How do those vegetables, fruits, cheeses, meat, nuts, flowers, arts and crafts materialize at your local farmers market every week?
Who makes everything show up like magic, then disappears everything--tents and all--only for everything to reappear a week later?
Well, farmers you might say. Maybe local town leaders. A church or charity. Maybe the chamber of commerce. The local tourism agency?
Somebody has to organize the thing.
I've been a "somebody" for four years now. As either Secretary or Treasurer on the board, I've had opportunity to view things from the organizational or financial side. Additionally, I'm a farmer vendor, and functioned for two years frequently as the market manager. Those roles are also perspectives on how the market comes together.
Like many, our market began with a grant for community economic development. For five years, the small town we're in and an independent development agency cooperatively funded and managed the farmers market. This grant focused on encouraging small local farms and food production businesses by providing a means for them to access retail markets. Crafts were barred from vending.
After that grant ended, the vendors organized a non-profit corporation and formed a board to operate the market. This was largely driven by one of the farmers. The town continued to provide a small grant. It mainly paid for advertising, printing brochures and so on. In a bid to increase sales, the market added arts and craft vendors.
Dues on sales barely covered the insurance costs. The market never broke through $20,000 in sales during a season. In early 2020 the main organizer of the market resigned to move her business to a larger farmers market about 20 miles away. The market had also gradually become more craft than farm dominated. Repeat shoppers were few.
My wife and I started our organic standards fruit and produce farm in 2017 after "retiring" in 2015 from educational work overseas. With unerring timing, we set up our “social purpose” (WA state’s version of a B-corp) farm business in late January 2020, and planned to start retail sales at this farmers market during the 2020 season. We had already filed as vendors for the season in December 2019, and when the four remaining board members said they needed another member or the market would have to disband since its charter required a minimum five members on the board, I “volunteered”.
Then, COVID shut us down. For most of the summer, this county in Washington state closed all venues where a crowd might form. That included our location in a park.
That could have killed the market, but board members decided to focus on planning, grant seeking, and building support for a return in 2021. There’s a lot of training and grant writing and getting folks to let us put up signs in good locations, so we focused on that in 2020. By the summer of 2021, with COVID finally receding with growing vaccine access, both farmers and townsfolk seemed almost desperate for safer venues to shop in.
We had the best year in that market’s history in sales and shopper numbers, even though we started the market with only 6 vendors. As the season went on, more vendors joined until we ended with 13. Vendors sold over $36,000 in produce and crafts, far exceeding previous years. That encouraged us!
Our board had two members particularly concerned with food access and food security (one was me and the other was president). We were able to secure grants to add WIC (women, infants and children) support as well as Senior Farmer's Market Nutrition Program support for older folks. And mid-season 2022, we finally got permission to offer EBT (SNAP) sales.
This attracted more farmers and a wider variety of produce such as dairy, beef and fish vendors. The weekly presence of fresh produce, fruit, meats and dairy greatly increased return visits and sales, which in turn attracted more vendors and sponsors, one of whom backed a live music program for the market.
We became more of a Saturday morning shopping experience, and the increase in numbers and sales brought more sponsors on board, especially as we increased our outreach to the seniors and WIC and SNAP community. That finally allowed the very over-worked board to hire a part time manager for the set up and taking down of various tents and signs we had to put up every Saturday, as well as on site management of vendors and shoppers and staffing of an information booth and SNAP sales booth. This past season, we totaled over $75,000 in vendor sales, had 30 vendors, and counted over 13,000 shoppers, with more than one fourth being repeat shoppers (over 4,000 of this total were repeat customers, in other words).
Our board renews every year and is re-elected by vendors from the previous season who re-up. Many farmers markets are a combination of board, vendors and hired management and almost all are non-profits. Many are funded by a combination of city, county and/or corporate sponsors and various types of grants. Grants are for food access, food security, local farm or business development, and even tourism development. Vendors also chip in, but vendors alone at most farmers markets couldn't afford the costs.
We're required in WA state to have a majority of our sales from farm and farm product vendors (like bakeries or jelly and preserves) in order to offer SNAP, WIC and Senior FMNP sales and to apply for most state and local grants. That limits our craft and arts side a bit since we have to maintain that balance. But flowers are farm produce, so we have lots!
People tend to come once or twice a season for arts and crafts, but every week for fresh local produce at prices that usually beat the stores, and freshness that always does. With repeat visits, we get to know our customers and we can inform them of what’s getting ready for next week. And unlike in a store, farmers are more than happy to discuss how to cook, use, preserve or even grow their produce. My wife’s garlic, for example, has a large and loyal following, with several trying to grow it from our cloves this year after finding out from her how to do it.
Take a look at the website for your local farmers market to see who organizes and funds it. There may be a state farmers market association that ensures produce dominates. If you see a lot of antiques and used stuff for sale and very little produce at a street market, it very likely is not a true farmers market. Some farmers markets are wholly organic. Most only permit local produce and meat and dairy to be sold. The more local foodstuffs and crafts, the better a farmers market helps your local community and local economy. Ask the organizers or find out about them on their website or Facebook page. Go visit one of the farms—just ask the farmer first—if and when it’s okay!
Farmers markets can play a vital role in food security, food access to those less well off, as well as economic development and tourism. And if you’re also interested in food security or local farming, they may be looking for board members to help out. Arts, crafts and musicians also benefit from the markets. We even added a young entrepreneur’s program where kids under 18 can sell their own arts, crafts and produce under adult supervision and assistance. We have also had youth groups (like dance troupes and juggler’s club) perform at the market. We have fun and you should too!
When you shop at a farmers market, you're supporting more than your local farmer--it's lots of creative folks and people involved in the community.
So there's more than just tasty tomatoes and luscious fruit and other goodies to a farmers market.
The folks who make the magic happen (board members, vendors, managers, musicians, crafters, artists, farmers) are a bit like Santa's Elves--working in the background to make all the stuff that shows up like magic. And we're just as busy as Santa's little helpers, all year round, making sure it happens.
Any of the farmers markets in your neighborhood would appreciate you shopping and stopping by. And thanks for reading this little peek behind the scenes. Already I’m getting eager for some farm-fresh fruit and produce!