Farmers Markets – A Guide to Getting the Most Out of Your Neighbourhood Market
Farmers markets have long been one of the cornerstones of a community. A good farmers market allows people who live in small towns and medium and large cities access to fresh food that they’d typically have to drive great distances to track down.
Profitable farmers markets will provide an outlet for a farmer to sell their commodities and facilitate a conversation and provide education for the buyers walking the aisles looking for some great ingredients to take home. The problem is, not all farmers markets are great. Some are even a little bit seedy.
In this guide, we’ll discuss why farmers markets exist, why you should go to one, and tips to help you get the most out of the experience.
History of Farmers Markets
The idea of what we call farm markets today evolved from markets in Egypt and Rome over 5,000 years ago. Then, markets along the Nile featured freshly caught fish, grains, and exotic luxuries from boats along the river. In Rome, it was olives, figs, apples, pears, spices, and other foods.
The market continued throughout Medieval Europe, with market squares popping up in newly constructed towns. In 1086 there were 50 markets recorded in England. By the mid-1300s, there were around 2,000.
When settlers began arriving in North America, markets began popping up. In the US, Thomas Jefferson went to a market in Georgetown in 1806 and purchased beef, eggs, and assorted vegetables. (Source: Smithsonian Magazine)
As the number of grocery stores rose following WWII, the number of farmers’ markets began to decline. That trend is reversing. In 2019, there were 8,600 registered farm markets across the US, up from 7,800 in 2012. (Source: USDA)
The Reasons Farmers Sell at the Market
All farmers have different reasons for packing up their fruits, vegetables, meat, eggs, cheese and more, and selling them at a farmers market. An excellent way to start is understanding the different sales structures for farmers because this will impact who you see at your area market. Farmers aren’t always just one of these types, but very few do all of them at equal levels.
These farmers are usually the largest farms. As the name suggests, wholesale farmers tend to sell primarily to larger distributors or directly to chain grocery stores. They typically get a lower price for their goods because the distributor and the store need to mark up the price before it is sold to you.
For fruit and vegetable farmers, these growers tend to grow fewer crops to specialize in their growing style, equipment, and workforce, making them as efficient as possible. For livestock farmers these farmers tend to sell through auctions.
Both are selling on “market price,” whether it’s an auction set price or the supply/demand system of produce, which operates sort of like the stock market.
Much like wholesale growers, contract growers sell to larger distributors or chain stores. A contract fruit and vegetable grower may grow even fewer crops, some only one.
They will agree to a contract price for the season. This gives the farmer security if the market price ever drops below their given price, but they could lose out on profits if the market price went up more than expected.
Market Growers/Market Gardening
These are typically smaller farms. For livestock farms, they may have a few of several types of animals; for fruit and vegetables farmers, usually its smaller crops of a large number of items. These farmers rarely sell to distributors. They may sell wholesale to restaurants but typically rely on direct retail sales. The added markup on retail sales means the farmer doesn’t need to rely heavily on the strict efficiency that larger-scale growers do. They can experiment with crops, test different farming strategies, and not significantly impact the bottom line. These inefficiencies are why you typically pay close to the same or sometimes more at a farmers market as you would at a grocery store.
Typical Day At The Farmers Market
Day Before Market (usually until around 11 p.m.) – Harvest the crops you intend to take to the market. We would then wet it down from the field and placed it in the cooler. Next comes the pricing plan, and then we’d make the signage. Lastly, we’d go to the bank and get change for the cash box, get bags, and toothpicks, plates, and knives for samples.
4 a.m. – Wake up, have some breakfast, start getting the kids up and getting them ready to leave. Pack a lunch to eat at the market.
5 a.m. – start packing up the truck with our tables, display baskets and stands, signage, cash box and load all of the produce.
6 a.m. – Arrive at the market about 90 minutes before the market starts. It begins by unloading everything from the truck. We set up the displays & signage, layout the bags and make sure the cash box is ready. Get the truck out of the way.
7:30 a.m. – Start selling to the public. Help customers with their questions, keep displays full, make sure the prices are in line with what other farmers are charging. Change signage if needed. This is the part that you see.
Noon – The market comes to an end. Now we pack up any produce that didn’t sell (sometimes this was a lot), pack up the tables, chairs, signs.
1:30 p.m. – Arrive back at the farm, unload the truck. Put any of the produce that didn’t sell in the market for sale.
3:00 p.m. – Have a nap
Where Do We Fit?
Lee and Maria’s is a market grower. We grow roughly 20 different types of crops on approximately 30 acres of land. Some we own, and some we rent. While we do some wholesale, our primary avenue for sales is direct to consumer.
At your local farmers market, you will likely see only the last group of growers. The reason is the efficiency I spoke about previously. For a farmer, going to a market takes a significant time commitment and comes with costs.
All of that work, and we only did one farm market a week. Many farmers do several each week, and some will do more than one per day. We were not this ambitious, and the time commitment is why we ultimately decided to stop doing markets. When we considered the hours put in and paid ourselves, it made more sense to concentrate on other aspects of our retail strategy. For other farmers, though, especially those close to larger urban centres, farm markets are ideal for reaching a broad customer group and making perfect sense for them.
The Reasons You Should Go to a Market
According to this study by the United States Department of Agriculture, the average farm market in 2019 saw roughly 920 households attend, and they spent an average total of nearly $15,000. That makes the average spend per family $15.88. To put that amount in context, the average spend for a trip to the supermarket is $55.18 (Source: OneSpace)
Comparing a supermarket to the farmers market isn’t a fair comparison. You can’t purchase everything your family needs at farmers markets. However, for some farmers, their family relies on that $15.88 per market visit. Suppose you complain about corporate farming or a lack of transparency regarding your food. In that case, this is the challenging economics of why so many small-scale farmers are selling to larger corporations who can do it more efficiently and have the volume to demand more lucrative buying contracts.
Ok, with the doom and gloom out of the way, let’s talk about the reasons why you should make the trip.
Get to know your farmer
When you purchase something at a farmers market, take the time to say hello and strike up a conversation (as long as it isn’t too busy). As I outlined above, the farmer took a lot of effort to be at the market, and I can speak from experience…a few kind words from a customer goes a long way. Farmers are also very proud of the items they have on display. It took a lot of work and long hours to get those watermelons, green beans, or eggs to the market table, and most farmers would love to tell you about the process. If it’s a slow market day and the farmer isn’t eager to talk, it could be a red flag (we’ll discuss this later).
Learn the Growing Practices
One thing you can’t ask the produce clerk in the local supermarket about is the growing practices. This should be one of your top questions at the market. Just because something is labelled “All Natural” or “Organic,” ask what the farmer’s definition of that is. Some farmers may call their produce organic but not be certified. If you are ok with that, buy away. If not, find a farmer who is. If you have a question, ask away. If you don’t like the answer, move on.
Some items just aren’t commercially accepted enough for supermarket shelves, and therefore aren’t grown by most wholesale or contract farmers. Since a market grower is growing for retail, they can experiment more with unusual crops. While you may not find quail eggs on the supermarket shelf, there could be a whole stall devoted to them at your farmers market.
One of our top-selling market items is garlic scapes. They look like a stiffer version of green onion and are plucked off the top of a garlic shoot to help the bulb form. Scapes are delicious in stir-frys or ground up into a garlic pesto. While popular for us at the market, they rarely, if ever, make the supermarket shelves. You can find hidden gems like these all over the market, and you may just find your next favourite food.
It almost goes without saying, but the money you spend at the farmers market *tends* to stay directly in your community, especially if you know your farmer. Farms hire staff, purchase equipment, gas, seeds, fertilizer, insurance, pay taxes, and just about everything else a typical business would. Keeping your money local has direct benefits for the community. While a supermarket certainly provides jobs, the profits are usually moved out of the area.
Farm Market Tips & Tricks
Here are answers to some questions and tips on what you should look out for at your farmers’ market.
Is all produce at a farmers’ market Organic?
No. If it isn’t labelled as organic, then you should assume it was grown conventionally. Whether it’s labelled organic or not, you should still ask about the growing practices. Some farmers may consider ‘no spray’ fruits and vegetables organic. Technically this isn’t true if they used synthetic fertilizers. Always ask questions.
Is produce at farmers’ markets GMO?
Likely, unless stated. Typically ‘heirloom’ varieties are a safe bet. Also, organic doesn’t mean the plant itself isn’t GMO. Most farmers only consider growing practices when discussing organic. Also, there is a good chance the farmer may not know if it is a GMO. Seeds aren’t labelled in seed catalogues as ‘GMO’ or ‘Non-GMO’…so the farmer may not know the answer.
Is everyone at the market a farmer?
If we’re talking about fruits and vegetables, not always, and this depends very much on the market’s rules and policies. Some markets allow resellers into the market. These resellers may purchase produce off larger wholesale growers or distributors and sell it at the market, looking to make that extra retail markup. The produce is generally the same as what you would purchase at the supermarket. This is where some of those growing questions come in. If the vendor can’t answer them, they could be a reseller.
Why does some produce have stickers?
Sticker machines are costly! A small-scale farmer is not purchasing a sticker machine to sell at the farm market. If you see stickers on produce at the farm market, they are either a large wholesale grower or a reseller.
Know What Produce is in Season
It’s a good idea to find out what local produce is in season before going to the market. Online lists are a good start but aren’t always accurate. Hot temperatures can speed up crops, and cool nights can slow them down. The plans are a guide but will give you an idea of what to expect in your region.
Knowing in advance could help you spot resellers. For instance, in a market, we frequently had a vendor selling “local” watermelons in early June. In our region, watermelon season is late July and August, so these were clearly from elsewhere and sold as “local.” This happens more than it should. Again, if something seems off, ask questions.
There are always changes in growing practices. Local strawberries used to be reserved for a late way too late July. Now they are available year-round through everbearing berries and greenhouses. Just ask questions about what you’re buying and feel comfortable with the answers.
Never complain about lousy produce to the farmer
Speaking from experience, don’t point out lousy produce to the farmer. They know it doesn’t look great, and you pointing it out won’t make it look any better. Keep in mind the effort behind the scenes to get that produce there on the market table. The farmer may have had crop disease, pests, poor growing conditions, or all of the above. The farmer is likely bringing it to the market because they doesn’t have a choice. If you don’t feel comfortable buying it, just move on to the next stall.
Ask for bulk deals and offer to pick them up
Suppose you are looking for a larger quantity or an item or something that will keep well, ask for a bulk deal and offer to pick it up on an off-market day. The farmer is much more likely to give you a discount if he knows he can still sell everything he brought to the market. This is great if you plan to do some canning or what to order a lot of meat. An offer to pickup will go a long way in your negotiations.
Can I haggle at the market?
This one is certainly debatable. Many farmers hate bartering, and we’re included. There are two exceptions, though.
- Like I mentioned above. If you are looking to purchase in bulk, ask for a better price.
- If it is the end of the market day, the farmer may be willing to cut his price so he doesn’t have to pack it up.
For many farmers, the market is their lifeline. It’s the way they provide for their family, and they rely on that $15.88 the average market goer is going to spend.
At Lee and Maria’s, we got out of markets years ago. We decided a better way for us was to deliver our produce directly to people’s homes. It was the decision that led to the launch of our From Our Farm Subscription Box. We also changed our On-Farm market to more model what a farm market would provide, including those local makers and bakers people also love.
However, if it weren’t for a start we got at farmers’ markets, we wouldn’t be where we are today.