Local, farm-fresh food continues to grow in popularity, but sourcing good ingredients for your kitchen can still be difficult sometimes. Shopping your local farmers’ market is a great place to start, but what if your area doesn’t have a thriving market?
In 2013, I started a farmers’ market in my hometown of Somerset, Ky., alongside a great group of farmers. We wanted to build a strong market to give farmers a viable outlet for their products and consumers a place to connect with the folks growing their food. Starting the Market on Main has been a big investment of time and energy, but all the effort pays off each week when I get to see our community come together in support of local food and small farms. If you’re thinking about starting a market in your area, here are some general guidelines to follow.
Most urban areas are home to one or more farmers’ markets, so how can you know if your city is ready for another one? Look for geographic areas that don’t have access to fresh food. Perhaps there’s a town event where folks are already congregating during a certain time of the week; a farmers’ market might be a welcome addition. If you already frequent a market but think it could be better, why not volunteer your time to help improve it? Established markets often need volunteers to help them grow into something bigger and better.
If there’s truly a need and desire for a farmers’ market in your area, you should be able to quickly connect with others in your social circle willing to support this endeavor. Farmers, community leaders, and health experts are all potential sources of support for your market. In the first year, a market will need financial support, as well as volunteer time. Folks who are willing to spread the word to friends and loved ones are a great help, too. The more people who can get behind your vision for the market, the higher chance of success you will have.
Usually a quick web search should be able to turn up state regulations as they relate to farmers’ markets. In Kentucky, our department of agriculture publishes a farmers’ market manual each year that outlines what is permissible for the market and its vendors, as well as any certifications and trainings that we need to stay legal. Your local extension office should also be able to guide you when it comes to regulations. In many rural locations, city governments do not regulate and require business licenses for farmers’ markets, but always check to be sure.
A great location can transform your farmers market from run-of-the-mill to something warm and inviting to customers. Consider a cool, interesting location that will attract a strong customer base. Nourish Knoxville in Tennessee hosts a winter market in a restored historic train depot. The Market on Main meets outside of our local judicial center. The space has a fountain in the middle and a stage that we utilize for live music. Kids can play in the fountain while their parents shop, enabling folks to stay longer and spend more money.
When looking at potential market locations, consider space for vendors. Plan on 12-by-12 feet per vendor, plus 12 to 18 feet for walkways—but don’t forget room to grow! Adequate parking, restrooms, and access to electricity are also things to keep in mind.
Many people have a very linear view of what a farmers’ market should be—vegetables are often the first and only thing that come to mind. While farm-fresh tomatoes are a great place to start, what other products can you get from local farm vendors? Hanging flower baskets? Value-added products, such as cheese or breads? What about non-food products, including spun wool or goat’s milk soap? A diversity of products is likely to attract a larger customer base.
The farmers at our market produce everything from granola made with Kentucky sorghum to hot pizzas topped with farm-fresh ingredients. It might take time to build your vendor base, but word will spread quickly if farmers find your market a viable outlet for their products. For this reason, deciding early what guidelines your vendors must follow will be a huge help later on down the road. At our market, we focus on vendors selling only what they grow, but many markets allow some reselling. Just remember that whatever rules you come up with will need to be enforced, so carefully consider every guideline before you issue it.
There are many different structures for setting up a farmers’ market. Often, new markets are unincorporated, but the need for some sort of legal entity will arise very quickly. Markets can be corporations, farmer-owned cooperatives or even nonprofits. Take time to select the structure that will work best for your organization. Seek help from a local attorney in making sure your bylaws and other paperwork are completed correctly. The Farmers Market Coalition is a national organization that provides resources and information to farmers’ markets as they are getting established. Visit their website for helpful tips, templates and more as you begin organizing your market.
Technology and social media offer plenty of opportunities to promote your new market online. Create accounts for your market on Facebook, Twitter and even Instagram long before your first opening day. Work with a local web designer to develop a simple website promoting the market’s presence. (You might even find someone willing to barter for fresh, local food.) There are many websites and directories where you can list your market, including Local Harvest and the USDA.
However, don’t just stick to an online presence. Get out in your community and spread the word about local food and how important it can be to a local economy and the health of your residents. Visit (and join) your local Chamber of Commerce. Talk with members of the Rotary Club and other civic organizations. Share the market’s story with local reporters.
A great farmers’ market is about more than food. It is a cornerstone of a living, breathing community, and the activities that happen at the market should reflect that. Think outside the box for ways you can involve community members in your farmers’ market. Some ideas we implemented at our market included having a local yoga studio come do free yoga a couple of times during the summer, partnering with our local Rotary Club to do a shoe drive for orphans, and holding a kids’ market where youngsters can come sell their arts and crafts. We even had a preschool dance recital last year! While none of these things were directly about food, they helped give our community a sense of ownership in the market, making them even more committed to buying much of their food from our farmers. Visit other markets frequently, as well as read their websites and Facebook pages to see what kind of activities they are doing. Keep things fresh and exciting to keep folks coming back for more.
Starting a farmers’ market is not for the faint of heart. It can be difficult and disheartening. If you are passionate about local food and farms, however, it might be just the place to put those passions to work for your community!
About the Author: Jamie Aramini is a freelance writer and founder of Sustainable Kentucky, a website devoted to the green movement in the Bluegrass state. She is an avid gardener, mother of two and manager of her local farmers’ market.