Rediscover Farmer's Markets

Like their ancestors in colonial times, a growing number of Americans are making their first ritual of the weekend a stop at the local farmer's market.


People shop farmer's markets for the fruit and vegetable varieties unavailable in stores.

Farmer's markets are alive with the smells of fresh-baked breads, hot coffee, and the earthy smell of vegetables that may still have bits of soil clinging to them -- lovely reminders these were pulled just hours ago from ground not so far away.

How to Shop

1. Shop early for the best seletion. Later in the day, your choices may be limited, but you also may get reduced prices.

2. Scout out all of the vendors' wares first and then go back and buy.

3. Don't go overboard unless you plan to freeze and can.

4. Bring lots of small bills and change.

5. Buy lettuces and the lightest foods first -- don't start with the rutabagas, or you may tire out too soon.

6. Bargain for large quantities, but don't haggle over small purchases.

7. Bring rigid, sealed plastic containers for such delicate produce as berries, peaches, and tomatoes.

8. Bring large, sturdy shopping bags -- canvas bags work well. Old collapsible baby carriages make great shopping carts.

9. If it's hot, bring an ice chest for perishable products.

10. If you plan to buy flowers, bring a can of water.

11. Get to know your growers. They can tell you what they've got ripening in their garden right now.

Most farmers harvest their produce the night before -- or even on -- market morning, and sell it within 24 hours.

If you're a home gardener whose bounty swells the deep freeze and those of your neighbors, too, consider selling the fruits of your labor.

Consider that the average American gardener tends 505 square feet of land, spends $40 for seeds and materials, and reaps a harvest worth $400 at retail prices. An acre of land could yield as much as $34,400 -- or 30 cents a square foot. Before you start counting your money, however, take these factors into account:

1. Don't plant and then find customers. Begin by selling your overflow. Find customers, and then plan to plant accordingly in subsequent years.

2. Make your stand attractive. With tables measuring 4x12 feet, you get 48 square feet of display space. You can add an additional 10 -- 12 square feet of display space on your truck or station wagon tailgate. If you have a good selection and a good market, and if you're a good vendor, each square foot is worth about $8 - $12 in sales per day.

3. To make and keep customers, sell top-quality produce only.

4. Find your niche. Try growing specialty or high-value crops such as 2-foot-long Chinese cucumbers instead of pickling cucumbers, or specialty lettuces, or such "exotics" as jicama, Belgian endive, bok choy, casaba melons, or mangoes.

5. If you aren't doing it already, go organic. Many people who come to farmer's markets are looking specifically for organic produce. Label your produce organic.

6. Hand out recipes, cooking tips, and tasting samples of your produce. People will be more likely to buy your beautiful produce if they know of something to do with it.

7. Market yourself:

  • Hold a cookout at your garden when it is at its peak and invite the public, as well as community leaders.
  • Conduct a school tour for children and give them a garden-fresh goody to take home -- perhaps packaged with your name and phone number on it. Rest assured it will make it to Mom and Dad.
  • Let your customers know what to expect as the season progresses. Tempt them with descriptions of upcoming early-, middle-, and late-season varieties and crops to keep them coming back.

8. On pricing:

  • Don't be afraid to price your produce on the high side. If your prices are higher than other vendors at the market, tell your customers why. If your produce truly is better, customers will gladly pay the prices -- and come back for more.
  • Give prices by unit, not weight. A pound of snow peas is a lot of volume -- even if you're asking only $4 for it. Sell them by quarter-pounds for $1 instead -- a much more manageable amount for most people. The same principle goes for berries.
  • Display your prices directly behind the produce to which they belong. Avoid listing all of your prices on one big sign. That takes your customers' attention away from your produce and focuses it on the prices.
  • If your farm or garden has a business name, make your sign inviting.
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