Then again, maybe you’re on the wrong side of your weekly farmers’ market transaction. Who’s to say you’re not cut out to sell at your local farmers’ market?
You don’t have to till your own fields every spring or milk your own cows every morning to earn a spot at your local farmers’ market. All you need is a reliable source of fresh-grown produce, animal products, or value-added wares. If you have a backyard vegetable garden or urban farm lot, a small livestock operation, or safe means of producing value-added food or non-food products, you can support a farmers’ market stall. At least, in theory.
The reality is more complicated, but certainly not insurmountable for committed vendors. In this guide, we’ll examine:
- The types of vendors that farmers’ markets typically accept
- Vendors that typically perform well at farmers’ markets
- Finding and getting started at a local farmers’ market
- Tips and tricks to improve your farmers’ market experience (and earnings)
First up: determining whether you’re a good fit to sell at a farmers’ market.
Are You a Good Fit for a Farmers’ Market?
As I said, you don’t have to own or rent farmland to fit in at your local farmers’ market. A sizable, well-tended backyard garden or livestock operation, or (legal) foraging enterprise, is sufficient to sustain a low-volume stall throughout the season, yields permitting. If you make value-added products, such as preserved fruits and vegetables, prepared foods, or non-food crafts (market policies permitting), you’re on even sounder footing.
Every farmers’ market is different, but these broad product categories are both widely accepted by U.S. markets and relatively easy for small-scale sellers to procure:
- Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: The possibilities here are endless, at least insofar as your tillable square footage and local growing conditions support. Fresh vegetables popular with farmers’ market patrons include cooking greens, salad greens, radishes, carrots, summer squash, cruciferous vegetables, chives, and much more. Popular fruits include blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, apples, pears, peaches, melons, peppers, tomatoes, and rhubarb (technically a vegetable, but it’s really only edible in fruity jams). Climate permitting, citrus fruits, figs, dates, and more exotic produce work too.
- Fresh Animal Products: It’s easier than you think to raise chickens, rabbits, and other small livestock (goats, anyone?) at home. With patience and protective equipment, beekeeping is realistic too. The most popular small-farm animal product is the trusty chicken egg. Comfortable fowl should produce one egg per bird, per day, allowing for an off day here and there. Busy as they are, bees take longer to produce usable quantities of honey, but even a modest operation can throw off a few jars to supplement your income. Rabbits are only good for their meat and lawn-mowing abilities. True to form, they reproduce fast enough to keep regular customers happy, though your small backyard operation won’t supply enough meat to support a market stall on its own.
- Preserved or Durable Produce: Preserving fruits and vegetables is way easier than you think – I’ve done it multiple times, and I’m nobody’s idea of a good homemaker. (For comparison, it’s easier than brewing your own beer at home.) Or, sell durable produce that preserves itself over reasonable time frames: potatoes, gourds, turnips, rutabaga, and other root vegetables. In colder climates, these come in handy at markets that remain open through the winter holidays.
- Homemade Food Products: Licensing requirements vary by state and locality, but you can probably sell reasonable quantities of homemade value-added food products without getting bogged down in red tape. The sky’s the limit here: salsas, hot sauces, mustards, other condiments, pickles, seasonings, juices, teas, other nonalcoholic drinks, and a whole lot more.
- Prepared Foods: Again, licensing and inspection requirements may come into play here. Assuming you have some leeway, this category covers prepared food products that your customers will consume at the market or shortly after leaving: everything from relatively stable sweets like bars, cookies, and brownies; to more complex desserts, such as pies and cakes; to breakfast pastries and scones; to breads; to hot foods like burritos, savory pies, kebabs, stir-fries, and so on.
- Inedible Products: More comfortable tinkering away at the workbench than slaving over the stove or sweating it out in the backyard garden? While some markets are strictly food-only, most make allowances for non-food vendors (or vendors that sell a mix of edible and non-edible items), provided the non-edibles meet the same provenance standards as the edibles. If you’re crafty or creative, you can probably find a receptive audience at a nearby farmers’ market. Soaps, candles, knitted items, carved wood items, and visual media (such as postcards) do especially well.
Bear in mind that few if any markets hold vendors to one particular item or group of items. That wouldn’t be good for either party. Most markets group like vendors together, but there’s probably nothing stopping you from selling, say, bread and crafts at the same stall. Check with your market’s organizers to be sure, though.
Get Started at the Farmers’ Market: Step-by-Step Guide
This is a roughly linear guide to choosing a farmers’ market and preparing your stall. Depending on local ordinances and market policies, your experience may vary.
1. Determine What You’re Going to Sell
First, figure out what you’ll sell at your stall.
This consideration turns on multiple factors: your personal interests, what’s practical for you to grow or prepare given your resources, market policies and restrictions, and local ordinances that restrict or circumscribe sales of certain food products.
Selling What You Grow
You’ll want to begin this process several months before you plan to start at the farmers’ market. If you plan to sell produce or animal products from the land you own or rent in a community garden, you’ll need that time to plan your plots and set up your enclosures.
Space and climate permitting, plant fruits and vegetables that mature at different times of year to ensure that you’ll have a steady supply of produce throughout the market season. In colder climates, you may need to start early-season crops indoors, using artificial lights. This will increase your startup costs – see below. In warm climates, where farmers’ markets are more likely to run year-round, that may not be necessary.
You can guarantee a steady supply of salable wares throughout the season and boost your stall’s revenue by preserving some produce or making value-added products like salsa and jam. Neither is as hard as you might think.
Many farmers’ markets allow vendors to resell farm products that they don’t grow themselves. This is a great option for prospective vendors who lack the land, time, or talent necessary to raise their own crops.
To get started as a reseller, approach small growers in your area about purchasing their produce or animal products wholesale. Though many smaller growers have their own farmers’ market stalls, ad hoc wholesaling arrangements help reduce waste and pad margins, so you’ll likely find takers. If you’re not sure where to start, look up community garden organizations, cultural associations, and tribal or immigrants’ rights groups in your hometown. (In many major metro areas, recent immigrants and indigenous groups dominate suburban and exurban grower communities.)
2. Plan Your Stall and Make a Startup Budget
Like new apartments or office suites, farmers’ market stalls are basically blank slates. (Though there usually aren’t any permanent walls to knock down.) Market policies and pragmatism permitting, you can make yours your own.
Planning a farmers’ market stall isn’t quite as fun as decorating a new home. Consider:
- Stall Fee: Virtually every farmers’ market charges stall fees or rent, usually by the season or year. These fees aren’t excessive: Julia Misiego, member services coordinator at the Utah Farm Bureau, told me that markets in her state charge anywhere from just over $100 to about $600 per season, depending on the market’s popularity and location. (Upscale Park City, of Sundance Film Festival fame, hosts the most expensive market.) In major cities, such as San Francisco and New York, stall fees are likely to be more expensive (and stalls themselves more competitive).
- Tables and Seating: If not provided by market management, you’ll need a sturdy surface to display signage and samples. Some markets have high, permanent counters, but a folding banquet table will do in a pinch. You’ll also need chairs for you and everyone accompanying you, unless you have a pickup truck to back right up to your stall. Cost: $50 and up for a banquet table; $10 to $15 per folding chair
- Weather Protection: Some farmers’ market stalls come with wood or canvas roofs, but not all. If your stall is totally exposed to the elements, set up a portable tent or other form of weather protection during open hours, assuming market management is on board. Make sure your tent’s dimensions fit within your allotted space. Setting up a too-wide tent is a great way to alienate your new neighbors. Cost: Portable tent costs vary widely by size and material, but expect to pay at least $150 for a durable canvas enclosure
- Personnel: Most farmers’ markets are open at least four hours per week, typically from 8am or 9am to 12pm or 1pm Saturdays or Sundays. Some markets have longer hours or multiple open days. Even if your market’s hours are modest, you’ll probably want at least one partner to help with loading, unloading, transactions, and supervision if you have to run to the bathroom or find market management.
- Cold Storage: This is especially important if you’re selling animal products or prepared foods meant for immediate consumption. You’ll need at least one large cooler and plenty of ice or ice packs. For fresh-picked produce, cardboard boxes kept in shaded areas should be sufficient. Cost: $100 and up for a large cooler; $2 per 10-pound bag of ice
- Hot Storage: If you plan to sell hot prepared foods, you’ll need a way to keep your food out of the danger zone – above 140 degrees – throughout the day. For modest volumes, a couple slow cookers might suffice. For higher volumes, you’ll need a more elaborate buffet setup with portable burners. Cost: $50 and up for an 8-quart slow cooker; $200 and up for buffet trays with burners
- Cash Storage: While a traditional cash register isn’t necessary for the amount of business you’ll likely do at your stall, you’ll still need a lockbox for cash and change. Don’t forget to head to the bank to load up on small bills and coin rolls the day before market day. Cost: $25 and up for a basic cash box
- Carryout Bags: Many farmers’ market shoppers bring their own bags to the market, but you’ll want to accommodate those who turn up empty-handed. Small, sturdy paper gift bags with handles should be large enough to handle most purchases. Cost: $60 and up for a 250-count carton
- Credit Card Processing: These days, even farmers’ market vendors need to accept credit cards. Look into a credit card processing app, such as Square, which offers subscription- and per-transaction pricing for its mobile processing services. No plug or wiring needed – the stripe-and-chip reader (essential for EMV credit cards) attaches right to your phone or tablet. Emailed credit card receipts are great for announcing upcoming events and directing customers to your website. Cost: Variable, but generally less than 3% per transaction; readers are usually free
- Printed Collateral: This includes signage (described in more detail below), paper slips with your contact and website information, flyers announcing events at your farm, order sheets listing inventory available for purchase by mail or online, and labels or ingredient lists (if required by your market or local authorities). Cost: Negligible if printed at home
3. Secure All Necessary Permits and Licenses
Before you sell a single item at the farmers’ market, you’ll need to get right with the law. Start by contacting your target market’s management team and asking what permits or licenses you’ll need to sell legally.
Many jurisdictions, but not all, require prepared or processed food vendors to acquire seasonal food permits and submit to periodic health inspections. Unprocessed food vendors – those selling raw produce – are generally subject to less stringent requirements than processed or prepared food vendors. In Utah, unprocessed food vendors aren’t required to register with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, for instance, though they’re still bound by local health ordinances. Most jurisdictions have similar “product of the farm” exceptions: If you grow it yourself or buy it from the grower, and don’t alter it in any meaningful way, you can sell it with much less red tape.
If you do need to register with a state or local authority, you’ll fill out an application form, pay a nominal fee, and submit to any required facilities inspections (for instance, your commercial or home kitchen). You may need to obtain a food safety certification too, at additional expense. (The National Restaurant Association’s certification arm is ServSafe, but your locality may require another course.) The certification process typically takes a half- or full day, with a written examination at the end.
Most farmers’ markets also require value-added vendors to carry liability insurance policies, which can significantly add to the cost of doing business. Bare-bones policies for cottage vendors (gross sales under $200,000 annually) start at $299 per year, per FLIProgram. If you do plan to sell prepared or value-added products at the farmers’ market, you’ll probably want to offset this cost by producing in sufficient volume to sell online or in stores.
Finally, you may want to set up a formal legal structure for your business, particularly if you plan to sell prepared or value-added foods outside the farmers’ market. Wrapping your enterprise in an LLC or S-corp provides additional legal protection and may come with tax benefits too.
4. Confirm That You Meet Target Markets’ Selection Criteria
Double-check that you meet your target market’s vendor criteria.
Some markets strictly prohibit resellers or value-added product vendors, for instance. Others impose stringent local sourcing restrictions that may interfere with your plans to resell far-flung produce. These policies might seem tough, but they exist for a good reason: to support real farmers.
On the other hand, some markets are really lenient. They aim to support small businesspeople in general, not just growers. When in doubt, check with market management.
5. Get Your Spot at the Market
Next, secure your spot at the market. Popular farmers’ markets often have waiting lists, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get your first choice your first year in business. You may need to compromise on location, perhaps opting for that out-of-the-way suburban market until the plum downtown spot opens up. Don’t worry: People patronize outlying markets too, or else they wouldn’t be in business.
To maximize your chances of getting your first or second choice, contact market operators as early as possible, well before the season begins. Worst case scenario: You get on next year’s waiting list before all the latecomers.
6. Devise a System for Getting Your Produce or Value-Added Products to Market
Determine how you’ll get your wares to the market each week.
If you’re selling produce grown in your backyard plot, this might be as simple as harvesting and packing your produce the evening before market day. If you’re reselling produce from other farmers, you’ll need to invest more time and effort – and road miles – to obtain your inventory. If you’re selling value-added products that require some sort of transformation (cooking, preserving) before they’re ready for consumption, your considerations will be more complex still.
Depending on the nature of your enterprise, you’ll need:
- Suitable Packaging: For fresh produce, wax-lined cardboard boxes work well. Expect to pay at least $0.50 apiece, with the best pricing on bulk orders of 100 or more. (To cut ongoing costs, reuse these boxes as much as possible.) Paper bags can work in a pinch, or as vehicles for bulk sales (for instance, mini-bushels of apples). For sensitive produce, such as fresh berries, use wax-lined or corrugated pint- or quart berry boxes. Expect to pay $3 to $5 per 25-count order. Specialty items may require specialty containers: quart or gallon jugs, 12- or 18-egg crates, and so on.
- Reliable Transportation: Sedans or hatchbacks might work fine for small sellers: just put down the back seat and stuff the cabin to the gills. If your setup is more cumbersome, or you need to transport bulky items, such as tables and chairs, you’ll either need to make multiple trips (starting very early in the morning and wasting fuel) or get a bigger ride. Buying a used pickup truck is probably overkill unless you plan to turn your market enterprise into a full-time business or have other legitimate uses for the vehicle. If you know someone who owns a truck that they don’t use on the weekends, now might be a good time to get on their good side.
- Approved Production Facilities: State or local regulations may compel you to produce value-added or prepared food products at licensed or inspected facilities, such as commercial kitchens. Smaller operations can often skate by in home kitchens, though they may still be subject to periodic health inspections. Renting commercial kitchen space adds cost and complexity to your endeavor, so look at it as an investment in your hobby’s future (and a prelude to setting up a legit at-home food products business or food truck). FLIProgram has a good primer on evaluating and renting commercial kitchen space.
7. Create and Place Approved Signage
Lastly, make sure your stall is eye-catching. Check with market management for guidance on approved dimensions, colors, materials, and any other notable restrictions. If you have good handwriting, the easiest and cheapest option for listing subject-to-change wares is a whiteboard. If your selection doesn’t vary much from week to week, print a banner listing prices and items.
Tips & Tricks to Get the Most Out of Your Market Stall
Try these tips and tricks to get more out of your farmers’ market stall – and, if you’re up for the challenge, to turn your green thumb or culinary skill into a year-round business:
- Understand the Market’s Clientele and Vendors. Every farmers’ market is different. Before settling on a market, spend a couple hours at each candidate location. Take note of the clientele and vendors: Who’s buying and selling? Do you fit in? Do your products? Can you see yourself turning a profit – or at least moving product – on a consistent basis?
- Understand the Market’s Regulations. Study each candidate market’s rules and regulations. Confirm that your inventory is acceptable. Remember, many markets prohibit resold produce, value-added products, and non-edible goods.
- Promote Your Stall Through Multiple Channels. Once you settle on a location, but well before your first market day, start promoting your stall. Set up a website, if your home-based produce or prepared foods business doesn’t already have one. Turn up your social media presence, taking care to always follow social media etiquette best practices. Recruit influential friends, family, and colleagues to take part in a local word of mouth marketing effort.
- Don’t Misrepresent Yourself or Your Products. If certain markets won’t accept the products you plan to sell, so be it. Lying about their provenance risks more than a premature end to your selling season. In a tight-knit grower community, it could seriously set back your reputation. If you didn’t grow or make it yourself, don’t say you did.
- Differentiate Your Selection. Successful farmers’ market vendors tend to be unique or memorable. You don’t have to sell every type of produce under the sun, or make the weirdest varieties of salsa you can dream up in the wee hours. But you don’t want to be the umpteenth produce vendor running through the seasonal kale-salad-tomato-squash cycle. Throw out some curveballs, such as lesser-known produce items. (Ever heard of tomatillos? Okay, what about ground-cherries? There’s more variety out there than you think.) Or stick to a specialty that few if any other vendors offer: perhaps a time-honored family recipe.
- Consider Value-Added Products. Value-added means more value. It’s right there in the name. While you’ll have to invest more time, paperwork, and startup capital in a home- or commercial kitchen-based value-add operation, you’ll pull in a lot more revenue on the back end. You’d rather sell a 4-ounce jar of raspberry preserves for $7 than a pint of fresh berries for $2, right? And those preserves last a lot longer than their just-picked, already-soft progenitors. Again, planning is key: To scale your value-added business, you’ll probably need to supplement with store-bought or wholesale ingredients, which may be against your chosen market’s regulations. Do your due diligence and adjust your plans accordingly.
- Be Prepared for Health Inspections. Like death and taxes, health inspections are inevitable – at least, for foodservice businesses. Expect the health inspector to show up at your farmers’ market at least once per year. Inspectors visit the Utah Farm Bureau’s markets twice per year, Misiego told me. However often they come, be ready when they do. Make sure your licenses and foodservice certifications are up to date, and be sure you’re abiding by any local food safety regulations. Don’t cut corners, however tempting the prospect may be.
- Start With a Limited Inventory and Build From There. Control startup costs and waste by limiting your initial inventory to a few well-worn products. If you’re selling out of your own backyard or community plot, this will happen by necessity anyway. Without non-wasteful recourse, such as a food bank or soup kitchen willing to take your leftovers, it’s better to run out and close up an hour early than throw out half your starting inventory.
- Stay on Top of Licensing and Insurance Requirements. It’s not just for the health inspector. Your market’s reputation is on the line too. Make sure you’re carrying the minimum required levels of insurance on a current policy, that your operator license (if necessary) is current, and that you’ve obtained or renewed all necessary food safety certifications. If market management finds you in violation of any market policies or local ordinances, you will be shown the door.
- Stay in Your Neighbors’ Good Graces. Make friends with your stall-mates. You never know when you’ll need their help, and they yours. You can show you’re in it for the long haul by helping set up or take down an adjoining stall on your first day at the market.
- Advertise Other Sales Channels at Your Stall. Your stall is a weekly billboard for your food business. Treat it like one! Use printed material, such as flyers or koozies, to advertise other sales channels: your website, your Amazon or Etsy portal, your pop-up store, your brick-and-mortar store (if you have one). The more sales you close outside weekly market hours, the less you’ll have to rely on your stall.
- Have a Year-Round Plan. Keep the momentum up, even when the market is down for the season. If you sell shelf-stable or non-edible items, look for winter or holiday markets that operate well into the cold months. Or just use the off-season to develop your non-market sales channels.
For many small-time farmers’ market vendors, running a stall for a few hours per week is a modest income-producing hobby. There’s no shame at all in staying lean and doing your small part to freshen up a few dozen marketgoers’ diets.
But maybe that’s not enough. For some ambitious culinary entrepreneurs, a farmers’ market stall is but one arrow in a brimming quiver of fruitful sales channels. If you have a knack for turning fresh produce into something more, or enough land to supply a thriving market garden, or any other talent or resources suitable for public consumption, your local farmers’ market could be your ticket to a profitable side business – or a full-time enterprise.
Turning your hobby into something profitable enough to quit your day job for isn’t easy. You’ll need a business plan, suitable licenses and certifications, tax help, marketing assistance, and a lot more. But it’s definitely doable. With luck, perhaps you’ll look back on your first farmers’ market stall as the opening chapter in the entrepreneurial book you were always meant to write.
Are you thinking about opening a farmers’ market stall?