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Sunday, August 20, 2017

Experiences selling produce at farmer's market

Starting June 2017, after getting rejections from entering many farmer's market outlets, I finally got to set my 10'x10' booth at a farmer's market looking for new growers with unique things to sell. So when the market manager asked what do you grow commercially, I gave a unique list of vegetables I have never grown (or tasted) before (ding!). After hitting the 'Send' button in response to that email, I got excited and later on, a bit worried.

It wasn't that I have never grown or seen any vegetable growing, I just hadn't grown anything on a commercial scale. I spent an entire year of 2016 growing vegetables for my own consumption on a small garden space. And I had spent part of 2015 interning at a commercial vegetable farm. So I knew I could dig some earth and get the production going.

Getting accepted at the farmer's market happened in March 2017. The paperwork and costs were way more than I expected. By April, I started paying market fees, purchasing liability insurance, purchasing seeds, tents, tables and completing other compliance requirements. The market started in mid June.

The city of Chatham, where the market is, is an upscale town in Morris county, New Jersey. I had never visited Chatham's farmer's market before and had no idea about the traffic there. On my first day as a vendor, I mostly made introductions to a few people who were regulars at the market. My produce consisted of pre-bagged, washed salad mix. That's it. Just one product. Suprisingly, people loved that one product. Salad mix and greens is my main product for farmer's market in spring and summer season. I felt a little bad taking so little to the market and worse when I saw huge produce filled tables of other produce vendors. First day earnings came close to a humble $80. Not much but it was a start.

Farmer's market are direct marketing sales channels. The feedback is instant and there is constant interaction with people in real-time. For buyers, such markets gives a chance to know the farmer directly, something that wholesale outlets and supermarkets do not offer. The produce offered is of superior quality. Moreover, farmer's bring new varieties of produce to the market that is a refreshing change from the usual staples. The people who come to farmer's market are ones who value the produce, have money to pay for that produce and support local farmers.

As a beginning farmer selling produce for the first time, I had no idea about the volume of produce I should take to the market. I quickly learnt that at a farmer's market, I need a lot of produce to be able to satisfy the demand and justify financially the cost of being there. Before coming to the market, I initially thought there is no point in growing a lot of produce when I did not know the demand of my product. I planted what I could on my farm and waited for it to grow which resulted in a lot of produce in a week and nothing the subsequent weeks. Succession planning is something I learnt after taking too little produce for many weeks. Taking too little produce means too less product on the table. It doesn't really draw people to your booth. I now plant something in the field and inside as transplants every week.

The sales of produce in an open farmer's market depends a lot on the weather and time of the season. When the weather is sunny and warm, the lemonade guy at the farmer's market has a long queue of people to serve after 10:30 am till 1:00 pm. Some serious buyers and early birds come during the quite morning hours for their shopping to grab the best products before it's gone. After 10:00 am, the farmer's market becomes a lively place for local folks to meet and greet friends, shop, stroll and enjoy the live music. Good sales happen on such days for most vendors. On days when it rains or people are on vacation, there is less foot traffic and the afternoons are quieter. I am glad a few people have started to know me and visit my booth regularly to talk to me and know about my produce.

Since I am new to selling produce in this market, I hardly had any idea about people's buying choices. And I knew no amount of market research online would reveal that to me. As much as market research is important before a product launch, it doesn't factor in buying choices based on scale (in my context). What people buy from a small farmer with limited offerings and niche, seasonal produce can be different from what they buy from a super market. The only way for me to know what sells and what does not was to take a product to the market and see it's demand. It may sell or it may go to waste. One such unique crop I took to the market without knowing its demand was Amaranth greens. I wanted to grow Amaranth as a microgreen but since that attempt failed, I sow the seeds in the field and let the plant grow. I took the greens to the market to test a new product. I found that a vegetable that people are hesitant to buy something they have not used in kitchens before. However, some food enthusiasts who love experimenting with new things bought the greens to give it a try. Amaranth Greens wasn't necessarily a product in high demand but when people were educated about ways of using it, they were definitely excited to try this new vegetable. I had a similar experience with another southern crop that I took to market - Okra. A lot of people who visited my booth openly told me how much they hate okra (and only okra). I couldn't say much to them. On the other hand, a few folks, who moved from or lived in south or mid-west regions of USA, gladly purchased okra, excited about the availability of this heat loving annual crop in farmer's market. Both these are not my main crops and I take smaller quantities of both to the market.
Amaranth Leaves harvest

Besides a sales channel of one's own product, a farmer's market is also a great place to understand the food choices and spending habits of target demographic. It helps a grower to decide what to grow for market and the seasonal changes demand of produce local to the population. It also gives a grower parameters for pricing their produce and how much sales should they expect from one market should they decide to come year after year.

Lastly, presentation of the booth and produce play a huge role in marketability of the produce.

A well organised, visually appealing display with lots of colors draws people towards it. The effect is subtle. I also observed that having an abundance of produce on the table also makes people stop by your booth. On days when I have just one bag or a small portion of produce left on the table during closing hours, nobody seemed interested in buying even if it was the same produce that got sold in first three hours of the market. In the buyer's mind, it is left-over produce which isn't of top-notch quality. When I go to a supermarket to buy something, most often I, too, tend not to buy something that is just lying on the shelves in smaller quantities. When I sort my harvested produce for market, I take time to package only the best quality crop and discard anything that is bruised, pale or discolored. After all, people pay for quality and freshness at farmer's markets.

In the near future, I would like to expand and diversify my sales channels. Farmer's market, for a small scale farmer like me, proved a good outlet for selling produce directly from farm. Additionally, I get to socialize and talk about food with some very interesting people. The experience is worth the time.