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TOP STORY, June 27, 2017

Group seeks a better way to do farmers’ markets

 

By WHITNEY PIPKIN
AFP Correspondent


Can you make a living selling at farmers’ markets? Yes, says the Maryland Farmers’ Market Association, but it’s not as easy as setting up a stand and selling out.
Helping producers navigate the unique economics of selling at farmers markets is a goal of the organization, which recently issued a new guide to that end.
“People who don’t know about farmers’ markets think it’s this spontaneous community and everyone just shows up and sets up a stand,” said Juliet Glass, the association’s external relations coordinator. “But farmers markets are a lifestyle choice. You’re going to spend a lot of time off the farm and money to do direct marketing.”
Glass, who worked with FRESHFARM Markets in Washington, D.C., for seven years before joining the Maryland nonprofit this spring, said the guide is a compilation of so many resources she’s used to help farmers over the years.
It contains worksheets to help compute the cost of attending a nearby market with less foot traffic versus a popular market in a faraway urban area and tips for how to increase sales at the market with better signs and product placement.
Beyond the guide, the association aims to go further to provide farmers interested in this type of retail with the technical support they need to make the most of their markets or to tap into funding for market-specific resources. She also consults with farmers who want to expand their market presence or break into the bigger, more popular regions for selling.
A few of her tips: Though everyone wants to sell at the biggest Saturday market, most have to start at smaller markets and work their way up by showing up consistently and paying fees on time. Producers selling dairy, bread or meat are at an advantage breaking into better markets, since most have a harder time finding those products to round out their offerings. But there’s plenty vegetable growers can do to get a leg up on the competition, such as displaying their produce in tiers and selling value-added products that can round out their offerings during produce slumps in the season.
More organizations like the Maryland association are cropping up in the region to provide support not only for farmers and market managers but also for shoppers who are eager to support their local markets. Glass said these umbrella organizations can help markets apply for federal or state funding that’s specific to this type of direct marketing for local products.
“Most small markets don’t have the capacity to apply for federal funding or spend time working through red tape to get equipment that might be free,” she said. “We can make all that more accommodating to people.”
The Virginia Farmers Market Association launched late last year to provide many of those same resources to residents and markets in the commonwealth.
Glass has logged plenty of hours at area farmers’ markets and says they are as diverse as a set of kindergarteners on the first day of school:
Some are mature beyond their years, with sophisticated websites and signs, while others look unprepared and thrown together at the last minute.
All markets benefit as this now-established breed of retail improves its practices and continues to mature into a viable alternative to grocery store shopping.
For farmers’ market enthusiasts, Glass is working on a seasonal shopping list that will help them know what is in season before they arrive at the market and plan their shopping lists accordingly.
“Thinking about what the barriers are, people don’t know what they’re going to find,” she said. “If they do know ahead of time, it’s easier to plan meals” and to do the bulk of food buying there.
Glass worries that recent developments like Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods Markets could have an outsized effect on farmers’ market as major retailers become more sophisticated at predicting and even delivering on customer’s desires. That makes her organization’s work more important than ever.
The farmers’ market guide is available at bit.ly/guideforfarmers.