Markets with low fees may not have appropriate staff, advertising

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

Farmers wishing to tap into the growth industry that is the local farmers' market should do a little homework before signing up, experts say.

Participants can maximize their returns by finding a well-established market with a staff and a reputation for providing a wide variety of goods, said Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition in Martinsburg, W.Va.

"What's neat about farmers' markets is they are inherently grass roots, and they're very different and unique," Miller said. "Sometimes they're managed by a city or a nonprofit (organization) or a group of vendors themselves. So in any scenario I think it's safe to say that what leads to success is a sense of cooperation among the farmers who have the interest of the market overall and not just their own interest at heart."

The best markets, she said, recognize that consumers like choice, and they're more likely to spend money overall if they can select from a number of vendors having similar product categories. Some markets have outreach programs that provide food to seniors or low-income people, she said.

To do this, the market has to have enough financial resources to hire staff to run the programs and train the vendors, she said. Vendors may find low fees enticing, but they could actually be a red flag, she said.

"What that means is, where are they getting any income to pay for any sort of advertising?" Miller said. "How is the manager going to be doing? How are they going to have the resources to do what needs to be done to get customers there?

A market doesn't need to be in a major metropolitan area to take off, she said. But location is important. Studies have shown that too many markets in one area can be a drag on sales, as can the lack of a paid manager or selling criteria that prevent suspicion among farmers, she said.

Small farmers might also want to limit their appearances at markets to two a week, giving them time to do two harvests, Miller said.

Full Circle Farms near Seattle, which has about 150 employees, visits about 25 farmers' markets throughout the Puget Sound region. Owner Andrew Stout agrees that new participants should avoid markets that are barely surviving on shoestring budgets.

"It's easier to start a market than it is to start a whole bunch of farms," Stout said. "Still, there's a benefit to the grower to find a market developed in a neighborhood that's got a dedicated base that's inviting it in there. There's an impetus and a reason the market is being developed."

Perhaps the most important thing for new participants to do, Stout said, is to listen and interact with their customers.

"I think the market is there to help and teach," he said. "I think you've got to show up and you've got to really present yourself and your story. Sitting back and being passive at the market is not why customers are there. They want to have interaction and they want to have the feeling of what they got.

"They're not just there to shop on a bargain," he said. "You have to want to be a marketer. If you're simply a grower, sometimes the markets are the hardest thing to do, to wake up and say hello and hello."

Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: thearden@capitalpress.com.

       

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