American consumers love a good farmers market: The succulent fruits and vegetables. The tempting sights, sounds, and smells. The feeling of rubbing shoulders with neighbors and coming home with delicious, organic goods at reasonable prices.
For small-business owners, farmers markets also provide relatively easy and affordable opportunities to generate new income streams, test new products, and even prove new business concepts with minimal risk.
Perhaps this is why the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has grown from 1,755 in 1994, according to the USDA, to more than 7,864 in 2012.
Room for Newcomers
Although the industry is growing, there’s still plenty of room for newcomers in many cities. Farmers markets are far less rigid and stable than they may appear. Established vendors drop out regularly, and market managers – like this one in North Carolina – tend to be eager to find new vendors to fill their spots.
What’s more, it’s no longer necessary to be a farmer (i.e., produce your own fruits, vegetables, or meats) to become a market vendor. Many markets allow vendors to sell prepared foods, arts and crafts, clothing, and even manufactured products like solar panels and heat pumps.
Whether your business is a startup, expanding into new markets, or developing new products, participating in one or more farmers markets lets you ramp up operations without the heavy expenses and long-term commitments usually associated with more traditional ways of doing business.
Obstacles and Opportunities
But getting into a farmers market usually takes more than asking the manager. Consider that, in many cases:
- Even if you can qualify as a vendor, the market you’re eyeing may be considered “full,” forcing you to wait for someone to drop out before you can start selling.
- You may need to comply with state and local laws, health department certifications, insurance regulations, business license requirements, and individual market rules and conventions. Expect to be told exactly how you may operate, including producing your items for sale, packaging and labeling them, ensuring customer safety, and even giving out samples.
- You’ll need a suitable sales booth, an attractive sign, some way to take money and/or charge cards, plus the usual business cards, bags or boxes, literature, etc.
- Operating costs are usually lower than a retail storefront, but higher than street vending. For example, many farmers markets charge vendors a flat fee ($20 to $100 per day, and much higher in some markets) and sometimes an additional percentage of sales (5 percent and up).
Yet profits can readily be obtained. Depending on location, many farmers market vendors say they pocket anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars in a single day.
Because all farmers markets are local, the rules generally differ from one to another. To find out how you can qualify to sell at the market(s) of your choice, start by talking with the market manager or “master,” who generally drifts around, keeping busy and calling the shots. Any vendor can point out this person to you.
Introduce yourself and ask about the market’s rules and procedures. Find out which vendors are already working that market, and how much you’ll be asked to pay to participate. Be prepared to answer questions about:
- Your history of compliance with applicable state, local, and other regulations.
- Your experience selling goods at farmers markets and other venues.
- The personnel who will work your booth at the market.
- Your willingness to commit to the market for a minimum number of weeks or months.
- Your qualifications and standards as a producer. The acceptable minimums will vary not only with the market, but with the product you’ll be selling.
Ready, Set, Go!
Once you qualify as a vendor at a farmers market, you pay a small fee, set up your booth, and get instant access to public feedback on the market appeal of your products and services, packaging, pricing, prospects, and more.
Based on customer input, you can vary your offerings — dropping the price, bundling two or more items together, changing your sales pitch, and so forth — until you find the “sweet spot” for selling at any particular location.