Preparing For Market
Take A Few Farmers Market Tips From An Experienced Vendor
By Alexis Griffee
Many farmers have perfected their trade on the farm, yet have no formal training or experience in how to market themselves or their farms to the public. One of the most accessible ways for a farmer to get their product to the public is through farmers markets. Across the nation, farmers markets are increasing in popularity and allow small farmers a rare opportunity to truly make a successful business out of what they love.
With the rise of markets also comes the rise of competition from other small farmers. It can be a challenge to market yourself and your products without formal training or assistance. Farmers are finding themselves thrust into a new and confusing aspect of farming that they weren’t prepared for. There are several keys to success, and failure with being a vendor at a farmers market, make sure that your farm is on track!
PICK A NAME
Probably the most important choice when you are planning to begin a market is creating your farm name. Although one of the first steps in marketing your farm, this one can be the hardest to accomplish. When naming your farm, the first thing that you need to do is verify that there aren’t any other farms with that name, at least in your local area, already. You do not want to leave your customers wondering which “Jones’s Farm” they got their products from. To take this a step further, look online for any farms with the same name. If a quick online search generates pages of farms with the same name, then maybe you should consider a different name. Aside from leading to confusion for the customer, this can create a logistical nightmare if or when you decide to create a webpage for your products.
CREATE A BUDGET
Most farms are operated on a limited budget. This is especially true when it comes to things like advertising and market displays. Many advertising items like banners and business cards can be purchased very inexpensively through various online websites. This is a great way to get your farm name out to the general public. Additionally, many websites hold sales that work out even cheaper than printing your own cards at home. Other free options like social media can be great ways to advertise your farm and also engage your customers. If you use social media as an advertising venue, be sure to update your page frequently, add photographs and even tell a bit about your farm family. To many customers, “knowing” their farmer is very important and it also breeds more loyalty. There are numerous creative and affordable ways to advertise your farm.
Vendors at the Santa Fe Farmers Market sell their wares in 2015. Photos by Ryan Slabaugh.
SET A PRICE
In an attempt to gain sales, many people are tempted to try and undercut the competition. Never undervalue your work or your product! Aside from the expense that a farmer invests, time is their greatest investment. Additionally, this tactic may start a “price war” with other vendors. To combat your lowered prices, they may lower their prices as well. Obviously, that is not a trend conducive to any profit. There is no need to see other farmers as competition. Go to the other farmers, introduce yourself and work on pricing together as a group. Setting a fair price will ensure that you all get paid what you need and that the customer isn’t put out by paying too much. Market research is vital to any business venture, even large corporations do it. A really low priced product can send the message that your items are subpar.
Another tip regarding pricing is to always round to the half or whole dollar. Big bargain stores price things with odd numbers in an attempt to convey the message that the product is a deal. Market goers aren’t looking for deals; they are looking for a market experience and quality. Pricing items like that will lead to customer frustration as they have to either find change or get change back. Additionally, there are free ways to accept credit and debit cards on a tablet or smart phone. However, those services do charge a small processing fee for each charge. It is great to have the option to accept credit and debit, but you always want to encourage your customers to pay with cash to save you the processing fees. A customer is more apt to pay cash if their total comes out to a rounded amount.
The old adage goes, “If your work is something that you love, then you will never work a day in our life.” For the most part, there is complete truth in that statement. However, overextending yourself can bring on exhaustion and make you resent your work and ultimately, what you love. One of the biggest mistakes that I have witnessed through other farmers is burn out. Do not overextend yourself either by commitment or growing too fast. It is okay to say no to a market!
Right now there is a huge movement in America to support local farmers and to know where your food comes from. This is a great movement and is long overdue, but it also has a great variety of farmers markets popping up all over. As a vendor myself, I get at least one request to come sell at a new market each week. Sometimes there is no scheduling conflict so I could realistically work out to attend markets four days a week. It is tempting to be lured by the possible income that I could get each day, but you have to evaluate your time and what you would have to give up to make a commitment to all of those markets. Personally, upon reviewing these markets I found that I would have to give up some of the limited, and only time that my family could be together. I had to weigh the options and saw that going to that particular market would place a burden on my family that I simply could not justify. Could I do them all? Yes, but how long would it take before my over-scheduling would burden my family, myself, and lead to resentment? In the end, I am going to work two and occasionally a third market. For my family this is a balance that we are comfortable with. The minute that you over-commit yourself so the markets become a burden is exactly when the work starts and the love leaves. You feel the burden, so does your family, and especially your customers.
As with any business, farming is a balancing act. In line with burnout from overextending yourself is growing too fast. I have witnessed farmers feel the boom of success and charge into expanding their operation all without a complete business plan. We have personally seen a farmer that experienced great success with two dairy cows. The milk was always sold out and people seemed to want more. Instead of slowly growing, and planning for excess milk during lean times, they charged head first into the expansion business and added four new cows. They are now dumping their product and taking losses. Any business requires the taking of risks, and farming is no different, but generally speaking, you should always have a back up plan! For example, this farmer could have easily invested in a couple of hogs or calves to feed the excess milk to instead of literally dumping their income down the drain. They then could have sold those animals later or kept them to feed their own family. Necessity is the mother of invention and in business, this is no exception. If something is not working, reconfigure your plans and make it work. Never be satisfied with loss.
FOCUS ON SERVICE
One of the greatest appeals of farming is the fact that you are your own boss. While that is true to a certain extent, farmers that sell at markets do not have one boss, but many. Without our customers, we would have no reason or the finances to farm and live the life that we love. By selling at a market we are subject to our customers and we need to make sure that we do what we can to keep them happy! As with anything in life, there will be customers that you like, some that you don’t, some that ask annoying questions, or some that treat you as if you’re simply an extension of a grocery store.
No matter what, the single most important thing about selling at a farmers market is how you treat your customers. It doesn’t matter if you have the fanciest booth or the nicest packaging if you do not respect the market goers. I have seen it several times; there will be two farmers with identical products at a market. One farmer is standing up, smiling and engaging every customer that walks by, maintaining eye contact and giving them the opportunity to “know their farmer.” In the meantime, the other vendor sits down, plays on their phone, looks bored or ignores the customers when they walk by. Every time that I have seen this scenario play out, the customer will walk past the unengaging vendor to buy from the warm and friendly one. Even if the friendly vendor’s products cost more or their booth is “drab,” their personality does their advertising and gets them the sale.
In line with the need to cater to your customer base is the need for respect. Just as you would want others to respect you, we need to respect our customers. Agricultural and farmers market communities are very small, tight knit and word travels fast. Markets can be hotbeds for gossip. Whether the gossip is about a customer, another vendor or another market, just stay out of it all! Not only is it a good practice to avoid gossip in general, but you really do not want to be overheard speaking poorly about someone—especially a customer. “Loose lips sink ships” applies to a business as much as it does the military. Do not sink your reputation by entering into the gossip trap. A good word of advice, someone that gossips about others may one day gossip about you. Keep yourself, and your business out of other people’s affairs. Your reputation can make or break you in markets.
Items at markets usually command a premium price. Generally speaking, customers are more than happy to pay it because they not only want to support local agriculture but also want a premium product. Customers expect quality at markets and are willing to pay for it. Farmers know that farming is not a cheap endeavor. It is nice to have people truly value the efforts of the farmers. However, high prices have also lured people into using word play with their customers. Grass fed meat and dairy is all the rage right now and those items command a high price. There is a disturbing trend among some producers to tout their products as “grass fed.” I spoke with one farmer who was stating that their animals were grass fed, and I knew that he supplemented with grain and minerals. When questioned, he replied with a wink, “yes but they do eat grass during the day so they are grass fed. They never specifically asked if I fed them grain.”
This farmer was leading his customers to think that his animals were raised solely on pasture. Being truthful about your product goes in line with having respect for your customers. I have also seen a rise in this with honey sellers. People buy bulk honey from other beekeepers, sometimes in other states, and then sell it to the customer. This is also common with small items like honey sticks which are generally ordered in bulk from a national company. While this is fine, what is not fine is the practice of letting the customer believe that it is from the beekeepers own hives. While many customers are educated on the proper questions to ask their producers, many simply do not know. We should never take advantage of a customer’s lack of knowledge on any item. Educating our customers on quality not only shows that you value them enough to care to address them, but also leads to a lasting relationship. However, you should never speak negatively of another farmer or vendor; simply educate the customer on your own practices.
The rise of farmers markets is a great thing for farmers and small business owners across the nation. Markets allow everyday people to be proactive and in charge of their own sales, financials and future. However, being a vendor at a market does come with responsibility and its own set of challenges. It is up to us to keep up the momentum of the movement. If we stay creative, proactive, and honorable, the American small farms will rightfully rise again.
Alexis Griffee lives in Florida.