Attendees listen to panel discuss ways to boost traffic at farmers’ markets

AFP Correspondent

NEW BRUNSWICK — Strategies for boosting traffic at farmers’ markets from three veteran market managers were shared at the Northeast Organic Farming Association-New Jersey Winter Conference annual conference held at the Douglass College Student Center on the campus of Rutgers University.
Speakers included Christine Cirkus of the West Windsor Farmers’ Market; Nelson Li of the Metuchen Farmers’ Market and Lorette Pruden of the Montgomery Township Farmers’ Market.
Cirkus said her past experience setting up farmers’ markets in less privileged areas like Trenton. She is going into her seventh year managing the West Windsor Farmers’ market.
“It all comes back to the farmers, everything I do, it’s all about the farmers for me. I do this so that our farmers are making money,” Cirkus said.
Li in Metuchen is a volunteer market manager, unlike Pruden and Cirkus, who are paid stipends. Li has used his background in science and architecture, time with the Metuchen Chamber of Commerce and general pride in “the brainy borough” — as it’s sometimes called – to help his market thrive. Metuchen is in the northern end of Middlesex County, where there are few farms, so it uses farmers from southern Middlesex County.
Pruden noted her market is sponsored by Montgomery Friends of Open Space, a non-profit group that seeks to preserve the township’s mostly rural character.
Pruden is also a small business coach and author of “Mindset Shifts for Success in Your Own Business, “so through my work with farmers, food processors and restaurants I have done a lot of work helping small businesses.”
In the realm of farmers’ markets, Pruden stressed, “whether you make cheese of eggs or cupcakes or lettuce, we all want to work together; the collaborative, community effort is always a focus here at NOFA.”
Indeed the focus at all three farmers’ markets is for all vendors to do well and sell a lot of produce at their weekly gatherings, Pruden noted. 
While displaying the Montgomery Friends of Open Space logo, Pruden reminded the audience, “branding is how people remember you, it’s visual, it’s colorful, it’s based on your reputation.” She then put up a slide of the “Jersey Fresh” logo and pointed out it’s one of the most recognizable brands in the country. Farmers’ markets need a logo and some kind of website and neither have to be expensive to create, Pruden said.
“There’s also social media, there’s print advertising and there is community involvement, and these are the easiest and cheapest ways to get the most bang for your buck,” she said.
Pruden said an e-mail newsletter has proven effective if for nothing else than reminding people when they check their e-mail on Saturday mornings that the farmers’ market is open that day.
“We also do more marketing on FaceBook. If I put a FaceBook post up, we generally see more people show up at the market later that morning,” Pruden said.
“What really works best for us is for all of us to be promoting each other,” she added. “We’re all in this together. I do everything I can to bring traffic to the market so you farmers have customers to sell to, but we can’t do it all alone.”
“I care a lot about our town and just really wanted to see our market thrive,” Li of Metuchen said. Li noted at the outset that there are seven farmers’ markets within a few miles of Metuchen, including Rutgers Gardens, other markets in the city of New Brunswick and in Highland Park, Edison and Woodbridge.
“They’re not all open on Saturdays of course, but we’re conscious that people have choices,” Li said, noting the Metuchen market has grown from three to 18 quality vendors over the last decade or so. We got to those 18 vendors in a paced, moderate way, always with an eye toward what the new farmer is adding to the mix.” Li said the Metuchen market is open 26 consecutive Saturdays, rain or shine, and draws between 700 and 1,000 patrons each week.
“Attracting shoppers is different than bringing in revenue,” Li pointed out, “it’s understanding the soft side of the market, knowing it’s an attraction for the community, it’s part of the fabric of the community.”
In Metuchen, he said, “the goal has never been to maximize the number of vendors, but rather, to get the right mix of vendors that people want.”
The Metuchen market uses FaceBook, e-mailed newsletters, print media advertising, and even TV and radio ads to draw nearly 1,000 people a week. Cooking demonstrations and other events every week also help draw people out on Saturdays.
“A Whole Foods is coming in down the road from us very shortly,” Li pointed out, “we’re trying to remain optimistic about that. We want to have people come to the market that are ready to spend money. And we want our vendors to come back and be happy about our market.”
Cirkus of the West Windsor Farmers’ market said farmers’ markets across the nation are feeling the impact of food service delivery companies.
“Many folks don’t really know how to cook anymore,” she said, and so the focus for market managers has to be “families who have made that vested interest in spending the morning at a market, listening to live music, being in that space with each other every week and letting your kids have a say in what you’re purchasing.”
West Windsor’s market was launched in 2004 with eight farms and one baker and now boasts 16 area farmers and a pasta maker who uses local grains.
Several years ago, she said, “we had a pasta guy who wanted to come in. We said, ‘Great, go find some local grain and then call us.’ And he did. Simply living in town isn’t enough anymore, it should be what’s your connection to local farmers?”
West Windsor also uses e-mail and Facebook and a combination of print and radio advertising. It also hosts cooking demonstrations. Patrons enjoying a cooking demo will quickly discover another nearby vendor has the ingredients one needs to prepare the dish at home, Cirkus noted.
“For us, it’s all about the right mix. We want our market to be a one stop shop, we don’t want them going from our market to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, which are just up the road on Route 1,” Cirkus said.