Techniques to Improve Your Success at Farmers' Market

By Andy Larson
Small Farms Specialist
Iowa State University Extension

As you stroll through the local farmers’ market on a summery Saturday morning, do you ever consider why you stop and shop at one vendor’s booth, but walk by another without a second glance? It may have as much to do with the vendor as it does with you. Was the vendor you passed sitting and reading the newspaper? Do you know where the produce was grown? Was the produce dirty, shriveled from the sun or uninteresting? Were other customers at the booth?

A farmers’ market vendor must do more than show up and open the tailgate. A farmers’ market is a place where farmers must be marketers, creating an appealing, professional image for themselves and their farms and providing consistent, high-quality products and service that satisfy customers.

Presentation and Appearance
As a grower marketing directly to consumers, you need to make a good impression that will translate into a lasting positive image for your business. If possible, choose a bustling, centrally-located market that is populated by serious vendors. Proximity to your farm is a factor, but consider whether the extra sales made at a busier market will justify your time and additional expenses. Whichever market you choose, be familiar with the rules, keep the market manager happy and have a presence there every week, preferably in the same slot. Customers appreciate consistency.

The public faces of your farm are your booth, produce and salespeople. It’s your brand and reputation. An attractive, legible sign should proclaim your farm name, logo and location. People want to know where the produce is grown. Smaller signs should display a map and photos of your farm, animals, tractor, kids…whatever will tell your story. Many customers want a relationship with “their farmer.” Such information and imagery will help the customer make that connection. Homemade signs are especially effective.

Use signs to show the production practices used to grow your produce. If your operation has a third-party certification such as Certified Organic or Certified Naturally Grown, declare this and be prepared to explain the certification in quick and simple terms. Explain why you do things the way you do, and label products with “unsprayed,” “heirloom variety” or other attributes your customers might find valuable. Descriptors can be added to prominently-displayed pricing signs.

Your market stand should be clean and orderly, yet convey a sense of abundance and bounty. Some vendors use bushel baskets tilted toward the customer to appear overflowing. Produce should be continually replenished so containers always look full. As you near the end of the supply, keep placing your diminished inventory in smaller baskets to maintain the look of full containers so no customer feels like they have to buy the “last one.” When selling in smaller units, continually rearrange and replenish tables so they always appear full and take down excess tables so the rest remain stocked.

Your produce ought to be handled to retain maximum quality and appeal, even after five hours on an asphalt parking lot on a hot summer day and a week in your customer’s refrigerator. The “shelf life” of your produce is impacted by the way it was harvested, cooled, packed and stored on your farm (see Resources at the end of this article). Your farmers’ market stand should be shaded to protect produce, employees and customers from the elements, especially the hot summer sun. Stocks of temperature-sensitive produce should be kept in coolers which can be hidden nicely by long tablecloths on display tables.

Salespeople in your booth affect your farm’s image as much as the produce they are selling. Choose the right people for the job. Employees should look professional, dressed in similar outfits preferably displaying your farm name and logo. They need to be personable, efficient, customer service-oriented, and knowledgeable about your farm and its practices. Employees should always be standing and doing something even when business is slow, but they should never be too busy to engage a customer in a friendly, non-aggressive manner. Employees who work – and eat – on your farm, or are otherwise intimately familiar with the farm, will best be able to answer the detailed questions that customers ask such as: What variety are these? What do they taste like? Were they ever sprayed? How would you cook them? Which is your favorite?

To be truly successful at a farmers’ market, it takes a lot of conscious thought, effort and planning. Conscientious farmer-marketers can certainly make it worthwhile in terms of profitability, as well as relationship marketing. Next time, we’ll talk about salesmanship and merchandising techniques that can also improve your success at farmers’ markets. Happy planning!

Resources for post-harvest handling
Postharvest Handling & Cooling of Fresh Fruits, Vegetables and Flowers for Small Farms – NC State
Produce Handling for Direct Marketing - MidWest Plan Service