Car, Pickup, Van or Truck
Is your vehicle large enough? This is a major consideration, for not only will you
have your produce and the containers you intend to display it in, but you'll also need
tables or some kind of structure to keep your displayed food 6" off the ground (it's the
law). Don't forget a sign with your name, address and phone, and maybe a chair to sit
in. Practice packing before you actually are about to head out to market.
How will you be displaying your produce? Some people use leftover produce or banana
boxes from the local supermarkets; these may not hold up well in damp conditions and
don't look especially attractive to potential cusotmers. Used wooden boxes such as apple
boxes or grape lugs can be painted to make an attractive display. Baskets can be
purchased in bushel, half-bushel, peck and half-peck sizes. Unpainted wood stays wet and
cool longer when watered than painted wood or plastic. Remember to bring all sizes of
baskets and containers, as this helps keep your display looking full. Display containers
should blend well with and enhance your produce's appearance, not steal attention from
it. Browns, brick reds, dark greens, dark blues and natural wood colors will contrast
well with the many different colors of produce in your display.
Protect your produce
Containers that can protect tender produce from drying wind and sun are more
desireable than those that don't. A watering can is the best way to keep your produce
moist and fresh; bring plenty of water unless there is a source at your market site.
Keeping your produce from wilting is an art, and once wilted it won't come back. It
helps to know your produce: lettuce and radish tops wilt fast; a little longer in the
sun and beans no longer snap when bent; cukes & zucchini will eventually soften in the
sun, and so will even turnips and beets by the end of the day. Tomatoes like being in
the sun, but on very hot days they can be cooked while on display. If your tender
produce is selling fast, you can place it in the best visual display and not have to
worry about how long it can take the sun. But take care if sales slow down. On the other
hand onions, shallots, garlic, winter squashes should be kept dry and love being in the
sun all day.
Where is your market located, under the trees or in the open parking lot? Shade is
very important because limp, sunburned lettuce does not sell well. Since farmers'
markets are held rain or shine, investing in a tarp or cover is practically essential.
Many clever home-made designs for supporting tarps look quite attractive, but make sure
your structurecan withstand the wind. Stay away from blue tarps unless the product you
are selling looks good under blue light; most produce doesn't. Beach umbrellas work well
for small setups, but shade-only umbrellas don't help much on a rainy day. Umbrellas are
especially troublesome on breezy days.
Volume or Weight?
How will you be selling your produce? A legal scale maybe helpful if you are to sell
by weight. Some products sell better by weight rather than unit, but there is no reason
to purchase a legal scale if the size of your operation does not justify the expense.
You can use "lunch" type bags to sell by the bagful, or berry boxes to sell by the
quart. (Dumping the produce from the berry box into a bag when sold allows you to re-use
the more expensive berry box over and over.)
The average customer is shy, and will not ask a price. A large, attractive chalkboard
or individual price tags for each container of produce is welcomed, especially for
shoppers new to the market or new to your stand. Develop a kit that comes to market with
you. Include in it chalk and an eraser; tags (paper, plastic or cardboard), markers,
scissors, tape and pens. Rubber bands or whatever you will be using to bunch products
like radishes come in handy. A pad of note paper for jotting down new marketing ideas or
special order requests from customers, or to give your name and phone number to a
Always be on the lookout for bags, of all sizes. Many customers are glad to return or
donate their paper and plastic grocery bags. Always express your gratitude while
accepting them, as there will be a time you'll run out of bags. Check out your
community recycling center for an endless source of bags. Among paper bags, generally
flat bottomed ones are better for produce needs; they are usually made of stronger
material than the "card store" type of bag. If need be, bags can be purchased at many of
the larger "wholesale-type" stores. Seedling flats may be bagged two to a shopping bag,
but trays made from cardboard boxes are more efficient at transporting large numbers of
seedlings. However, trays can take up a lot of space in your vehicle.
How will you handle your cash at market? Having a cash box for bringing all your
bills and change to market keeps everything centralized and orderly. Some vendors use
aprons, or wear clothes with big pockets so that they may roam about the stand and yet
be able to make a sale from any point without having to run back to the vehicle. Others
sell out of the cash box they keep on a table or in the back of the vehicle. Keep bills
out of sight and where they will not likely to be blown away by wind. Some farmers find
it useful to write down every sale.
Bring plenty of change, because the day you don't will be the day your first customer
will only have a $20 bill! Bring enough change to cover your first two customers handing
you a $20 bill. (Remember, if YOU are the farmer breaking the big bills, that means the
shoppers are going to your stand first!) Most other sellers at market will be glad to
help out if you run short of change, and you should be happy to do the same for them,
but don't become a pest by relying on your neighbors to bring enough change for your
operation! Sometimes one person can walk to a nearby bank if the whole market is short
of quarters. Often a seller who is leaving the market early, or the person who collects the
daily market dues are also good sources of small bills.
Setting your prices
There are books written on this subject, but we will include here a few tips we have
MOFGA's wholesale and retail price reports can give a you some idea in their listing of what
farmers' markets, supermarkets and wholesalers are getting for Maine organic produce. Note
that it is by its nature weeks out-of-date for fast changing pricing situations
such as for produce just coming into season. Other guides are local supermarket prices,
other sellers at market, or whatever you feel you can justify charging. Walking the market
to note what other members are charging and even asking them about their pricing is not
price collusion, it is simply trading information. Getting together with other members to
"set" prices, however, is illegal.
Bear in mind that supermarkets often make no money on produce! To them produce is an
attraction to get customers into the store; they offer "loss-leaders" knowing shoppers
will probably purchase more than they intended. Be honest about the value of what you are
offering. Don't be afraid to charge more if your customers agree that it is of superior
quality. (And vice versa, of course.) If an item is selling very fast and you will soon
sell out, you may have priced it too low for that situation; learn to judge the market
by how things are selling and adjust your prices accordingly. Note, however, that a day
of slow sales usually indicates few customers at market, and this can't be improved by
Remember that no matter what your products are worth, some people will be glad to pay
what you are asking, and some will always tell you the price is too high. There is a mix
of these customers types in any location, and your job as seller is to determine what
the ratio is for each product you are selling in order to maximize your day's sales, or
your pleasure in meeting and selling to people, or whatever it is you attend market
It also falls onto your shoulders to begin the process of educating consumers that
what they are getting from you is NOT what they would get at the supermarket, and
therefore comparison pricing is somewhat irrelevant. Cutting the price often results in only
marginally more sales, as it generates in many buyers a distrust of the product being
offered at "fire sale" pricing. Offering a volume discount on greater quantities works
better than lower prices on small unit sales. Experience at farmers' markets over a
season shows that sometimes the supermarkets are higher, sometimes the local farmers
are, but the farmers can always have the better fresh-picked quality.
Clean, attractive and orderly
Simple things like watering and rotating your produce can make the difference between
making and losing a sale. Produce with soil on it send most shoppers to buy elsewhere.
This may mean you need to wipe your cukes and tomatoes with a damp cloth after a rainy
day to remove dirt spots. Many farmers may have good healthy soil or axle grease under
their nails, but that may not encourage your neighbor to buy your produce. Above all,
smile and talk to your customers, and you will get repeat sales.
Know what you are selling
You'll find your customers will quiz you on what variety you are selling, what
pesticides where used, when it was picked, how long it will last, how to prepare it.
When you can, let your customers pick out what they want. They will be happier with
their purchase knowing they got that just-right-sized cuke.
For more help
The Maine Federation of Farmers' Markets offers help and advice to markets and market
members. MFFM can be reached by writing MFFM c/o Tom Roberts, 27 Organic Farm Road,
Pittsfield ME 04967, ph. 487-5056, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about Farmers' Markets contact the Maine Federation of Farmers'
Markets at 487-5056, email us at email@example.com.