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                                …from   www.M F F   •   Your Maine Farmers' Market Resource


  •   Producer-only markets   •   Crafters at Market   •   Bakers at Market   •   Bought-in ingredients   •   Limiting Membership   •   more   •   coming   •   soon   •  

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers' Market back in 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself, and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market's steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.

In the intervening 27 years I have had numerous discussions on just about all facets of how a market should operate. I have been involved in the Maine Federation of Farmers' Markets (1991-1997), in the founding of the Unity (1999), Pittsfield (1997), Newport (2007), Orono (1994) and Waterville (2006) Farmers' Markets, and I was involved in the writing and adoption of the original Maine farmers' market law in 1992 (the first in the nation, as it turns out). Having listened to so many farmers' market discussions over the years, I thought it only appropriate to share some of the things I have learned. Share what you know, don't hide it, and you'll help everyone move along.

…Tom Roberts
Snakeroot Organic Farm
February, 2010

What is a Producer-Only Farmers' Market? It's a farmers' market where all the members must produce what they offer for sale. They are not allowed to buy-in items for resale. These markets have adopted stricter standards than the State of Maine minimum of each member being able to sell up to 25% bought-in products.

Generally speaking, small markets in smaller towns are more likely to allow buy-ins by some members than are larger markets in larger towns and cities, although there are certainly exceptions to this. Some markets adopt a producer-only policy at their beginning, while other markets allow buy-ins from day one. Still other markets convert—by way of a membership vote—from allowing buy-ins to being producer-only after a few years of wrangling with the complications that buying-in brings to meetings and market days.

What are the pro's and con's of being a producer-only market?

  • Shoppers assume that market members grow what they are offering for sale; shoppers can trust their expectations.
  • It requires less "policing" of what members are selling, since sourcing will only be from the member's operation.
  • It results in shorter meeting times, since the need to consider what each member is permitted to buy-in is eliminated.
  • It attracts applicants who produce what's missing at the market.
  • Markets may emphasize in their promotions that shoppers are buying direct and meeting the producers of their food.
  • There are no conflicts between members who produce an item and those who buy it in for re-sale.
  • There are no "ghost members", those folks who join the market but never attend, allowing an attending member to sell their products instead.
  • The market is unaffected by whatever percentage the State allows to be bought in.
  • The market will have more "market voids", items that are produced locally but aren't being brought to market because they are not produced by any current member.
  • Uneducated shoppers will be disappointed by not finding what they want at market.
  • Member sales will be lower if they have fewer items to offer for sale. For some members this may mean it is not worth their while to attend market.
  • Non market members have no chance of having their products sold at market.

The category of crafters at farmers' markets includes soap and candle makers, knitters, weavers, sewers, basketmakers, blacksmiths, jewelry makers and many others. Not every farmers' market allows all types of crafters, and some do not allow any crafters at all.

Various farmers' markets allow some types of crafters and not others, often based on whether the raw ingredients can be considered as agriculturally related, and to what extent at least some of the raw ingredients were produced by the crafter. Thus some markets might allow a soapmaker using thier own goat's milk, but not a jeweler using boughten silver and gems.

Some markets that do allow crafters allow only a certain percentage of their members to be crafters.

Most usually producers of artisan foods—such as breads, kim-chi and cheeses—are not considered crafters.

Most markets allow bakers of all types, although some markets do not allow any.

Several questions commonly arise about the ingredients used to produce a product sold at market: Can the ingredieints be purchased? Do they need to be made by the producers themselves? Must they be Maine produced? Can they come from out-of-state or commercial sources? The Orono Farmers' Market has a draft version of what items are eligible to be sold at market.

To best address these questions, it is useful to think about them as they concern all types of market members, because we can learn how to think about how they apply to each category of member by way of analogy.

All farmers' markets allow their farmer and gardener members to purchase seeds, seed potatoes, seedlings used to produce crops, plugs, rootstock and other production inputs from any source whatever. It is commonly recognized that the amount of time, effort and artistry put in by the farmer to transform these inputs into harvested crops is considerable, and it is this transformation that differentiates the purchased seed from the harvested crop.

If we apply analogous reasoning to processed foods (cider, dried herbs, jams, pickles, etc.) we can, by considering each case individually, make a determination as to whether the amount of time, effort and artistry used to transform a purchased input into the marketable product is sufficient to allow the product to be regarded as member-produced. Clearly repackaging a 50lb. bag of purchased potatoes into 5 lb. bags would not be considered enough of a transformation to make the 5 lb. bags the members own production.

Again, if we apply the same line of thinking to the baker, then few would expect the baker to produce their own grains, and while purchasing Maine grown flours would certainly result in a marketing edge, few would think this necessary for the bread to be considered as the baker's own Maine produced product.

Sometimes limiting market membership is a no-brainer: there simply isn't enough room for any more members to set up at market. This can be due to the physical size of the set-up area, or because of some stipulation required by your landlord. In these cases, it is important to assure that the optimal mix of member products is available at market, since you can't expand the market's product line by adding more members. A good minimal mix in such cases is two or three vegetable members, a meat member or two, and a baker or two. When market membership is thus limited, the consistant regular attendance of existing members becomes an important issue.

For many markets, however, the issue of limiting market membership is a more thorny one. There is plenty of space for new members, but should the sky be the limit? At their start-up, many markets are looking for anyone to join because the market is reaching for that "critical mass" of members that will attract shoppers and keep them coming back. A few years later, members of that same market are beginning to get a feel for the balance that must be maintained between the number of members in each category and the demand from the existing base of shoppers for those products. For example, the market may be looking for more cheese members, but not need any more vegetable or meat members. Hence the market membership is closed for any new applicants except for those offering what the market members have determined is missing from the market's overall offerings.

The question may then arise: Should the market be trying to control who can join the market and who can't? Shouldn't market membership be completely open, and let the "free market" determine what the market is offering?

The point that such questioners are missing is that the free market is indeed operating, since just about anyone can start a farmers' market. If a couple of bakers and three or four farmers can't join an existing market, they can start their own. And just like I can't go in to a supermarket and set up my stand, not everyone is "entitled" to set up at any farmers' market. Market members have worked long and hard not just to produce what they offer at market, but—by working together as a market over the years—to generate the shopping traffic that allows them to be successful. Who gets to participate in this success should indeed be determined by the market members who have made it happen. There needs to be some competition among members, but not so much that many are no longer successful. This is where developing a sense of the dynamic balance between the (hopefully growing) supply of the market members as a whole and the (hopefully growing) demand of a (hopefully growing) base of shoppers.

Members must learn that this sense of balance is not something that arises from thinking only about your own operation. It comes from thinking about the market as a whole, as an entirely separate entity from your own business, but one whose success is nevertheless tied to your own. Members are cooperating with one another to bring more shoppers to market just as much as they are competing with one another for the shoppers' dollars. This is not easy for everyone to learn, and each member learns it at their own pace and in their own way.

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