Introduction: How to Start a Farmer's Market
I live on an island in Alaska. It is a small town of just over 3,000 people. We have no stop light other than the one in front of the fire hall that is turned on to get the fire trucks in and out. We can ferry to Juneau but it takes about 8 hours on the boat during the winter. There is jet service daily so you can be in Seattle or Anchorage in four hours.
Living in a place like this can be very difficult to get fresh produce. Sure, we have a couple of small grocery stores, a service in the summer that brings fruits and vegetables up in trucks, and even a farm to table program that delivers every other week from Washington.
Considering some of these "fresh" is a real stretch. One major thing you can do to improve the foods you eat is to eat locally. Locally grown foods have big benefits to your health, the community, and the environment. Local produce is usually sold within 24 hours of harvest. That means the produce probably has the best flavor and nutrients.
If you're not aware of it, the food you buy - even the "fresh" produce from many stores - typically comes from thousands of miles away. The food is trucked, flown, railed and barged across the country and around the world.
Buying your food locally helps keep your money local. Instead of paying a large company that has corporate offices across the country, pays for advertising, and other expenses, you can pay a neighbor. That neighbor will shop locally. They are more likely to be re-using grocery bags, limiting their use of chemicals, driving a short distance to the market... It becomes a domino-effect of sustainable living choices.
Here's a bit of the story about how we started a market that ran through the summer of 2010 - and will run for many years to come!
Step 1: Develop Partnerships and Advocates
A "farmer's market" seems like a funny term to use on an island without a single traditional "farm" so we had a vision of the market that also included handcrafts, artwork, musicians, and other vendors.
If you don't already have a market in your area there are probably a lot of other people already considering the need for a farmer's market. Contacting local gardeners, craftsmen, artists, community garden organizers and musicians will give a good indication of the interest. If you have a vision or example of the market you would like to see, try and depict it well for prospective sellers. But at this point you need to make connections that are interested in making the market effort a success.
Skills that are valuable include people with accounting experience, people with non-profit organizational expertise, marketing whizzes, and of course, someone with the drive to keep the ball rolling!
Step 2: Location, Location, Location
This is important. And can be quite difficult. Weather in your area might be restrictive. We decided on an indoor location purely because of the weather restraints. (Although later, insurance requirements also helped us chose our location.) We also wanted to be close to the downtown area which was a popular choice with the Chamber of Commerce. Seeking possible locations early on will also help determine needs for vendors (such as if they need to provide a tent or tables), available parking, and social or educational areas if you plan on having music, activities or sessions taking place during the market.
Step 3: Come Up With Rules
In envisioning the market do you see lots of vegetables? Or are there stalls full of handmade crafts and other goods? What about someone selling socks that they designed but had made in China? Or a family with a table full of garage-sale items? Can someone sell cans of soda with their food or should drinks be more "homemade" than that? What about a bike shop doing repairs or a brick-and-mortar clothing store selling their lines? Packaged food?
Some rules will come from your state agencies. Be aware of the rules that govern food service permits. For our market we provided copies of the application and guidelines to vendors that planned on selling food.
Also look up the regulations regarding sales tax and business licenses for your area. You may not, as the organizing group, be responsible for making sure that vendors have all of the proper arrangements to sell to the public, however, if you're aware of violations what is the responsibility of the market organizers?
What about children having booths? Or booths set up for informational purposes? Or even political purposes?
Some issues will need to be dealt with as they come up. You won't be able to forecast all of the potential hurtles. However, providing some direction about the intent of the market - the feel of it - will set the tone for the vendors.
Step 4: Determine a Schedule and Fees
Part of choosing the location also must involve considering the schedule. Will the market be weekly? Monthly? Or perhaps have an intermittent schedule?
We worked our schedule so there were normally two markets a month through the summer and early fall. We skipped weekends around local festivals because of two reasons. First, it's a busy time and there is plenty to do. Second, because some of the vendors we hoped to have at the market would be selling at street booths during festivals.
Determine the length of each market. We started with four hours - 10 AM through 2 PM. After a few markets we trimmed it to close at 1 PM. The crowd just tended to come earlier and by 1 it was just the vendors milling around and socializing. We'd rather have a larger gathering of the community than have people just casually walking through an empty marketplace. Make it feel active!
Determining a fee structure should come next. Having a rate for each market and a discounted rate for the whole season could provide an incentive for people to commit to the longer term.
Perhaps your fees are based on the size of the area needed. Are children's booths discounted? Is there an area that is more desirable because of better visibility or higher traffic? What kind of access is available for unloading and then packing up?
Step 5: Jump Through the Hoops
Here's where things get a little rough. You may need to form a non-profit, get insurance, hire staff and otherwise jump through bureaucratic hoops.
There are, however, a few ways around much of this hassle. Check out a large market like the San Francisco Underground Market for some inspiration here.
We managed to find a location that had a commercial kitchen that they let a rotating vendor (of our choice) use and didn't require any insurance. So we managed to get going the first year without the structure and restrictions of a non-profit.
The University of Florida has some excellent information on some of the information that might be helpful in the creation of a full-fledged Farmer's Market. Your state probably has a coordinator that will be able to help with some of this as well. Contact other markets in your area for support. Or the cooperative extension service in your area.
One of the fun things to do during this step? Figure out a name!
Step 6: Recruit Vendors
Once you have the structure built for the organization it is time to start filling booth space. Every location will have different marketing opportunities. We took advantage of the local public radio station's classified ad broadcast. It reached out to people beyond the central "municipality" especially those that resided in more remote areas and lived a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
We had a core of gardeners, cooks, craftsmen, artists, musicians, and other people that were very interested in the market. The most popular booths were the baked goods and the major produce providers. But photographers, knitters, painters, and all sorts of other contributors helped make the market a wonderfully well-rounded experience for everyone.
Step 7: Add Music
We had a wonderful community of musicians that were willing to come out for free and play music for a little while during our markets. Pianists, young fiddlers, full bands... we had a full range of musicians.
We scheduled them to play during our peak times - from about 11 to 12 each market.
Step 8: Make It for the Whole Family!
Our vision was to have the Market be a gathering place for the community. To not only shop locally but also to socialize with old friends, meet new people, see what creative things are happening in town and provide a place for the whole family.
We allowed for any children to have free booths. They learn about sales, managing money and budgeting through their family members (we found all participating children had participating parents too).
Our last market of the year we made more carnival-like. There was face painting, a petting zoo area, and other activities for kids.
Step 9: Market the Market!
Marketing - it's not just going to the market! It seems no matter how hard you try you'll still have people that will have never heard of your market. On an island with 3,000 people, one weekly newspaper, one radio station and a dozen bulletin boards you would think you could pretty easily make everyone aware of our market. On the day of the market we even posted signs at the main intersection of town that said the time and place.
But even after a few months some people hadn't heard about the Market.
We used classified ads, display ads, and even had photos and stories written in the paper. We were on the radio station almost weekly. We even made new fliers for many of the markets so the bulletin board postings wouldn't get too stale. Of course, word-of-mouth from attendees and vendors helped.
Step 10: Conclusion and Thoughts
As a member of the board that planned the market this was a great success. We had problems figuring out insurance, securing a location, and sometimes with rules for the vendors. But as a group we felt like it was an overall huge success.
As a vendor I was quite happy. We made plenty of money at the markets, the time seemed to be good and the number of attendees was always decent.
As a community member I'm thrilled. Last winter I asked my Facebook friends that lived in my town what they would like to see developed. A Farmer's Market was of huge interest.
We did, initially, alienate a few businesses that sell local art and goods. Hopefully we didn't compete too much with their operations. The intent is certainly not to undermine local business sales.
This provided an opportunity for small gardeners to make a little profit from their excess crop harvest. A few people even came to the market to be a vendor from a neighboring town. Many sellers and buyers came from fairly remote areas so there was definite although incalculable financial gain to the rest of the community.
Good luck with your market planning and launch!