Founding a Farmers Market

August 14, 2012
Written by Andrew Hind
Driven by an impulse to diversify, seek out new sources of revenue, and tap into a growing interest amongst Canadian consumers to eat local, garden centres across the nation are increasingly adding farmers markets to their businesses. And with good reason.

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Canada, farmers markets account for an estimated $1.03 billion in sales.

 
 
“There’s a natural symmetry between horticulture and agriculture, which made it almost a no-brainer to expand our garden centre to include a farmers market,” explains Arnold Nabuurs, owner of Nabuurs Gardens in Brudenell, P.E.I. “The same kind of person who gardens is also likely to want fresh, locally grown produce, so it’s a good fit.”

Of course, there’s also a very powerful economic motivation behind any garden centre’s decision to open a farmers market.

A 2008 study commissioned by Farmers’ Markets Canada (FMC) examined 508 markets and confirmed the economic force that farmers markets have become in the Canadian economy. The markets play a key role in selling agricultural products, with estimated sales of $1.03 billion and an economic impact ranging from $1.55 to $3.09 billion annually.

The study confirmed that consumer demand and interest is closely aligned with support for community farmers, interest in fresh and healthy food choices, and an environmental consciousness that recognizes local produce has less of a carbon footprint than items which are shipped in from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. According to FMC, over 60 per cent of shoppers indicated that buying their food directly from a local farmer is extremely important to them.

With these numbers in mind, it’s pretty clear why a garden centre would see an advantage in adding a farmers market to its facility. But it’s not necessarily easy.

“We’ve been operating a farmers market for eight years now, and though it’s been pretty successful for us it’s a bit of trial and error,” says Nabuurs. “It’s different than the garden centre business, so we’ve taken things slowly and learned a lot of things along the way.”

This article is designed to help garden centre owners and operators quickly and successfully incorporate a farmers market into their business. 

Getting off the Ground
The first steps are the most crucial in opening a farmers market. Hard work at the outset will save you money and headaches in the future. 

It’s important to have producer input in the development of the market from the very beginning. Contact local agricultural associations to help with the initial outreach.

Successful markets are built on strong community foundations. Develop partnerships with a large variety of individuals and organizations, involving them in the beginning to encourage broad participation, improve the market’s profile, and develop target customers. Partnerships might include church organizations, town planning officials, members of economic development boards, and service clubs like Lions Clubs, Rotary Clubs, and Legions.

Start recruiting vendors during the winter months when farmers will have more time on their hands to consider their participation in the market and make the necessary plan for the season.

Try to recruit vendors with a wide variety of produce. It’s fine for farmers to have some overlap in the products they sell at the market – this can provide options for the customer while keeping pricing competitive – but it’s vital to ensure a variety of seasonal produce in adequate quantities. More variety means more customers and more sales for everybody.

As with any start-up enterprise, promotion is vital. How can you do this without spending a lot of money? It’s not hard:
  • Arrange interviews with cable TV shows or with local newspapers. Media outlets are always looking for fresh, exciting news stories.
  • List the market in chamber of commerce, tourism, and summer entertainment guides.
  • Ask local organizations to promote the market through listserves, websites, mail-outs, etc.
  • Harness the power of social networking.
  • Work with local newspapers to create a column, such as “farmer of the week,” to keep the market in the public consciousness all season long.
  • Prominently mention the market on your website, in newsletters, and in other advertising.

Location, Location, Location
There are a number of considerations regarding location that should be borne in mind when planning a farmers market. When planning your market, think about:
  • Visibility: Try to find a location where drivers will be able to notice the market from the road. At the very least, ensure adequate signage so that passersby know of the market within your garden centre.
  • Safety: Vendors will need a safe access route to unload their supplies from their vehicles to their display areas. If the market is outdoors, customers and vendors will need a smooth surface (asphalt, packed gravel, or even grass) with adequate space to move around safely.
  • Shelter: If the market is outdoors, ensure that it has a heavy-duty, secured tent or, better yet, a wooden pavilion to offer protection from the elements.
  • Parking: Bear in mind that you’ll likely see an increase in traffic during the growing season. If you’ve been successful in advertising, the market will attract many new customers; demand for parking space will be higher. As a rule of thumb, ensure there are two additional parking spaces per vendor stand.
Food Safety
Food safety is a significant issue for farmers markets. It’s important to be aware of provincial and federal food safety regulations, which are generally overseen by the provincial department of government services. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also has a national mandate for food safety. Most venues that allow or host the sale or process of food products require a food premises licence. There are a few exceptions to this rule.

For example, most farmers selling their own fruits and vegetables are exempt. Always check with the appropriate departments to confirm which products are exempt in your area.

In Nabuurs’ experience, a farmers market can be a perfect complement to a garden centre’s existing operations. “Farmers markets and garden centres seem to go well together, a natural fit. It’s taken a lot of effort over the years, but our customers like the addition of the market and it has allowed us to diversify our business,” he concludes.

Pleased customers, increased revenues and diversified operations – the key to success in any business. Farmers markets are big business, so why not consider tapping into the trend?

Resources
For more information about setting up a farmers market in your garden centre, visit:
www.farmersmarketscanada.ca
www.farmersmarketcoalition.org

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