Posted May 11, 2004
In 1999, I created the first farmers markets in London, England.
The first market opened with 16 farmers selling fruit, vegetables,
meat, poultry, cheese, bread, plants and wine. Today, London
Farmers Markets runs 13 farmers markets (12 are weekly) in
London all year-round, serving about 115 farmers and food
producers whose total sales at the markets are about $5 million
These suggestions for marketing at farmers markets were originally
written for the
farmers selling at the London markets. Most had no experience
with direct marketing.
These ideas, revised for American farmers, rely on my experience
selling at farmers
markets in the Washington, D.C. area since 1980. My parents
still make a living selling
vegetables at farmers markets only. In 2003, we attended 14
farmers markets each week.
My mother is a demon farmers marketer and I learned a lot
from her. I am never happier
than when I’m filling baskets, changing prices, talking
about tomato varieties or what to do with fennel, and taking
money. I also look at markets as a customer, cook, journalist,
farm advocate, and market manager.
The Plancks are very good at marketing now, but we
used to be hopeless. Farmers markets were new in
our area in 1980. We had to figure out how to do everything.
In retrospect, it’s clear that we weren’t quick.
It was years before we displayed our produce attractively
(see archival photos below). It was years before we wrote
good signs—and laminated them so that they weren’t
ruined by rain. It was years before we stopped growing--and
trying to sell--things customers didn’t want.
Many of the examples below are about fruit and vegetables,
but the principles apply to everything you see at farmers
markets, including plants, flowers, and bread. I also include
specific comments for meat, dairy, and poultry producers.
You are welcome to distribute this to market organizers,
farmers, and food producers--or anyone else who is interested
in the market for local foods.
These are things we know work well. We are still learning.
Do what works for you.
The more information the better. Prices are the bare
Customers love signs and explanations. You must label everything
with a name and a price. For some reason, food without prices
doesn’t sell well. Many people are too shy to ask directly
about prices. But there is much more you can say.
How much does it weigh? How do you cook it? What is it called?
How hot are the chilies? How is it different? Where is your
farm? Why is it scarce? (WE HAD A FROST.) Why do the apples
have spots? (WE DON’T USE FUNGICIDES.) One of my mother’s
most effective signs: WE GROW REALLY GOOD BEANS.
Suggestions for other handouts:
- Write a description of your farm (location, acres, ownership,
family history, crops, animals, climate, workers). Write
a description of your methods of production. Are you organic?
What does integrated pest management mean? What does grass-fed
beef mean? Why is it better than grain-fed? What breeds
do you raise? Why? If you answer a question often, write
it down. Save your time and help shy customers who will
read a sign but won’t ask you a question.
- Bring articles and information about your farm and its
role in agriculture. When an agribusiness meat processor
recalls tons of beef because of E. coli, or E. coli is found
on organic lettuce, be ready to answer questions from customers.
Tell them what you know about agriculture, food safety or
animal welfare. Good customers want to learn about farming
and foods. You must help them.
- A brochure with cuts and prices is particularly helpful
for meat, poultry, and cheese producers, especially when
your prices and cuts are steady throughout the season.
- Recipes are the indispensable handout.
Charge what it’s worth. Is it superior, rare,
Better food is worth more. When you have a superior product
(better than the supermarket or even the farmer next door),
charge more. Some customers are price-conscious and some aren’t.
When you give away good produce at rock-bottom prices, customers
often buy the same amount anyway. The refrigerator is only
so big, and a family only eats so much.
If your product is rare (a scarce variety or the only one
on the market), charge what it’s worth. If your product
is organic, price accordingly.
Customers do expect value for money. Give them bargains when
you have a lot of something, or if it’s inferior (too
small or slightly bruised or too old).
When you do have a bargain price, promote it with large signs,
visible placement, multiple locations, and polite suggestions.
Offer discounts for volume. We typically sell squash and
zucchini for $1.60/lb, or, when it’s scarce, $2/lb.
That’s not cheap. But if you buy 5 lbs or more, it’s
$1/lb. We also sell slightly more than 5 lbs in a gallon basket
for $5. We move a lot of squash that way to price-conscious
shoppers who like squash. We still get top price from the
people who want just three zucchini.
Value for money is always right.
It’s not a question of high or low prices. A good market—and
a good stand—has high-end treats, less expensive foods
in larger quantities, and items in between. It’s a question
of the right price. Your prices may change during the market,
from week to week, and throughout the season. Don’t
be afraid to change prices. When you do, you must change the
sign immediately and tell all your staff. It helps to make
an announcement about a price reduction as you change the
sign. People like to know.
If it doesn’t sell, the price is probably wrong. Or
the customer does not want that product, or isn’t attracted
by the way you’re selling it.
People love to try things. Teach them about your favorites.
If you’re tired of Golden Delicious apples and prefer
Mutsus, say so. Twenty years ago, we started to teach people
that pickling cucumbers are wonderful in salads. They have
thinner skins and better flavor than standard American cucumbers.
We kept searching for new varieties. Now we grow Armenian,
European, and Middle Eastern types which are better yet. We
sample them all, and many people tell us they are the best
I often give away a new variety, such as the fluorescent
purple eggplant Neon, just to encourage customers to try unusual
Suggest ideas—especially when it’s familiar
or in surplus.
People often just don’t know what to do with things
they see. Tell them how you like to cook it. They often want
to try something new, especially with familiar, well-supplied
vegetables like zucchini.
When you have a glut, customers feel overwhelmed by the surplus
and ever-lower prices won’t inspire them. You must give
them more ideas. Such as:
Go beyond zucchini bread! Try zucchini soup, zucchini pasta,
zucchini frittata, grilled zucchini. For a simple and beautiful
dish, peel zucchini with a vegetable peeler and dress with
olive oil, lemon, parmesan and pepper—zucchini carpaccio.
Another good sign: HOW to MAKE the MOST of a SURPLUS. Here
you tell them how to preserve things easily and on short notice.
For example, when I come home with more fresh herbs than I
know I can use in three days, I toss them in the food processor
with olive oil and salt. Thick or thin, the herb paste is
great on vegetables, bread, fish, poultry, and meat.
Nothing is more discouraging to me than hearing "I don’t
know what it tastes like" from a farmers’ market
worker. All staff—those who work on the farm and those
who only sell at farmers markets—should eat the food.
Restaurant staff have wine and food tastings for staff so
they can answer diners’ questions fully and—yes—subjectively.
Give customers personal opinions.
You must be able to answer objective questions—is this
apple sweet or tart, does this onion store well, is this cut
of meat good for the grill? However, customers also appreciate
personal comments. If you have favorites, say so. If the customer
is asking about apples but you don’t especially like
apples, be honest ("I’m not a great apple eater,
but people say these have the strongest flavor") and
stick to objective descriptions ("Good for baking").
The customer will admire you for it.
Tell them how to keep it.
No one likes to waste good food (or flowers). If you tell
customers how to keep what they buy fresher longer, they won’t
fret about buying too much. For example, make a sign saying:
HOW to KEEP
Wash, spin dry, and
wrap it in a damp kitchen towel in
the fridge for several days.
9. Quality is everything.
Ultimately, farmers markets will not succeed
simply because we are farmers and the folks down the road
are not. They will succeed because the produce is superior
to what consumers can buy elsewhere and the price is right.
If your peaches are green or mealy, your corn is immature,
your beans are tough, your meat is poorly packaged, your
bread is stale, your lettuce is wilted, or your tomatoes
are tasteless, customers won’t come back. Taste your
products. Do they measure up?
In a customer survey we’ve taken at
a popular London farmers’ market, freshness and quality
were the top things customers volunteered in answer to the
question: What’s good about a farmers’ market?
No other answer—not meeting the farmer, not saving
family farms—came close. Customers did cite these (and
other) considerations, such as organic foods. Value for money
was also at the top. But freshness and quality were tops—and
freshness is really a form of quality. Which means that quality
and value for money are the main reasons people come to market.
We are lucky that farmers’ market customers are discerning:
That’s why they shop at the farmers’ market.
But with regular exposure to fresh, seasonal, high-quality
produce, they will become more discerning, not less. You cannot
give them the same old apples week after week, or uneven quality,
or bad prices—and expect them to come back simply because
you are a farmer. They will shop elsewhere.
Choose good varieties and breeds.
Supermarkets offer the same cosmetically perfect bland foods,
from apples to bread to cheese. We need to offer something
better, and different. The sweetest strawberries, handmade
bread, pastry with real butter, raw honey, fresh eggs, marbled,
I don’t believe there is a better-tasting strawberry
than Earliglow. It is smaller than other commercial varieties,
and its season is early, but we charge more for Earliglows
than most farmers do for varieties I find sour and watery.
If you grow a good variety or raise a good breed with some
noticeable downside (Earliglows are small), don’t hide
it. Explain it.
For processed foods, use good ingredients and tell customers
why your jam or cheese or bread is different—it’s
handmade, cured properly, or not treated with chemicals.
Flavor is the most important quality in food. But there are
other ways to distinguish your product from the supermarket's.
It should be fresher because it hasn’t traveled far.
It should be exactly the right maturity and texture—something
supermarkets often get wrong because of transportation needs
(hard pears, mealy tomatoes). Rarity itself can be a virtue.
Grow traditional and unusual varieties and breeds.
If your product has any good quality—plum tomatoes
makes thick sauce, a breed of beef is good on the grill because
it’s lean, a donut peach is easy to peel—say so.
Have something to sell all season.
This is especially critical for fruit and vegetable farmers.
It’s not worth coming to market only to sell asparagus
for three weeks a year. To make a good return from markets,
you need to have spring, summer, autumn and winter crops.
Extend the season with covers, by growing cold weather crops,
or by planting several batches of carrots for a steady supply
of young carrots if they are popular. If you want to sell
seriously at markets, you may need to change your growing
Sell a variety of products.
A stand with one product (only sausages, potatoes, or juice)
holds the attention of customers for only so long: Either
they want the one thing you have to sell or they don’t.
Sell a variety: many different vegetables (even in small quantities),
flavors of juice, cuts of meat. Customers will stay longer
and spend more.
Make bags readily available.
Place bags everywhere within easy reach of customers. Customers
are blind when it comes to bags. This is a farmers’
Work with the manager.
If you have a problem or suggestion, tell the manager. Are
the market hours right? Do you have requests from customers
for something no producer is supplying? Tell the manager about
your farm. The manager serves you and represents you to the
Cultivate regular, loyal customers.
We aim to build a base of customers who shop regularly at
farmers markets. We don’t want 10,000 one-time-only
purchases from the occasional passerby. We want 100 people
to shop 100 times at farmers markets. Or 1,000 people to make
10 purchases. We want people to come to market to spend $10
to $40, not $2.50. That means people who are doing the weekly
shopping at the farmers’ market, often for a family,
week in and week out. And it usually means people who come
for quality, not for rock-bottom prices.
You must remind customers that the market is open every week.
Encourage them to bring friends, colleagues, family and neighbors.
Tell them about other farmers markets you attend.
16. Pile it high and fill it up.
You must restock constantly. Consider carefully who takes
money and who restocks at market. Some people are better at
one job than the other.
The "smallest container" rule
The produce you have should always be in the smallest container
in which it fits. If you start out with a crate of apples,
keep it full throughout the whole market. If you have only
half a crate left, find a smaller basket. By the end of market,
we often have one fennel bulb in a small basket, a few bell
peppers in a quart box, squash in a gallon basket. Customers
dislike buying the last of anything—it looks like the
dregs. The smaller container looks like abundance.
Don’t be afraid of competition.
A good market has a balance of producers with a balance of
produce and prices. Good markets shouldn’t have too
many producers or too many large operations. For one thing,
such markets become impersonal. There shouldn’t be more
producers than the customers can support, or more producers
of one food than demand for it. But the best markets have
plenty to offer customers.
Farmers markets are a basic form of cooperative. You all
agree to sell by the rules for a few hours each week agree.
You are stronger together than alone. Why?
Every market needs a critical mass of producers or customers
won’t bother to come. They’ll go to the supermarket
instead, where they know they can "get everything."
To attract good customers, the pork farmer needs the vegetable
farmer, the honey seller needs the baker, and the egg producer
needs the fruit grower. Imagine how little business we would
do if each stall were on its own street corner instead of
all gathered together at the farmers’ market! Regular
customers especially expect to be able to do a full week’s
shopping. And regular customers spend more money than passers-by.
This also means that one vegetable or fruit stall is not
enough. Customers want—and deserve—a mix of produce,
prices and styles. No farmer is guaranteed a monopoly. It
seems like a paradox: At market, the farmers need each other...and
they also compete with each other. So how do you compete?
Specialize. Do what you’re good at. Tell the customers
why you’re different and better. Set your own standards.
Always charge what it’s worth.
We faced new competition in those early years, and we still
do. If a farmer is out-selling, under-pricing, or out-producing
you, these are things you can do:
- You can compete on price. This has limited
usefulness. Many farmers at the London markets know markets
that collapsed under competitive price-cutting. The farmers’
market has to work for all the farmers. Customers will not
come to a market with only one stall still standing after
a price war. Price-cutting for the sole purpose of grabbing
market share—i.e., to drive the other producers out
until you are the last one standing—is not the answer.
It’s anti-social, it rejects the cooperative spirit
among producers, and in the long run, it’s self-defeating.
It does not mean that each customer buys more. It leaves
every farmer with lower sales. It does not attract or maintain
regular customers. It is the lazy way to compete—customers
want freshness, quality, and value. Give it to them.
- You can compete on quality. You can stop
using sprays or grow a better-tasting vegetable or even
a slightly different product: in Virginia, we grew smaller
melons when we were out-produced on the standard large melon
by warmer farms with sandier soil. People living alone preferred
a one- or two-serving melon. You could grow baby leeks or
red lettuce instead.
- You can sell that item at another farmers’
market. The more markets you attend, the more choices
you have, and the better you will know what sells where,
what competition you can beat, and what your niche is.
- You can stop competing and sell something else.
Find your niche. You don’t have to grow what your
neighbor is growing. Specialize and diversify.
- You can perfect your act. This is marketing.
That means better signs, better sales, nicer and faster
people serving customers, a better display, more recipes
and samples. If you need to sell a lot of eggplant, put
it in four places. Put produce in different boxes and baskets.
Use creative pricing (not under-pricing).
In the long run, the answer to competition is stability.
The goal at any farmers market is serving producers and consumers.
Ideally this is accomplished through a regional network of
markets managed by the same organization. That means enough
markets for the producers, enough producers at each market,
and enough choice for customers. Each producer’s business
becomes more stable as the markets become more regular.
Stability doesn’t mean that in five years you will
be growing what you’re growing today, or that customers
will buy it. See the rest of these notes: You will grow new
things, try new sales techniques, get more customers, and
learn things from new producers. (There will be new producers.)
The early stages of a new farmers’ market can be hard
for everybody, including market organizers, producers, and
customers. It is not stable from the very beginning. But it
will be, if market organizers and producers are patient.
Make chilled foods visible.
Meat, poultry, dairy, and egg producers, and those selling
chilled processed food like egg pasta, have particular challenges
in display. You need to show off your food just as the peach
and tomato farmers do, piled high and colorful and seductive.
Sometimes a meat or poultry farmer seems to be selling nothing
at all. There is a sign with prices—or should be—but
no food in sight.
At many farmers' markets, including London Farmers Markets,
there is access to electricity. Farmers use chilled glass
display cabinets, which look beautiful and allow them to sell
fresh meat, sausages, meat pies, smoked fish, cheese, and
Meanwhile, most producers sell fresh or frozen meat from
plastic cooler chests. No one can see the lovely foods. They
can’t choose their own. They can’t browse without
making a commitment, and they find that embarrassing. These
are all barriers to more sales.
I admire the set-up of a buffalo producer, Cibolla, who sells
at the Falls Church Farmers’ Market in Virginia. Cibolla
has created the sense of a butcher shop in the open air. They
have created a U-shaped stand to invite customers in without
making a commitment, so browsing is possible. Customers are
invited to rummage through the plastic bins for frozen meat,
so self-selection is possible. (Their marketing materials
are also excellent.) One improvement they might consider:
a nice color photo of each cut on the chest. The white plastic
containers aren’t very distinctive.
Bring photos of your farm.
Bring not only your food but also your farm to market. Pictures
of crops, animals, processing (say, making cheese), and workers
with crops and animals are interesting and charming to non-farmers
and bring life to your stand. Pictures also reinforce the
message that we are all linked to farmland through food.
Be cheerful and active.
A bored, sullen person behind the counter is fatal. Without
being a hyper sales monster, be enthusiastic and friendly.
You must move about the stand. Walk to the front of your stand
every 10 minutes for the customer’s view. Pick up trash,
even if it’s not yours. You must demonstrate your high
opinion of your products. You cannot be ignorant about products.
You must give customers a reason to buy. Avoid sarcasm, indifference,
smoking, music, and the impression "I just work here."
Perfect your marketing equipment.
Growing vegetables or raising animals is only half the battle.
Do not neglect the infrastructure of marketing. Have a good
sign box with magic markers, blank paper, tape. We organize
signs by product in a small plastic recipe box. The PEPPERS
file, for example, contains all the pepper signs (bell, hot,
frying) with various prices and quantities. When you get to
market, you need only choose the sign you need.
Our market report tells how much you brought, what price
you sold it at, and when it sold out. When we’re loading
for next week’s market, we have a good idea of what
the market can sell. We refer to the market reports year after
Bring enough change to get you through the early $20 bills.
Experiment with tarps until you find the right one. Bring
wet towels to keep lettuce from wilting in the heat. Use white
side tarps to keep everything shady. Make sure every market
has the baskets, boards, and tables it needs. (We use a checklist.)
Our marketing equipment is modular; it works at every market.
Usually it has two purposes: It’s part of the load itself
and it becomes part of the display.
Like most small business owners, farmers seldom discuss how
much they make. My parents, Chip and Susan Planck, have always
believed that the success of farmers markets depends on the
success of farm businesses. We hope that by sharing information
about sales, we can encourage more farmers to sell at farmers
On August 29, 1999, my parents were in England to visit my
first London farmers market in Islington. Our summer college-age
farm workers selling vegetables at Dupont Circle in Washington,
D.C., made $4,800 in four hours. It was a market record (since
• Among many other things, they sold 1,250 pounds of
tomatoes for $2 a pound—about $2,500, or half the total
sales. They sold out of tomatoes.
Lesson 1: Specialize. (We grow 25 varieties
Lesson 2: Grow the best varieties. (If it
isn’t delicious, we don’t grow it.)
Lesson 3: Give samples. (Our customers ask
for tomatoes by name.)
Lesson 4: Treat it properly. (Our tomatoes
are ripe and unbruised.)
Lesson 5: Charge what it’s worth. (We
are not fancy, but customers think our tomatoes are worth
$2.40/lb. Some of our prices are higher than the supermarket
or the stand next door, some lower. Between you, the competition,
and the customer, you learn what it’s worth.)
• They sold 6 bushels of basil, about 180 bunches the
size of two hands at $2 each.
Lesson 1: Grow what the customers want. (We
used to try to sell whole basil plants, with the muddy root
and all the stems still on, for $1. Now we cut just the leaves,
wash and bunch them and make ten times more money per plant.)
Lesson 2: Grow high-value crops on small
pieces of ground. (Basil is also light and small to carry
Lesson 3: Grow something the supermarkets don’t.
(Basil in supermarket pots dies before you can use
it; the cut basil is old, over-watered and over-fed with nitrogen.
It doesn’t last and it’s bland.)
The Plancks pay a fairly substantial fee at this market.
We are glad to do it. With markets like this one—and
thirteen others, including somewhat slower weekday markets—my
parents are able to farm for a living. Average annual sales
from 1998 to 2002 were about $325,000 and in 2003, a bad year
for weather, sales were a record high of $350,000. (The biggest
expense is labor, about $110,000.) They sell only at farmers
markets and have no other income. Farmers markets saved our
That is why we have worked hard, not only to sell more vegetables,
but also to convince customers and communities that farmers
need a stable network of well-managed farmers markets in every
suburb, town, and city. Every farm selling direct has different
means and needs, but we all rely on convincing customers to
buy local foods. It is notable how diverse farmers markets
are. Many farms smaller and larger than ours—in acreage
and sales—rely on farmers markets too.
that you have the tools you need to sell more effectively,
visit our Grassroots
to find out what prices organic crops are fetching
at farmers' markets in your area.