Farm Fresh Perspectives: Succeeding at farmers’ markets

As I’ve mentioned before, the farmers’ market season is almost upon us. Next to acquiring food products right on the farm, there are few better ways to know one’s food than to shop at a farmers’ market.

Shoppers will generally be able to speak directly with the person who grew the product about to be purchased, ask him or her how the product was grown, whether it was grown conventionally or organically, and above all, why the farmer or gardener uses those particular practices. However, if one is planning to be a vendor at a farmers’ market, please remember that people really want this kind of information, and that those heirloom tomatoes aren’t going to tell their story themselves.

Even if selling at a bustling market with enlightened consumers, vendors must remember that marketing savvy has a lot to do with how well they sell their products. It might be helpful for farmers’ market vendors to remember the four Ps of marketing: product, price, promotion and place.

First and foremost, consumers require a high-quality product before they become motivated to buy. Some consumers at a farmers’ market may, for example, be more forgiving of blemishes and imperfections if they know they are buying a local product that was raised without pesticides, but vendors must always keep in mind that they are competing with the globally-sourced, perfect-looking product available year-round in grocery stores.

Obviously, quality goes beyond visual appeal and superior taste, and freshness may give a farmer an edge, but be careful when giving out samples to prove that at the market. Many counties have rules against cutting and sampling of raw product due to fears of bacterial contamination.

Also, products with special attributes can have an edge at the market. If your products are certified organic, heirloom varieties, rare breeds, or otherwise special, make sure your customers are aware of that.

In addition to satisfying consumers, vendors need to observe proper etiquette with one another, and pricing is always a prime concern. Don’t undercut your neighbor selling a similar product because you’ll just end up in a lowest-price battle, and no one will make any money. Besides, having the highest prices in a market also quietly conveys the idea that your products are highest quality and worth the extra cost.

Price your products at levels that will earn you a fair profit and living wage, but won’t immediately turn customers off. If you are the only vendor with a limited amount of a particular specialty product, charge a premium. Extending your season with greenhouses, cold frames and extra-early or extra-late varieties will help put you in this situation. And if you set your prices fairly, don’t apologize for them; explain your rationale if it will help customers understand.

If consumers want the story behind their food, vendors need to provide that story because it will promote that farm, build relationships, and create customer loyalty. However, unless the vendor wants to tell stories about his or her farm, production practices, varieties, pest control, etc., over and over again for six to eight hours, he or she better have some clear, detailed signage that will get a lot of that information out there. Signs should indicate farm name and town of origin, a short description of the farmer’s production philosophy (e.g., natural, organic, low-spray), and prices for each item. The better marketers will also have a logo, a slogan, and pictures of their farm and family that will all help that vendor be more memorable and charismatic without having to say a word.

Items that are sold out should be crossed out on signs, but not erased, because you want consumers to know that product will be available again. Items that are coming soon should be noted, and newsletters with recipes and farm happenings are quite popular.

Presentation is also important. Vendors’ booths should be attractive, providing shade for the benefit of customers and produce that has a tendency to wilt in the sun. Product displays should always look full and bounteous; refill containers frequently and, if you only have a small amount of product, put it in a smaller container.

A vendor will always need to gladly and engagingly answer questions to round out the story. Friendly customer service is essential, and vendors must make sure that any hired help realize this as well. Vendors who stand up, smile, make eye contact and seem willing to help are always going to do better than those who sit in a folding chair and read the newspaper.

There are good and bad farmers’ markets out there, and the vendors at good farmers’ markets tend to make much more money, so check places out before you commit to selling there. Farmers’ markets need a central, accessible location with a comfortable setting and plenty of parking. Good market managers will organize vendor space, arrange for attractions and entertainment, and enforce the rules to which vendors are subject.

If possible, sell at markets that provide big shopping baskets (people buy more if they can carry more), that accept coupons from food assistance programs, and that have programs in place to donate leftover product to a good cause such as a food pantry or soup kitchen. And finally, if your goal is to make a living and you are not making a profit at a market, stop vending there. Direct marketing is too much work to donate your time.

Farmers’ markets are great places where consumers can come to know farmers, know their farms, and develop a trusting relationship that runs much deeper than that with a typical salesperson. If you have questions about specific farmers’ markets, it is best to contact the market master. Contact information for Illinois farmers’ markets can be easily found on Web sites such as and

If you would like to know more about the regulations behind selling food at an open-air market, contact your county health department. And, as always, if I can be of service with your endeavors to grow, sell or eat fresh, local and organic food, drop me a line.

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the June 7-13, 2006, issue

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