Farmers’ markets urged to be proactive

Managing Editor

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (March 22, 2016) — The popularity of purchasing food direct from farmers at community farmers’ markets continues to grow outpacing the number of farmers selling as vendors.
But that doesn’t mean vendors and managers should skimp on creating a positive shopping experience.
That starts with an organizational structure that promotes clear communication between organizers and vendors, speakers at last week’s Maryland Farmers’ Market Conference said.
Markets across the state have a variety of structures, Janna Howley of the Maryland-based consulting firm Grow & Fortify said. They can be farmer-operated, community or government-run or part of an independent nonprofit organization but they should all clearly spell out guidelines for participation, how the market operates week to week and set up open lines of communication for vendors and organizers.
“When you have a market structure, that kind of creates that framework to be able to have those conversations and be able to know what’s expected of you as a farmer producer participating in the market but also that the farmers and producers know that they can get from you as the market organizer,” Howley said.
Howley recommended meeting at least annually as a group outside of the sales season to review procedures and plan for the coming year.
The structure should also detail how issues between vendors are resolved so they are no surprises when there is a complaint.
“Markets that tend to have longevity and are successful do have something like that in place,” Howley said. “You hope you don’t need it, but it’s good to know that it’s there.”
Sharon Callahan — who started the Hampstead Farmers’ Market seven years ago — said she and co-manager Marlene Duff formed an advisory team with vendor representatives and customers to meet periodically and take up concerns and issues brought to them by customers and vendors.
“We resolve what we need to resolve there,” Callahan said. She added that fortunately the vendors understand that visible conflict when the market is open isn’t good for anyone.
“Attitude is everything,” Callahan said. “If people come to the market and see vendors who are grouchy and looking at their technology in their hands, that about gives me a heart attack.”
With a working market structure in place, creating an inviting presence throughout the market is key, presenters said.
That includes a colorful display of products that appeals to multiple senses, said Cheryl DeBerry, a Garrett County farmers market vendor and county economic development officer.
“But make sure it’s not too perfect, otherwise it’ll sit there all day because they don’t want to mess it up, right?” she said.
Good signage is another important component to clearly communicate with customers. Good signage helps shoppers understand things like prices and which vendor’s participation in government nutrition programs.
“People are at the market because they want to connect with a producer. They want the product that you have so make it as easy as possible for them,” Howley said.
Pet policies at markets was another part of the signage discussion, as some markets don’t allow pets at all, and some designate waiting areas for pets outside the market while owners shop.
Whichever policy the market follows, it should be clearly marked throughout the market. Along with a presence at the market, promotion leading up to market days is “absolutely critical,” Howley said.
“With 145 markets out there and retail stores now trying to market more local products, it’s an incredibly competitive marketplace to have your market stand out,” she said.
Sandy Lawler, manager of the Baltimore Farmers Market and Bazaar, said with her market’s numerous vendors, offering walking tours to customers has been helpful in getting more customer engagement and social media posts when vendors bring the season’s first of the more popular items.
“It get’s buzz going and it gets people coming in,” Lawler said.
DeBerry urged individual farmers to coordinate their promotion with the market’s to get more exposure.