The Hidden Costs of Selling at Farmers Markets

BerriesFarmers markets are great for shoppers — who get to buy fresh, delicious foods and support local farmers — and for farmers and food producers—who get to sell lots of product, make more profit, meet their customers, and build their brands.

As a shopper, however, sometimes schlepping stuff back from the market on the subway, the crowds, and especially, the prices keep me away. As much as I want to support small farmers and food producers, sometimes it’s hard to justify paying a lot extra for locally made jam.

Last week, I had the opportunity to hear the vendors’ perspective about selling at farmers markets. I went to a workshop for prospective vendors at Jamaica Plain’s own Crop Circle Kitchen, Boston’s only shared used use kitchen and culinary business incubator where food entrepreneurs, caterers, and food trucks prepare local delicacies. After hearing about what they go through, I’m surprised that anyone wants to sell at farmers markets!

Here’s what vendors were told to do if they want to be successful selling their wares to us shoppers.

David Webber, Farmers Market Program Coordinator at the Mass. Dept. of Agricultural Resources, suggested that potential vendors evaluate the time, cost, and logistics of participation. Will their product still be appealing, healthy, and safe after being outdoors for hours?

Then, they have to contend with local rules and regulations. Each local Board of Health has its own requirements.

Webber also suggested that vendors look at the demographics where the markets are located, visit potential markets and find out if they’re busy and attractive, and check out whether the market is well advertised and promoted.

Getting into the most successful and well-established markets can be competitive. The Brookline Farmers’ Market, which runs every Thursday, 1:30 pm to dusk, from mid-June through the end of October, has been around since the late ’70s and draws 2,000 shoppers on a sunny day.  Arlene Flowers, who’s been managing the market since 1994, stated that only one of their regular vendors has turned over since 2000.

Even once they’re in a market, vendors have to experiment to figure out what products sell best. Products may be popular at one market and bomb at another, depending on local habits, income levels, and commuting patterns. Nella Pasta, which sells its frozen ravioli (made with local ingredients often purchased at the markets) at 15 local farmers markets, keeps records of what sells best at each market, so they can prepare accordingly.

Participating in markets can be expensive, too. In addition to paying the market a weekly fee, vendors must apply for health department permits for each town. In addition, some markets want vendors to add them to their insurance, and insurance companies may require vendors to pay every time they add a new market. Vendors also need to budget for waste and spoilage.

Vendors also have to be prepared to show up, rain or shine. Farmers markets run on schedule, regardless of the weather. When vendors don’t show up, the shoppers who brave the weather are disappointed, and market managers won’t be pleased. Tents and display materials get battered by wind and rain, as well as ordinary wear and tear.

Finally, the markets are a ton of work for the vendors and staff.  Think of all the products and equipment that have to be loaded and unloaded, and set up and taken down for each market, not to mention all the standing, sampling and smiling. Whew!

Despite these challenges, more and more farmers markets get started each season, vendors keep applying to sell, and shoppers keep flocking to them.

As for me, I can’t wait until the various “opening days” of all the great markets in Massachusetts I frequent.  But this year, I’ll be a little more aware of what’s happening on the other side of the table.



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