Farmers markets are a really interesting place to sell produce at. We as vendors and owners of our business are interacting with the very people that are using our products. It is inherently so different from other ways of selling because of this direct relationship and personal connection. When buying something in retail, you are speaking with an employee of a company, one who usually doesn’t have any real say in the business they are representing.
I wanted to share some thoughts from the perspective of a small scale farmer who’s sold at farmers markets for over a decade, there are lots of things that stay the same over the years and of course some things that change too. I’m going to try to keep this brief (Hopefully!).
One thing that I find interesting is that some market customers want to be greeted and some don’t! I can say hi to one person and they will quickly move along and the next person will smile and walk up closer. I try to determine who is going to want a moment to look around first and who will walk away if you don’t say hi quick enough. It is certainly something I would love to be able to determine if I could, and maybe some vendors have a better instinct on this than me. Just know if you’re a customer at a farmers market that vendors are there to tell you about their products and are happy to tell you what you need to know!
Another thing I’ve noticed is that customers will very often not want to take the last bag of something, maybe because they’re worried about our display, well we brought it to sell it so please, take the last bag!
This leads into some thoughts about marketing our table - more products on the table always looks better from the customers point of view. This is a tricky thing for small-scale farmers with an aim for sustainability, namely we do not want to waste food! Every pick day before market day we try to have a feel for how busy the market will be, how much we can sell. We always have produce left over at the end of the market, so how much do we want to bring back with us? How much can we eat ourselves? How can we limit the waste of what we harvest from our fields. These are questions we ask ourselves everytime.
You may notice that at every farmers market there is atleast one farm that has a little bit of almost everything, this is not by accident. They know that the more variety they have on their table the more likely they will sell more of each thing, because customers like one-stop-shops. Often (but not always) these farmers bring produce from other farms in order to have these well rounded tables. They are doing what they can and need to in order to make a living.
The more you can replicate the grocery store ideas of selling vegetables, generally the more you will sell because customers are used to buying vegetables this way. This means having lots of variety, but it also means having things in plastic and ideally, labelled. This leads to a big dilemma for small-scale farmers because we are sustainability-minded. We could bring equal amounts of unbagged heads of lettuce and bags of salad mix and we would for sure sell all the bagged lettuce within the first couple of hours and likely bring most of the unbagged heads of lettuce home with us. This has been demonstrated to us countless times! If we put the same salad mix in paper bags on the table, we’d probably sell even less than the unbagged lettuce. This is because it isn’t visible to passerbys, and no matter how intentional people want to be about sustainability, if they don’t know you have lettuce they won’t buy it from you. This of course is not true for your regular customers who come to you every week, but much of what you make in a day from your produce comes from people that are passing through or from out of town.
This leads to a weird middleground for small-scale farmers, where you want to limit your plastic usage as much as possible, but you also want your farm to stay afloat financially. It can perhaps make you seem like you lack integrity or are dishonest. But the fact is, we farmers are trying to do what we can, when we can. If I could bring all our produce loose or in paper bags I of course would! But it is not just on the vendors to make this happen, customers have to make intentional choices to for us to be able to make sustainable choices. This has been changing slowly over the years, but the majority of customers will still choose the plastic bag of salad mix - this is not a judgement, just an observation. We are lucky with our CSA that we can do all in paper packaging, this has been asked for by many members and accepted happily by the others, and it works is because these members are getting these veggies in paper packaging without having to pick it out at a table, it’s just going straight to them.
Speaking with people shopping at farmers market, we are not dealing with data, we are not dealing with statistics, we are dealing with real people with their own thoughts, feelings and experiences. It is personal in the way that retail grocery shopping can never be.
This leads to another thought of wanting to be able to speak to people at their level of knowledge of plants and food. When I say there is all levels I literally mean it! Just in one market day I can go from speaking with someone who’s never even heard of an eggplant to another who lived on an island where they grafted eggplant branches onto a wild related species and prepared them in specific ways to that culture. There is all kinds of different knowledge levels of this stuff and it can be tricky at first to know where the person is at with this knowledge, so please don’t be offended if we as vendors misjudge it at first! We are trying, to meet everyone at their level of understanding but it does take alot of adaptability for sure.
Hmm what else… if a vendor is sitting down, or not at their table, or eating, they will probably still want to help you, it doesn’t hurt to ask! Its just that we get tired and hungry at times haha. And alot goes into market day prep, it’s usually atleast one day of picking, washing and packing veggies, then there is getting to the market (which can be quite early for some), and setting up the table, then being there for several hours and talking to lots of different people, and then tear down and bringing it all back home. We still want to help you even if we’re sitting down, we’re just tired haha.
Well that’s all I can think of at the moment, if you have any questions about what goes on in the mind of a farmers market vendor feel free to ask!
Farmers markets are wonderful, dynamic places that let you interect and learn with the community in such a direct way. I hope that this has given you a little more insight into what goes on in the minds of people behind the tables!
Olde Furrow Farmers!!