You’ve done months of spadework, composted, weeded, seeded, raked, hauled, cleaned, and now you’ve harvested, bringing in an abundance of good things to eat in testimony to all your hard work. But, now comes another chore—namely, what to do with the bounty of the garden, which has been so productive, with luck, that you can’t possibly eat the entire yield yourself. The best outlet for your produce is a local farmer’s market. It’s an institution out of old-time America that has seen a resurgence in popularity in just the last few years.
New Farmer’s Markets
Farmers markets involving DTC (direct-to-consumer) sales from growers—according to statistics assembled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—have been growing at a steady clip in the last 20 years, in fact, a clip that well outpaces the growth of the economy as a whole during that time. This provides strong, direct evidence that those consumers are intent on eating good, fresh food, and they’re willing to pay a premium for it. The reasons for this growth are many, but it’s also safe to assume that consumers have finally discovered that there are more than two or three kinds of apples in the world, that fresh tomatoes taste better than the genetically tinkered-with things called tomatoes that are sold in the supermarket, and that it’s more pleasant to do business with a smiling neighbor than with a faceless corporation.
Starting a Farmer’s Market
If a farmers market doesn’t exist in your area, then you’ll do yourself and your fellow gardeners and farmers—to say nothing of those consumers—a great favor by founding one. As is true of everything in gardening, the startup work is hard. But, as is also true of everything in gardening, the satisfactions are many, and once you get things rolling you’ll almost certainly find like-minded gardeners who are willing to pitch in and lighten your load.
Location Is Everything
The first step in establishing a farmers market, as with any other business, is to determine a suitable location. If you’re marketing to suburbanites, you might want to consider a lot near a transportation center or take-in point on a regularly traveled road: a train station, say, or a spot near a highway off-ramp, or a place near an elementary school (provided there is enough street parking to permit parents to stop conveniently before school lets out) or shopping center (provided the chain grocers don’t raise a fuss about the competition).
Similarly, if you’re working in a city, then you’ll want to find a place with plenty of foot traffic—perhaps a parking lot near city hall, a pedestrian mall, or a well-traveled commercial street. In the city in which I live, two or three farmers markets have outdoor shopping centers as their venues, while in the charming little town of Bisbee, Arizona, a couple of hours’ drive from me, a thriving market sprang up after its organizers got permission to use a normally quiet city park on the outskirts of town.
Once you’ve found a location for a multi-vendor farmers market, then you’ll need to recruit other gardeners and producers to join you in your efforts. If you know such people already, then call on them individually to ask after their interest in participating before calling them together to establish a more formal organization; as political organizers know, it’s easier to address personal questions and talk through individual objections one on one than to attend to them in a public forum. A general meeting, instead, is the time to address larger issues such as bylaws and membership requirements, which may have many variables but should spell out rules for what can be sold by whom and under what conditions. For one particularly well-considered set of rules, visit the rules and regulations for vendors section of the online site of the Crescent City Farmers Market.
Remember that, as with every other business relationship, your word is your bond, and that holds true for anyone who participates. You want to work only with reliable, honest people who actually sell organic produce if they bill it as such, and you’ll want to gather references and examine their products. On that note, and this may just be a pet peeve of mine, but all too often farmers markets can be quickly overrun by non-food products. At one I visited just yesterday, it was hard to find a vegetable among all the quack medicines, salt lamps, macramé hangers, T-shirts, and other assorted accouterments more fitting to a swap meet or yard sale than a place where high-quality produce is sold.
Legal and Zoning Issues
You’ll also need to do two things at this point: determine the legality of a potential farmers market, and check on local health regulations. Most communities have prescribed rules for seasonal businesses, including regulations for collecting sales taxes. In many localities, vendors are required to collect both local and state taxes at the point of purchase, although sometimes this chore falls on the organizer: that is to say, if you’ve founded a farmers market, you may need to collect sales tax from each of your vendors and then deliver cash and accounts to your local assessor as often as you hold your market. This can be quite a chore, so do be clear on how taxes are handled before you get too deep into the project.
Most communities, too, have ordinances regulating how food sold must be treated. These requirements are rarely unreasonable, though some goods (unpasteurized apple cider, for instance, and certain kinds of fresh cheeses and other dairy products) have been more or less driven from the market because of them. Assume that the rules are in place for a reason, and ask your fellow vendors to comply with them by, for instance, using two-piece canning lids, following USDA heat-processing guidelines for vegetables and preserves, and labeling packages with appropriate information. Beating more heavily regulated food manufacturers at their own game isn’t hard to do, and customers will appreciate the fact that the goods you market are as safe as can be.
Other regulations, as you might imagine, vary widely from state to state. California enacted new laws in 2017, for instance, that now prohibit resellers from participating in farmers markets—that is, a vendor can no longer drive down to Mexico, buy produce there, and sell it in California, just as another vendor cannot go to the foothills of the Sierras, buy local honey, and sell it in San Diego.
New Jersey allows growers to sell up to 20,000 chickens in DTC venues such as farmers markets and restaurants. Though those growers must be licensed and have their slaughter and food-storage facilities inspected regularly. New Jersey is particularly strict on food labeling requirements, including safe handling, storage, and consume-by-date instructions. Mississippi requires careful labeling, too, but forbids the sale of any homemade foods containing meat, fish, poultry, or dairy products, and even cooked or canned vegetables and smoked meats.
Many states pay almost no attention to vegetables. Indeed the 2010 federal Food Safety Modernization Law exempts farms that make less than $500,000 in DTC sales. If you live in such a state, you might want to convince your vendors to submit to voluntary health inspections, since food-borne illnesses are easily spread on leafy greens. Other regulations cover things such as how food is stored and refrigerated, as well as setting distance requirements for livestock—for example, in California again, no live animals can be kept within 20 feet of where food is stored or sold.
If samples are provided of foods such as homemade bacon or cheese, then health requirements can be stringent indeed. In Texas, for example, regulations require that food be distributed “in a sanitary manner,” with the provider wearing disposable plastic gloves; that potable water be available and that produce be washed in that potable water; and that samples of “cut produce and other potentially hazardous foods” must be kept at or below 41-degrees F and discarded no later than two hours after preparation. Texas is lenient with licensing requirements for DTC sales, but quite stringent on matters of public health, and most other states are similarly strict.
Getting Outside Support
Did you imagine that a market wouldn’t be without regulations and politics? Well, now you’re now ready for more politics: securing organizational support. Once you can show that you’re within the bounds of the law and that you’ll do your utmost to keep consumers safe from food-borne illness, then set to work recruiting the help of your local chamber of commerce or economic development council. Such organizations sometimes have seed money available to help establish new enterprises, and they know that a farmers market can be a valuable addition to the local economic mix. They can also be invaluable allies in spreading word about your efforts.
Recruit, too, your local newspaper, which should take an interest in your work, particularly if you’re offering something that cannot be easily found elsewhere: unusual varieties of produce, say, or certified organic goods grown locally. The Edible Communities network of magazines, many available online, can make an ideal publicity partner, as can many other local publications. It may even be that, once the work of putting the farmers market together is done, you’ll want to start a paper or online newsletter of your own to promote it.
Good Living at the Farmer’s Market
Many producers whom I know make a comfortable living selling strictly through farmers markets, sometimes traveling to two or three cities to serve a broad audience. By participating in or even founding one, you’ll have done your part to reestablish a way of selling goods that favors locally produced goods made by neighbors—and, even in this bewildering hyper-modern economy, people increasingly strive to keep things on a small, friendly scale whenever they can. Consumers benefit by having access to fresh goods, producers benefit by being able to sell irregularly sized produce of the sort that factories shun but nature adores, and the middleman gets left out of the equation, meaning that goods are less expensive to bring to market and to buy.
There’s no downside, really, apart from the usual headaches of trying to do good in the world and grow food in the first place. There’s work to be done, but there are also ample rewards to be had.
This article is from the summer 2018 issue of The New Pioneer Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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