June 27, 2003: A new farmers’ market
was forming in our area of Pennsylvania and some 15 eager
farmers gathered recently to establish rules and get acquainted.
Many of us have sold at other markets, but a few were obviously
looking forward to this totally fun-filled and lucrative venture,
totally clueless to what really awaited them.
“Now, what do we do if
it rains?” asked one young, eager participant.
“You get wet!” I blurted out.
OK, I sometimes have no control over my mouth. Heads nodded,
and knowing smiles erupted around the room. He was clearly
expecting a different answer. But when you do a farmers’
market, there are no “rain dates.” Awnings aren’t
real helpful in a torrential downpour. And Mother Nature always
manages to add just enough wind to give you a sideways soak
to drive home the point that She rules.
OK, this column is a bit off course, but we’ve had
the most e-mails asking about Farmers’ Market--ing 101.
While many markets begin the season in April or May, many
others start in mid-July. So here goes.
The wet, the cold, and the sweaty
It’s not all fun and it’s not always lucrative.
You work in the pouring rain. You work in the broiling sun.
You need to be consistent to have repeat customers, and the
first year of any market is often slow, until enough people
find out about it and change their schedule to include you
often. You’ll inevitably see a customer manhandle your
beautiful flowers and then make some inappropriate comment
about the “high price” (while holding a flavored
coffee she paid big bucks for, turning on her $150 shoes and
heading for her new Lexus.)
on the job?: The ups and downs of farmers'
markets can drain even the hardiest of souls.
We started one farmers’ market at the beginning of
May this year. Each Saturday has been horribly overcast. It
has rained two or three times. We nearly froze two other days.
Everyone cheered when the thermometer on the bank across the
street hit 50°F -- and finally stayed there. The morning
started off at a chilly 47°F. Two weeks ago it poured.
Maybe 20 customers ventured out in the rain -- all day. My
jeans and socks were soaked after the first hour. (Smartypants
George wore his rainsuit and rubber boots, of course. Men!)
It was a financial disaster.
BUT HOLD ON -- there is definitely an “up” side!
We farmers had a ball talking and laughing with one another
that week, and, of course, exchanging goodies. When the sun
is shining and customers are plentiful and you have LOTS of
flowers to sell, life -- and your financial outlook -- are
pretty good. There are always the gems who tell you how beautiful
your flowers are, and who come every week to buy them.
Finding the right Market
Growers of flowers and vegetables are always on the lookout
for a better outlet for their product, and farmers’
markets -- good producer-only Farmers’ Markets -- can
be great, overall. Some states like California, Maine, Texas
and Vermont have a plethora of exceptional growers markets.
Many even have laws that state just what a real farmers’
market is -- in other words, a major percentage of items you
sell must be grown by you. Other states, like my Pennsylvania,
are seeing the light, and more markets are starting up. People
want fresh, LOCAL products!
If you haven’t investigated markets yet, check with
your local Extension service for information. Many areas have
room for additional farmers at markets and many markets start
mid-summer. Some markets have waiting lists. Some have entry
fees. Most have some fee to help pay for advertising and general
expenses. If there are no farmers’ markets in your area
and you see a need, find the closest farmers’ market
to your town and pick the vendors’ brains. Ask your
Extension agent for basic information for starting a market
-- next season. This season, explore all the area markets
and see what works for others, and decide what would work
for your community.
How do flowers fit in to the local farmers’ market?
Obviously, it depends upon your area. One friend regularly
sold 125 bouquets at a Sunday morning market in suburban Washington
D.C., while another who did a Green Market in New York City
gave up trying to sell flowers with veggies because of a saturated
Flowers sold well for us at a Philadelphia market we did
two years ago, and they sell well at our local markets an
hour north of Philly. California and Upstate New York traditionally
do a brisk business for cut flowers at local markets, but
again, how saturated is your market?
Changing the customer's mind
I’m always amazed that more Americans don’t buy
fresh flowers! When we lived in Moscow, Russia, 10 years ago
(husband George was and still is publishing New Gardener and
Farmer magazine there for Rodale, Inc.) men regularly stopped
to purchase flowers from street vendors to take home to the
women in their lives. Flowers were everywhere, and they weren’t
cheap, even by ruble standards. They were a valued commodity.
Same goes for Europe. But Americans will catch on more and
more, if we do our job properly!
Quality local flowers are nicer than the plasticized stuff
that is trucked hundreds of miles to florists. Local flowers
are fragrant, different from the norm, and FRESH. Show your
customers. Educate them!
I had an unbelievable conversation with a “resaler”
at one area shopping facility last year when I asked if she
bought local flowers. “I only like the flowers from
South America,” she said. “They have something
in their soil that makes them last longer.”
“Pesticides. DDT,” I blurted. (There went the
mouth again.) But I smiled and added -- before she could think
about it -- how fragrant my flowers are, and how customers
always remark about how much better they look and how much
longer they last than other bouquets.
“Maybe you could bring a bucket or two by,” she
ended up saying.
Here are some tips for selling at market (gleaned from the
advice of many experts at a lot of conferences, but mostly,
of course, from Experience with a capital E):
Whether you sell only flowers,
or flowers and vegetables, have a professional looking display.
That tells your customers you are serious
about your product and that they can trust you. If you sell
only flowers this aspect is very important because you want
your customers to know you have a comparable product to
a floral shop.
Have clear signs, label prices
and have things for people to read at your stand
-- information about your farm, information blurbs about
a flower or your flower of the week. Anything that will
keep them in your space a little longer will give you a
better chance for a sale.
Be friendly and talk to your
customers, if they are receptive. Tell them
the name of the flower they are admiring, how long it will
last, maybe how hard it is to grow -- and that you grow
everything you sell. Few people understand about local farms,
real farmers -- and few know that many middlemen masquerade
as growers. Educate them!
Have a good volume and plenty
of color. It will attract people like a
Sell only quality flowers.
(As we discussed last time, post-harvest handling is critical).
People will come back if the flowers you sold them have
a good vase life.
Keep flower buckets wiped
off (clean) and neat. We use white plastic
paint buckets (from Home Depot) for our regular bouquets,
and taller, thin plastic flower buckets (available from
local floral supply stores) for taller varieties and those
with long stems.
Tell customers how to maintain
their flowers. We tell them to change the
water every day or ever other day, since as organic growers
we don’t use preservative. Remind them that some flowers
have blooms that can be picked off when spent (like Campanula)
to make way for others on the stem that will open. If you
use preservative, little packets are available at floral
supply houses that you can include with the bouquet, or
give customers a card with a homemade alternative: To three
cups of water, add 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon vinegar
and one crushed aspirin tablet. People seem to like the
Wrap your bouquets or purchased
flowers attractively, whether you choose
to use floral sleeves (available from your local floral
supply houses or any number of websites), a plain paper,
such as end runs of newsprint, or tissue paper. We use sleeves
-- I got the new clear sleeves with tissue paper inset look
this year, along with clear -- because I feel they look
more professional. Some friends just use plastic bags at
their markets, and customers don’t seem to mind.
Have something customers
can use to take flowers a distance. Save
milk or orange juice cartons. That way, when someone says,
“I’d love a bouquet but I have to go to my mother’s
an hour away,” you can say, “Hey, no problem...”
Be creative with your offerings.
Have a variety of sizes of bouquets, from the $10 bunch
to the $3 mini. Build your own bouquets are popular at some
markets. Have several buckets of individual flowers for
customers to choose from to make their own bouquets according
to your choice offerings of focal and filler flowers. Or
offer bunches of one kind of flower, such as zinnias or
snapdragons. We’ve found anything works, as long as
it’s colorful. Fall colors don’t do well in
summer, and dull colors don’t do well, especially
on cloudy days.
Have a good awning to protect
your flowers from the harsh summer sun. Wilting
flowers won’t sell. One of my friends says white is
the best color and blue the worst for an awning. We haven’t
noticed that color has mattered for us.
Check your flower buckets
often during the market to make sure flower stems are IN
the water. We’ve noticed when people
pick bouquets up to compare, they often don’t set
them back in the water. And they break some stems. Sleeving
in the buckets can help both problems.
Have a few sunflowers that
aren’t quite perfect? Give them away to kids. It’ll
make them happy, and moms will remember.