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What is the goal of your urban farm or homestead? Is it simply to provide your family with affordable, nutritious food, or do you long for something more, like providing additional income for your family?
If you want to turn your urban garden into a business, selling at a local farmers’market can be a viable option for the urban farmer. Aside from producing extra income, selling extra produce or other farm goods at the farmers’market can provide other benefits. Market farming can provide an easy way to meet new customers for direct sales and connect you to a network of other farmers who may provide valuable insight into operating a farm business.
How to Join A Farmers’Market
The process of joining a farmers market can be overwhelming. States have different laws and regulations governing farmers’markets and the farms that participate in them. Each market has different rules and processes for joining the market. Here are some steps to better help you navigate joining your local farmer’s market.
1. Evaluate your urban farm production.
Sure, you might have a few extra zucchini to give away to neighbors in the height of summer, but is your garden or farm really capable of producing enough food to sell each week at the market? How much space do you have available to you for market farming? Could you lease an additional urban lot or share space with a neighbor? (Keep in mind that farmers’markets may have guidelines on where your farm products are grown to meet their production policies.)
A good rule of thumb is to think of how much you would need to make for the market to be profitable for you and your time. For example, if you would like to make $50 a week from your urban farm, then consider how it would be possible for you to grow at least $50 in extra produce each week. (Be sure to include the added expenses associated with the market in your calculations: market fees; purchase of market supplies, such as tables and packaging; mileage; and the value of your time spent at market.)
2. Verify that you are able to use your property for commercial farming.
The last thing you want is to invest time and money into growing a huge garden only to find that there is some roadblock to selling what you have grown on your property. While this is less of a problem in rural areas, urban farmers must be especially aware of land use. If you are renting, check with your landlord to ensure market farming is an acceptable use of your space. If you live in a neighborhood with strict homeowner’s association rules, review the policies to make sure your new project will not cause problems. City ordinances on farming, especially when animals are involved, can change your business plan, too.
3. Check certifications with your state agriculture department of agriculture.
Laws vary from state to state, so it is important to know what you will need to be legal. Especially if you plan on selling any sort of processed goods, such as jams or jellies, the proper certifications are necessary before you start making direct sales.
4. Visit local markets to find a good fit.
Is there a niche you could fill that is not covered by the other vendors? Unique items, such as mushrooms or microgreens, might be a more viable income opportunity for the limited space of your urban farm. Many markets, especially large ones, might have a waiting list for new vendors. You could plan to join a smaller market this year while waiting for a space to open up at a larger market. (You might also be able to join a larger market on a slower day, such as the midweek market rather than the weekend market.)
5. Review market membership guidelines.
Expect to fill out an application, pay a fee, and possibly have a farm inspection before joining a farmers’ market. (Don’t stress about the inspection part, in most cases, market managers are just looking to see that you’re a legitimate operation that is doing what you say you are.) It is best to make this contact before the market season begins, as market staff often become very busy at the beginning of the market season. Be polite and courteous to market staff—your attitude will go along way to helping you get into the market that you want.
6. Submit application and any necessary paperwork.
In your application, be completely forthcoming about your farm business. Don’t lie or misrepresent what you’re doing, as many markets may include farm inspections as part of joining a market. In some cases, especially if there are complaints, a market may vote to enact farm inspections mid-season, so always assume that there is a chance you could get inspected.
When you submit your application, it is okay to ask how long you should expect to wait until you hear on the market’s decision. Some markets may simply process your application and approve it. Others may need a board vote to allow you to join the market. Be patient and optimistic. If your application is not approved for this year, ask what you could do to be able to join next year, perhaps by growing a different product. If market space is an issue, ask if you can be waitlisted.
8. Gather your supplies.
If your application is approved, allow yourself plenty of time before the market season starts to gather what you need for your market booth. Check with market staff to see what supplies you are required to have, but typically plan on a tent, tables, pricing signage, and packaging for your vegetables. You will also need a cash box, plenty of change, and if you plan on selling produce by the pound, a certified scale.
9. Consider purchasing product liability insurance for your market booth.
Some markets require individual vendors to have their own liability insurance, but even if they don’t, you might consider it. Product liability insurance protects you in the event that someone is injured (or claims to be) from consuming your farm goods.
How to Succeed at Market
Now that you have joined a farmers’ market, follow these tips to ensure a successful experience.
Be kind, courteous, and respectful to customers. Maybe it should go without saying, but if you place an emphasis on treating your customers well, it will put your new business on the path to success.
Track profitability. Transitioning from farming as a hobby to a business can be challenging because your mindset must change. You can’t just grow 500 pounds of okra because it’s your favorite vegetable. Keep track of what sells well at market and what doesn’t, as well as production costs. Otherwise, you can find yourself quickly losing money and letting good produce go to waste because no one is buying.
Keep the customers you meet. Develop long-term relationships with customers by starting an email list and Facebook page and updating them frequently. A Facebook page is a great way to share pictures of your urban farm and garden, allowing customers to see what you are up to.
Sample, sample, sample. Providing product samples is a great way to attract attention and get interest in your products. Especially if you are growing unique or heirloom varieties, folks love to try before they buy. In some states, you might need to obtain a specific permit to provide prepared product samples, so check with your extension agent or market manager first.
Go digital. One way to quickly set you apart from market competitors is to accept more than cash. If you have a smartphone, you can easily set up to accept credit card transactions for a small fee (usually under 3 percent) from companies like Square or Paypal.
Experiment. If you find that your market experience is not as profitable as you had hoped, don’t be afraid to change things up. Perhaps customers want to buy something different than what you had hoped. The more variety you bring to your farmers’market booth, the higher probability you have that someone will find something they’re interested in!
Joining a farmers’market can be a good way to supplement your income as an urban farmer—or at least help recoup all the money you have invested in your farm! Don’t be afraid to give it a try, at least for one season, and see if it is a good fit for you.
About the Author: Jamie Aramini is a freelance writer and founder of Sustainable Kentucky, a website devoted to the green movement in the Bluegrass state. She is an avid gardener, mother of two and manager of her local farmers’ market.