, or your pleasure in meeting and selling to people, or whatever it is you attend market for.
It also falls onto your shoulders to begin the process of educating consumers that what they are getting from you is NOT what they would get at the supermarket, and therefore comparison pricing is somewhat irrelevant. Cutting the price often results in only marginally more sales, as it generates in many buyers a distrust of the product being offered at “fire sale” pricing. Offering a volume discount on greater quantities works better than lower prices on small unit sales. Experience at farmers’ markets over a season shows that sometimes the supermarkets are higher, sometimes the local farmers are, but the farmers can always have the better fresh-picked quality.
Clean, attractive and orderly
Simple things like watering and rotating your produce can make the difference between making and losing a sale. Produce with soil on it send most shoppers to buy elsewhere. This may mean you need to wipe your cukes and tomatoes with a damp cloth after a rainy day to remove dirt spots. Many farmers may have good healthy soil or axle grease under their nails, but that may not encourage your neighbor to buy your produce. Above all, smile and talk to your customers, and you will get repeat sales.
Know what you are selling
You’ll find your customers will quiz you on what variety you are selling, what pesticides where used, when it was picked, how long it will last, how to prepare it. When you can, let your customers pick out what they want. They will be happier with their purchase knowing they got that just-right-sized cuke.