Nearly 145,000 farmer operators in the United States sell directly to consumers, accounting for more than $1.3 billion in annual sales, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. Some of those sales happen at the Fallbrook Farmers Market, a small but thriving Nebraska venture that FCSAmerica has helped incubate since it opened near our Lincoln office four years ago. In that time, I have watched the Fallbrook Farmers Market make a real difference in the north Lincoln development for which it is named.
An average of 400 to 500 people attends the Thursday evening, enjoying a mix of entertainment, shopping and mingling. Area businesses have been discovered in ways that would be nearly impossible with traditional marketing strategies. One restaurant that was just surviving before the farmers market opened is now one of the most popular dining spots in Lincoln. Young and beginning producers have found the smaller, more intimate market ideal for honing customer service skills and identifying possible niches before venturing into larger markets where the stalls are more costly and the competition more plentiful.
Outsiders look at a market like Fallbrook’s and often want to do something similar for their community or neighborhood. But when people ask, I tell them that operating a farmers market is rarely easy, and making it a success is even tougher. In honor of the upcoming National Farmers Market Week, Aug. 3 to 9, I want to share some of what we have learned about running a farmers market that appeals to producers, consumers and communities. Megan Jackson, manager of the Fallbrook Farmers Market, also has contributed her advice, particularly for young and beginning producers.
- Choose the right location. Setting up booths in a parking lot, as some have, will rarely work. People go to farmers markets for the ambiance. For some, the experience is a bigger draw than the fresh produce. The Fallbrook Farmers Market is well situated in a nice neighborhood that pairs green space with retail options. People come with their strollers and dogs, expecting a relaxing, entertaining evening. It’s why they’re willing to pay higher prices than they typically find for produce in a grocery store.
- Choose the right time. Farmers often sell their produce at more than one market during a week. If they have to harvest on a Tuesday, their produce won’t be good for weekend markets. Fallbrook’s Thursday evening market is as early in the week as producers want to harvest. Later in the week and Fallbrook would be in direct competition with larger farmers markets.
- Hire the right manager. Megan knows the players in farmers market. She can recruit the right mix of producers, create the ambience consumers want, organize weekly entertainment and the marketing of those events, structure weekly booth rentals, manage contracts, ensure compliance with licensing regulations . . . The to-do list is lengthy, sometimes technical and always critical to success.
- Understand the financial commitment. Lincoln’s Haymarket Farmers Market receives support from the city, helping to keep it viable and vibrant. Fallbrook is much smaller, yet still has a budget of $30,000 to $40,000 each season. Once Fallbrook is self-sustaining, a board of producers will be responsible for managing and promoting it.
- Find your niche as a producer. Farmers trying to break into area markets should visit several, returning at different times during the season. Study which produce already is offered in abundance. Determine where there might be a shortage or a market for your produce. Could you fill the void and deliver, for example, early or late greens? Delivering produce that stands out is more important than growing and delivering a variety of vegetables and fruits.
- Build your customer base. Farmers markets are all about those one-on-one interactions that can’t happen when customers buy produce at the grocery store. One producer at Fallbrook writes down the names of new customers with a little note to help him recall the peoples’ names the next week. Others share recipe cards or ideas for preparing and storing their produce.
As Fallbrook proves, farmers markets can be a boon to area businesses, developments and neighborhoods. But that can’t be the only objective. Megan notes that no market can succeed if it doesn’t also work in meaningful ways for the farmers and their customers.
She sees this in action each week when she spies the face of a now familiar customer. He is an older gentleman and depends on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP. Megan arranged for producers to accept SNAP, and FCSAmerica provides a match at Fallbrook Farmers Market of up to $15 to help stretch the budgets of SNAP participants. This means the gentleman has $30 to spend on fresh food, something he had previously been unable to afford. He goes to many of the same booths each week, buying meat and vegetables from farmers he has gotten to know and trust.
“He comes from a generation more connected to their food,” Megan says. “He had lost that, and now he is reconnecting to his roots.”