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Thinking about Starting a Farmers' Market?


How To Go About It

There are several specific steps to follow. Generally start by finding farmers, gardeners and others in your area who might consider selling through a market. The success of any market depends ultimately upon the decisions made by the members, the range of products they sell to attract a range of customers, how the members display their products, quality and the quantity of product available, and the merchandising and promotional skills the members demonstrate.


First, Finding Members

Start by locating potential members. Classified ads in local papers and Ag trade bulletins or asking a local reporter to write a press release about your potential market may generate a response from potential members. A proven method is a direct mailing of a meeting announcement about starting a market to a large number of potential farmers and gardeners. Along with the time and place of the meeting in the mailing, be sure to include your address and phone number in case an interested grower cannot make the initial meetings. Your local Co-operative Extension Service office will likely help with doing the mailing. Utilize resources where farmers are listed such as the Dept. of Agriculture's Producer to Consumer directory, various lists of farmers and gardeners maintained by the local Co-operative Extension Service, names supplied by agricultural commodity groups, farmers you know in the area, etc. For the first one or two mailings you want to throw as wide a net as possible to be sure anyone interested in a market will know of your efforts. Of course you will limit your selection of names to those who are within likely driving distance to the market, but remember that growers will drive further to their market than will most customers. By contacting growers directly, you'll be sure the word has gotten out to them. Some of these producers may already sell at a farmers' market so they may or may not want to get involved in another market. Either way, they may supply many good ideas about establishing a new market.

Organizing

At the organizational meeting you will be want to determine the level of interest, the range of products available, the level of supply (how much of each commodity they'll have to sell), number of growers, where the market will be located, and what will be the organizational structure. Often the structure is influenced by the location, but it has been shown that it is essential for the day-to-day operation of the market be controlled by the members of the market rather than by any outside entity.

Maine has over 20 farmers' markets, and these take a variety of organizational forms. Some are organized by the city, such as the Portland Farmers' Market. Some rent from the city and have their own formal by-laws, such as the Brunswick Farmers' Market. Some are very informal, with minimal rules and no bylaws. A first organizational issue will be which route your members wish to take. A sample packet of sets of actual market rules and by-laws is available from the Federation.

Location is Critical to Success

If the members wish to use city property, then the city will have to be contacted to determine their level of interest in a market. In the case of Brunswick and Bangor, the markets are incorporated and the corporation makes an arrangement with the city and no other city services are provided. In Damariscotta, the market is located on private property. Because of a city sign ordinance, the private property location allows signs to be erected on market days only. In Rumford, the market is located on state highway property, in an official rest area. Selecting the best spot is a first order of business. Success in an out of the way location takes a long time to build. The twenty year old Camden Market has an out of the way location, yet is very successful. Although few locations are ideal, there are several aspects to consider when "grading" a site. Is it near a large food-shopping center? Is it easily seen from a busy road? Is it easy to describe the location in ads or by word of mouth? Paved lots are hotter in the summer heat, but grass and gravel lots get to be a mess in rainy weather. Paved lots offer customers a surer footing and are less dusty than gravel lots. Shade is nice, but visibility to passers-by is critical. Can customers walk the market safely with children, or is it necessary to dodge passing cars?

Product Mix

Another organizational issue is deciding what kind of products you want to see at market. If twelve members express interest and all 12 sell the same products, then several questions need to be addressed. Will enough buyers come to buy out these 12 members? Or should a better mix of products be assembled to attract a variety of buyers? And what about the season? Members with seedlings can open the market before fresh fruit and vegetables are available; and, likewise, products to close the season should be available: pumpkins, squash, potatoes, apples, and on into wreathes and Christmas trees. Vendors of craft products can fill in to attract customers. Other products to include are fresh and frozen meats, fish, lobster, eggs, ice cream, specialty foods such as jams jellies, bakery products, herbs, and organic products. Note that the farther your member mix strays from actual fresh farm fruit & produce, the more difficulty you may encounter with your landlord or town ordinances. Also, care needs to be taken that the proper Dept of Agriculture licenses have been procured for the products offered by members.

Member Fees & The Budget

Once enough members are lined up, a budget for the market must be decided upon.There are two basic ways of generating money for the income side of the market budget. In one method, members pay an annual or seasonal membership fee to join, plus a daily fee each day they attend. This way the market has some funds that have been equally assessed to begin the season, and then with daily dues those members who attend more pay more. In the other method, the estimated annual expenses of the market are determined before the season begins and each grower is assessed their share, which may be proportional to their size, or in equal parts. Sometimes the fee is collected twice in the season, once before the market opens, and once mid season. The advantage of this method is that the members don't have to come up with all of the money at once, and the second assessment may be adjusted up or down if the situation calls for it.

The income is used for signs, advertising, insurance, and perhaps rent, electricity, rental of restrooms, etc. A budget projecting total costs for the year should be figured to determine member fees. A budget committee formed at one meeting can report to the next meeting on its projected budget. The number of members may need to be increased to assure a reasonable charges, and thus adequate returns. It may be worth checking if any of the expenses such as rent could be waived or lowered for the first year as the market is just getting going.

Maine State Law says that the members at a market selling produce must have grown at least 75% of what they offer for sale. Some markets require that all products sold are grown, baked, caught, canned, etc, by the member offering them for sale. Others allow buying of produce for resale only if no member who grows that item is bringing it in for sale. It is up to your market how you want to handle this question.

Many markets use formal contracts with members. One market places a 35 mile limit on products sold- they must be made or grown within 35 miles of the market. These decisions are made by your market, and may be changed from time to time as your perceived needs change. Some markets have decided that they want a specified number of slots for bakers, crafters, fish sellers, etc. In any case all members should sign an agrreement saying they will abide by market rules before they attend market. A little structure designed in the off season goes a long way toward preventing a free-for-all in the busy summer season. Needless to say decisions arrived at or agreed to democratically by the membership will be accepted by the membership more readily than those autocratically handed down by the organizers.

Some member contracts allow for "temporary" slots in the market. These are reserved for members who haven't decided whether they can commit to an entire season and who want to give it a try. Or, they can be filled by seasonal growers who cannot supply an entire season, such as a strawberry or blueberry grower.

Other Rules & Regulations

The Division of Regulations of the Maine Dept. of Agriculture administers the state program of licenses and inspections to ensure a safe food supply. Each member is responsible for securing the licenses required for his/her products sold. A simple call to the Division of Regulations at 289-3481 will start the process. This brief informational sheet can't begin to list all of the regulations established by Maine statutes. Jams, jellies, pickles, fish, meats, eggs, cider, apples, potatoes, seedlings and hanging scales are all items that are influenced by regulation, for example. Likewise each producer needs to call the city to assure compliance with all ordinances.

When?

What days, what hours, and what season are "best" for the market? That depends on the flow of traffic in your locality. The market hours need to be designed with the buyers in mind. If the market is "downtown", find out what day and times are busiest. Often Saturday mornings are busy shopping days. If located in a business development center where offices or mills are located, then it's good to be open noons and especially when work lets out or shifts change. Remember, shoppers like to take time to shop, and don't want their purchases to sit in a hot car all afternoon in a parking lot. If the market is located on an commuting road, then staying open till 6 pm or 6:30 allows commuting shoppers the opportunity to support local growers.

Signs and Parking

In order for shoppers to be able to support the market, two critical factors must be kept in mind: access and signs. Drivers must be able to safely pull off the highway and easily park without blocking or being blocked by another vehicle. If parking is too congested, many drivers will not deal with the inconvenience. Secondly, your signs must be located far enough ahead for people to plan their turn off the road. The importance of placing signs can't be overstresssed. If your buyers don't know the market is ahead, you've just lost a sale.

Overall Market Appeal

Attractive stands with colorful displays draw shoppers and make browsing enjoyable. Colorful canvas or plastic tents or awnings can be erected inexpensively and add variety and contrast. Summertime visitors like to "experience" Maine's rural traditions. Baskets and crates are eye-appealing. Produce needs to look fresh, and frequent misting helps, using plastic atomizer bottles or watering cans. Seedlings and flowers mix in and add color as well as draw many gardeners and landscapers. For more info on being at market, check out the MFFM brochure "What Do I Need for Setting Up At Market?"

Promoting the Market

A variety of strategies have proven successful. Paid classified or display ads in local papers alert customers of days and open times and can list products available. Another option is for each member to advertise, mentioning they'll be at the market. This works when just getting started, when the market as a whole may not have the funds to spend. Markets have used coupons, fliers, direct mail, and special attractions to promote sales. For more info on market promotion ideas, see the MFFM brochure Promotional ideas from Maine and Vermont.


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