Anatomy of a Farmers Market Part 1: How It All Begins


Anatomy of a Farmers Market Part 1: How It All Begins
by Sara Coblyn Porth

2009 could be called the Year of the Farmers Market. The number of farmers markets in the United States grew by more than 13 percent from 2008. In Massachusetts alone we added over 30 new markets, taking us to over 200 markets in the state.

With the surge in interest in local and organic food, farmers markets have emerged as a place to not only access local produce, but to be part of a larger movement of farmers, producers and consumers looking to create a more authentic food system. And many communities have responded in kind. Farmers markets have sprung up in town commons, parking lots, community centers and town halls.


At the Copley Square market that our farm attends, it almost feels like kismet-the way trucks filled with local products from various corners of the state pull into the center of the city and construct their displays just as the mass of customers descend with their tote bags.  What most of us never see or hear about is all the work and planning that goes on behind the scenes before a market ever gets started. Planning can start a months or even a year in advance. As much as we would like to think that markets come about when a group of farmers decide to put up tents and start selling their goods, there is much more to it.


Perhaps the biggest decision is the choice to start a market at all. The desire to start a market, while a good beginning, may not be enough.  If there are already other farmers markets nearby, there may not be enough demand to provide sufficient income for vendors and enough diversity of products for consumers. Ideally, before a market is launched, research is conducted to determine the viability of a farmers market in the target community.

Additional market planning should include finding organizations interested in collaborating on the development of a market, identifying funding sources, potential vendors and identifying the characteristics of your customer base. Planning meetings with collaborative organizations and other interested parties should be held so that a committee is created to undertake the work needed to successfully start up and run a market.

Sometimes the need for a market in a given community can be obvious.  "I probably didn't follow the proper steps. I realized there was not a market in my new town and I wanted one," reports Barbara Anglin, founder and manager (with her husband) of the 7-year-old Plymouth Farmers' Market. Often, the success of a market can be found in its momentum from start-up to operation. The Plymouth market responded to a need, which enabled them to create a successful market that thrives to this day.


Once the decision to start a market is made, the next two critical and practical steps must happen: choosing a location and conducting market research. A good location combined with an awareness of customer needs will help improve the chances that a new market will be successful.  Knowing the shopping patterns and interests of your potential customers and trying to match them with the availability and needs of local farmers and other food vendors will help ensure that you are able to meet your customers' needs while providing local producers with a convenient, economically viable market to do business.  Choosing a location is a critical decision involving many factors:easy access, parking for vendors and customers, highway access, bathrooms, cost of use, shade/shelter, availability of running water and electricity and proximity to other farmers markets.Many shoppers choose to frequent a market because of its geographic convenience to either their home or workplace.

In addition to location, the time and day of the week must be chosen.  Saturdays are a popular choice as long as there aren't many other Saturday farmers markets nearby and the chosen location is not predominantly a business area. If that is the case, a midweek market with times that encompass the workday and lunch hour might be a better choice.


Is it magic that there's one apple grower, three vegetable farmers and two bakeries at one farmers market and a totally different mix at an other? Not necessarily. Ideally, a market will start determining its vendor mix based on the demand for certain products in the target community.  As the market tries to recruit farmers, it will start to see that while there are many vegetable growers out there, cheese and meat producers are harder to find. As vendors sign on for a season and others decide it's the not the right market for them, the market organizers will have to juggle demand for certain products and competition for others.  It can be tricky to decide how many vegetable farmers a market can tolerate-competition is good, but over saturating the market is not.

In order to ensure fairness in vendor selection and daily market operations, markets need to create a set of rules that are understood by vendors and enforced by the market manager. The market will also need to enforce rules set by others: town, board of health, farmers market umbrella organizations. Each type of product sold will often need its own permitting; food safety and permitting become especially important for the dairy, meat, egg and prepared foods vendor.

Farmers markets are a vibrant and changing marketplace. As they become more popular and mainstream, new regulations and opportunities emerge. For years, farmers markets around the country have tapped into state and federal programs offering subsidies to help make locally produced food more affordable to low-income populations. Many farmers markets are experimenting with the use of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) machines to encourage the use of food stamps at farmers markets.

Perhaps 2010 will be the Year of the Consumer. Because, while it takes a small village to start a farmers market, it really takes educated, supportive consumers to make sure they thrive.

What can you do to promote and support farmers markets? Frequent your local markets, get to know the vendors, tell your friends to do the same. Find out how you can help market vendors and market managers.  Call your representative about a parking issue, perhaps. Help start a "friends of the market" group that can support and promote the market.

Play your part in the development of a local food economy in your community and feel the satisfaction that comes from participating directly in the source of your food.

Sara Coblyn Porth co-owns Atlas Farm, a certified organic vegetable farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts with her husband, Gideon, and 1-year old daughter, Stella. She has a master's in Community Development and Applied Economics from the University of Vermont where for 8 years she developed and coordinated a youth gardening program; she has been involved in farms, farmers markets and education for 15 years.