by Andy Larson
Small Farms Specialist
Iowa State University Extension
You can boost your success at farmers’ market by knowing your customer and market and creatively merchandising your produce.
Know your customer
Market research provides a comprehensive picture of the social, economic and demographic characteristics of the people likely to shop at your market. The U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) have information on race, education, income, household type, employment, consumer expenditures and much more. For instance, the BLS site says the average Midwesterner spent $161 on fresh vegetables in 2007. Iowa State University MarketMaker, http://ia.marketmaker.uiuc.edu/, features local population demographics and details about nearby food businesses in an interactive map.
Know your marketplace
In addition to understanding the profile of your typical customer, you need to know how the customer behaves in the marketplace. Go to multiple farmers’ markets in your area and see what is selling quickly, what is selling slowly and at what price. Ask the market manager what products tend to be in short supply and ask the vendors whether this tends to be one of their more profitable markets. Check nearby grocery stores and find out if they sell local produce, and if so, in what quantity, at what quality and in what price range.
Have a marketing strategy
Take what you have learned about the local marketplace, combine it with what you know about your farm and your personal preferences, and apply it to a marketing strategy that meets your objectives as well as the needs of the consumer. First, sell people on the quality of your familiar items such as green beans, garlic, tomatoes or apples. Then tell them about your less familiar items such as kohlrabi, komatsuna and celeriac, including how they taste, how they should be cooked and some possible food pairings. If customers seem intrigued by something unfamiliar and hesitant to buy, give them a sample (if market rules and county health regulations allow) or put a free sample in their shopping bag.
Price your produce to be a value to your customer and profitable to you. Being the least expensive at the farmers’ market is not necessarily a winning strategy. Consumers often equate lower prices with lower value.
Avoid growing items that you cannot price high enough to be profitable. Some “bulk” vegetables (e.g., potatoes or onions) require a certain economy of scale to make them profitable if they are not commanding a premium price. Keep detailed production cost and sales records to make sure each one of your crops is worth your time. Higher value crops often require more labor and management, but for a small grower at a farmers’ market, they are more likely to return satisfying profits.
Attract customers through creative merchandising. In addition to selling tomatoes and bell peppers, bundle some with garlic, onions, chilies and cilantro and sell a salsa kit. Instead of selling plain lettuce, sell a spring lettuce mix with baby greens. Sell garlic braids rather than just garlic bulbs and you’re sure to get a higher per-bulb return. If your market allows you to sell non-food agricultural items, this further broadens your merchandising opportunities. You could sell vegetable transplants if you have extras you did not use. If you’re having trouble moving hot chili peppers, sell the whole plant in a small plastic pot as an ornamental. In the fall, you could sell multi-colored decorative corn and sell the stalks in bundles separately. If you have extra straw mulch, sell mini-bales. You’re only limited by your creativity, and, of course, the amount of time you have to prepare all these items!
Finally, not everything you grow is going to sell exactly as you’d planned. The farmers’ market is generally an outlet for “first” quality produce. Aesthetically inferior “seconds” are great for the restaurant market where they will be processed before they are consumed. Avoid the temptation to “dump” your remaining inventory at deep discounts just before the market closes. Having a secondary outlet such as a restaurant or food pantry, or even a compost pile, can be better than diminishing the perceived value of your produce.
The number of farmers’ markets in the United States continues to increase, along with awareness of eating local foods. Becoming a serious vendor at a quality farmers’ market requires commitment and planning. Many growers find these venues to be worthwhile for generating both relationships and profits. If you do your homework and sell your story, you may find a nearby farmers’ market that is a great fit for your farm.
This article is from the February 2009 issue of Acreage Living,
Other articles in this month’s issue--
• Do You Have a Welcoming Home?
• Cost Saving Tips for Feeding Horses
Lynette Spicer, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-1327, email@example.com