How to Sell at Farmers Markets as a Business – Vendor Classifications

You love shopping at your local farmers’ market like the good millennial you are. There’s nothing wrong with supporting local growers and craftspeople who make your home region special.

Then again, maybe you’re on the wrong side of your weekly farmers’ market transaction. Who’s to say you’re not cut out to sell at your local farmers’ market?

You don’t have to till your own fields every spring or milk your own cows every morning to earn a spot at your local farmers’ market. All you need is a reliable source of fresh-grown produce, animal products, or value-added wares. If you have a backyard vegetable garden or urban farm lot, a small livestock operation, or safe means of producing value-added food or non-food products, you can support a farmers’ market stall. At least, in theory.

The reality is more complicated, but certainly not insurmountable for committed vendors. In this guide, we’ll examine:

First up: determining whether you’re a good fit to sell at a farmers’ market.

As I said, you don’t have to own or rent farmland to fit in at your local farmers’ market. A sizable, well-tended backyard garden or livestock operation, or (legal) foraging enterprise, is sufficient to sustain a low-volume stall throughout the season, yields permitting. If you make value-added products, such as preserved fruits and vegetables, prepared foods, or non-food crafts (market policies permitting), you’re on even sounder footing.

Every farmers’ market is different, but these broad product categories are both widely accepted by U.S. markets and relatively easy for small-scale sellers to procure:

Bear in mind that few if any markets hold vendors to one particular item or group of items. That wouldn’t be good for either party. Most markets group like vendors together, but there’s probably nothing stopping you from selling, say, bread and crafts at the same stall. Check with your market’s organizers to be sure, though.

This is a roughly linear guide to choosing a farmers’ market and preparing your stall. Depending on local ordinances and market policies, your experience may vary.

First, figure out what you’ll sell at your stall.

This consideration turns on multiple factors: your personal interests, what’s practical for you to grow or prepare given your resources, market policies and restrictions, and local ordinances that restrict or circumscribe sales of certain food products.

Selling What You Grow
You’ll want to begin this process several months before you plan to start at the farmers’ market. If you plan to sell produce or animal products from the land you own or rent in a community garden, you’ll need that time to plan your plots and set up your enclosures.

Space and climate permitting, plant fruits and vegetables that mature at different times of year to ensure that you’ll have a steady supply of produce throughout the market season. In colder climates, you may need to start early-season crops indoors, using artificial lights. This will increase your startup costs – see below. In warm climates, where farmers’ markets are more likely to run year-round, that may not be necessary.

You can guarantee a steady supply of salable wares throughout the season and boost your stall’s revenue by preserving some produce or making value-added products like salsa and jam. Neither is as hard as you might think.

Reselling Produce
Many farmers’ markets allow vendors to resell farm products that they don’t grow themselves. This is a great option for prospective vendors who lack the land, time, or talent necessary to raise their own crops.

To get started as a reseller, approach small growers in your area about purchasing their produce or animal products wholesale. Though many smaller growers have their own farmers’ market stalls, ad hoc wholesaling arrangements help reduce waste and pad margins, so you’ll likely find takers. If you’re not sure where to start, look up community garden organizations, cultural associations, and tribal or immigrants’ rights groups in your hometown. (In many major metro areas, recent immigrants and indigenous groups dominate suburban and exurban grower communities.)

Like new apartments or office suites, farmers’ market stalls are basically blank slates. (Though there usually aren’t any permanent walls to knock down.) Market policies and pragmatism permitting, you can make yours your own.

Planning a farmers’ market stall isn’t quite as fun as decorating a new home. Consider:

Before you sell a single item at the farmers’ market, you’ll need to get right with the law. Start by contacting your target market’s management team and asking what permits or licenses you’ll need to sell legally.

Many jurisdictions, but not all, require prepared or processed food vendors to acquire seasonal food permits and submit to periodic health inspections. Unprocessed food vendors – those selling raw produce – are generally subject to less stringent requirements than processed or prepared food vendors. In Utah, unprocessed food vendors aren’t required to register with the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, for instance, though they’re still bound by local health ordinances. Most jurisdictions have similar “product of the farm” exceptions: If you grow it yourself or buy it from the grower, and don’t alter it in any meaningful way, you can sell it with much less red tape.

If you do need to register with a state or local authority, you’ll fill out an application form, pay a nominal fee, and submit to any required facilities inspections (for instance, your commercial or home kitchen). You may need to obtain a food safety certification too, at additional expense. (The National Restaurant Association’s certification arm is ServSafe, but your locality may require another course.) The certification process typically takes a half- or full day, with a written examination at the end.

Most farmers’ markets also require value-added vendors to carry liability insurance policies, which can significantly add to the cost of doing business. Bare-bones policies for cottage vendors (gross sales under $200,000 annually) start at $299 per year, per FLIProgram. If you do plan to sell prepared or value-added products at the farmers’ market, you’ll probably want to offset this cost by producing in sufficient volume to sell online or in stores.

Finally, you may want to set up a formal legal structure for your business, particularly if you plan to sell prepared or value-added foods outside the farmers’ market. Wrapping your enterprise in an LLC or S-corp provides additional legal protection and may come with tax benefits too.

Double-check that you meet your target market’s vendor criteria.

Some markets strictly prohibit resellers or value-added product vendors, for instance. Others impose stringent local sourcing restrictions that may interfere with your plans to resell far-flung produce. These policies might seem tough, but they exist for a good reason: to support real farmers.

On the other hand, some markets are really lenient. They aim to support small businesspeople in general, not just growers. When in doubt, check with market management.

Next, secure your spot at the market. Popular farmers’ markets often have waiting lists, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get your first choice your first year in business. You may need to compromise on location, perhaps opting for that out-of-the-way suburban market until the plum downtown spot opens up. Don’t worry: People patronize outlying markets too, or else they wouldn’t be in business.

To maximize your chances of getting your first or second choice, contact market operators as early as possible, well before the season begins. Worst case scenario: You get on next year’s waiting list before all the latecomers.

Determine how you’ll get your wares to the market each week.

If you’re selling produce grown in your backyard plot, this might be as simple as harvesting and packing your produce the evening before market day. If you’re reselling produce from other farmers, you’ll need to invest more time and effort – and road miles – to obtain your inventory. If you’re selling value-added products that require some sort of transformation (cooking, preserving) before they’re ready for consumption, your considerations will be more complex still.

Depending on the nature of your enterprise, you’ll need:

Lastly, make sure your stall is eye-catching. Check with market management for guidance on approved dimensions, colors, materials, and any other notable restrictions. If you have good handwriting, the easiest and cheapest option for listing subject-to-change wares is a whiteboard. If your selection doesn’t vary much from week to week, print a banner listing prices and items.

Try these tips and tricks to get more out of your farmers’ market stall – and, if you’re up for the challenge, to turn your green thumb or culinary skill into a year-round business:

For many small-time farmers’ market vendors, running a stall for a few hours per week is a modest income-producing hobby. There’s no shame at all in staying lean and doing your small part to freshen up a few dozen marketgoers’ diets.

But maybe that’s not enough. For some ambitious culinary entrepreneurs, a farmers’ market stall is but one arrow in a brimming quiver of fruitful sales channels. If you have a knack for turning fresh produce into something more, or enough land to supply a thriving market garden, or any other talent or resources suitable for public consumption, your local farmers’ market could be your ticket to a profitable side business – or a full-time enterprise.

Turning your hobby into something profitable enough to quit your day job for isn’t easy. You’ll need a business plan, suitable licenses and certifications, tax help, marketing assistance, and a lot more. But it’s definitely doable. With luck, perhaps you’ll look back on your first farmers’ market stall as the opening chapter in the entrepreneurial book you were always meant to write.

Are you thinking about opening a farmers’ market stall?

Categories: Small Business

Brian Martucci writes about frugal living, entrepreneurship, and innovative ideas. When he’s not interviewing small business owners or investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, he’s probably out exploring a new trail or sampling a novel cuisine. Find him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.

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How to Sell at Farmers Markets as a Business – Vendor Classifications

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