Tomato, Tornado: The Grind Behind Your Favorite Farmers Market

"Rain, shine, or near-tornado," farmers markets endure. We looked behind the scenes of few of our favorites to learn how they work.

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If you want the best produce anywhere—along with humanely-raised meats, local honey, and the occasional cool art trinket—visit your local farmers market. You’ve probably got one nearby; according to a 2014 survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are over 8,400 of the markets throughout the United States, and demand continues to grow.

We regularly visit our weekly farmers market, but we wondered what goes on behind the scenes. How much time do vendors spend at their booths? How does the weather affect their operations? (Both a lot and a little, it turns out.) Are we annoying them when we try to haggle?

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We reached out to a few vendors to learn the ins and outs of the trade (and hopefully get some good tips for endearing ourselves to our favorite farmers). It turns out that…

The work starts long before customers stroll in.

To some degree, this isn’t a surprise. However, if you’re thinking about joining your local farmers market, we can’t stress it enough: Make sure you’re aware of the work you’ll be putting in.

“For me, preparation can vary from the day before to a couple weeks before, depending on what time of year it is and if I have other events planned,” says Lisa Graham of YYC Beeswax in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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“At the beginning of market season, it takes a bit longer to prepare/update display pieces and make sure inventory is up to date. I sell handmade products, and the time it takes to make each item varies, so I usually start preparing a few weeks in advance of my first market of the season and at least three days before a market in the middle of the season.”

Many of the vendors at farmers markets are—surprise, surprise—actual farmers. They live in rural areas, so commuting can take some time.

“I grow all my own product,” says Stan Caliper of Caliper Farm to Market in Royse City, Texas. “It takes at least two hours to pick and at least an hour to drive to a market from my rural location. It takes a minimum of one hour to set up and to stock the tent. The shortest markets are four hours.”

“[I plan for] at least one drive back and one or two hours to sort and restock,” he says. “That’s about 10 hours to do a four-hour market, not including any production time.”

If you’re thinking about getting into the farmers market trade, Caliper warns that you’ll never have a Saturday free. You’ll be spending that time outdoors in a pretty pleasant environment, of course, but hey, it’s still a sacrifice.

Your profits depend on the weather, which can be frustrating.

“It’s all weather related,” Caliper says. “On the best days, I can’t take the money in fast enough. [On] rainy and cold days, I sit in a chair, exposed to the elements, and see no one.”

If you’re a full-time vendor, that’s a big problem. However, once you’ve opened your booth, you’re in it for the long haul.

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“We are out at the markets rain, shine, or near-tornado,” says Stephanie Peace of Ludwig Farmstead Creamery in Missouri.

Wait…tornado?

“A couple of years ago, there was a bad storm coming in—we all had the option to stay or go. I was already set up along with a lot of other vendors, so we opted to stay. We could see the dark, ominous clouds rolling in fast, and we all tried to help the other vendors get their tents up as quickly as possible.”

“Even with weights to hold the tents down, a couple of tents flew up in the air and ended up forcibly crashing and getting twisted and broken. It was definitely an exciting afternoon. Thankfully, no one was hurt. After all of that, some of our die-hard customers came to the market and helped to salvage a hard beginning to the day.”

Our sources seemed to agree on that point; a bad day can quickly become salvageable, so the seasoned veterans don’t start packing up until the market’s officially over.

It’s something of a fraternity.

One of the big perks of being a vendor? You get to interact with a lot of really cool people, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll walk away with a few free tomatoes.

“The other vendors and I barter with our products through the market season,” says Merilyn Konnert, founder of Utopia Bath, Ltd. in New York. “I get so spoiled with the freshest vegetables, the freshest fish, it’s fantastic.”

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Konnert says that she feels a strong personal connection with the other vendors. A two-time breast cancer survivor, she runs a survivorship coalition at her local hospital, and people often stop by her booth to ask for advice.

“If I miss a Saturday morning, the following Saturday, they’ll stop at my table and check on me,” she says. “It’s marvelous.”

Other sellers told us that farmers markets are tremendous places for networking. For farmers, a connection with a local restaurant can prove extremely valuable.

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“Farmers markets were our main source of income when we first started out,” says Peace. “But now, they are mostly for exposure and to meet some chefs in the area.”

Of course, some vendors don’t have much time for networking.

“During the open hours of the market, I stay at my booth as much as possible to interact with shoppers,” says Graham. “When it slows down, it’s nice to learn a bit more about fellow vendors nearby. All of the markets I attend have great communities, and we get to know each other well as we run across each other at other markets.”

No, you’re not supposed to haggle.

We’ll admit it: When we visited our first farmers market, we tried to negotiate for a packet of artisanal beef jerky. As it turns out, that was a bit of a faux pas.

“I have had a few people try to haggle on price, and I do not appreciate it,” says Graham. “This is my livelihood, and I spend a lot of time evaluating my prices to give what I feel is a fair price to my customers.”

“Occasionally, we have people who try to haggle,” says Peace. “It is generally not an accepted practice with any of the markets. Some vendors may offer some things on sale for that week, but haggling is not something we do.”

“[Haggling policies] depend on the location,” explains Caliper, “but it rarely happens to me. I don’t appreciate hagglers, personally.”

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When you run a booth at a farmers market, you interact with customers one-on-one. Sometimes, that means being assertive when they’re being unintentionally rude.

“I’ve had parents allow their children to touch all of the soaps—ruining the packaging with their sticky-bun or pickle-juice fingers,” Konnerth says. “But I’ve learned to just speak up.”

To succeed, you need to offer something different, and you need to be flexible.

“At any market where you want to be a vendor, make sure you have something different to offer,” suggests Peace. “You can still have some similar items as other vendors, but you will stand out and make more if you have a different product available. We are vendors at multiple markets that have another cheese vendor, but they sell goat’s milk cheese, and we are raw cow’s milk cheese, so that we don’t compete too much.”

Full-time vendors typically attend multiple markets, so schedules can be somewhat hectic.

“I have my favorite markets I frequent as often as possible,” Graham says. “They usually change from week to week. Markets that run all summer, I try to book one, two times per month. I am reaching the point now where I will be at multiple markets on the same day, which means I have to prepare double the inventory and hire help. In addition to farmers markets, I also attend handmade markets geared toward hand-crafted products and community events.”

Different markets appeal to different types of consumers, and experienced vendors understand how those differences can drive sales. Peace says that first timers should look for markets that can guarantee decent attendance, even if registration prices are somewhat expensive.

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“Before becoming a market vendor, ask some of the vendors who are there how the market is,” Graham says. “It’s even better if you know the vendors well. It’s also helpful to learn the demographics of the market and the marketing strategy. There are sometimes opportunities to take advantage of marketing opportunities for your business, such as in the market newsletter or via donations to a local event.”

Mind your manners (or move on).

“The average customer may not realize that the person behind the stand actually produced the product,” says Caliper. “Know your farmer. I’m standing right here. I don’t want to poison you, or me for that matter. I know the history of the product.”

If you make comments about quality, make sure to stay respectful. Otherwise, don’t be surprised when your favorite farmer turns you away.

“If you insult me or diminish my product, I will take it personally,” Caliper says. “I don’t even want you to have it, at any price.”

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Ultimately, the people who set up booths in farmers markets don’t do it for the money; they’re passionate about their work, and they enjoy building personal relationships with their customers. That’s why farmers markets are such awesome places to visit—you get the peace of mind that comes from knowing exactly where your food comes from.

“This is my passion and my livelihood,” Konnerth says. “I’ve learned a great deal. None of this makes a 5 a.m. Saturday morning wake-up easy, but it does make it rewarding, and I love it.”

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