Betty King, a Kentucky extension specialist, calls farmers markets “America’s first grocery stores.” She opened a new market in Versailles, Ky., and provided training for farmers interested in diversifying their offerings.
Betty King, a Kentucky extension specialist, calls farmers markets “America’s first grocery stores.” She opened a new market in Versailles, Ky., and provided training for farmers interested in diversifying their offerings. Photo by Ted Coonfield

Farmers Markets

Since 1994, the number of U.S. farmers markets has more than doubled to about 4,000, refiecting an enormous demand for farm-fresh produce.

Most farmers markets offer a reliable, fiexible outlet where vendors can sell a wide range of fresh produce, plants, honey, value-added products like jams or breads and even (depending on local health regulations) meats, eggs and cheeses. For beginning direct marketers, farmers markets can be a great place to start. To locate farmers markets in your area, go to or call USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service at (202) 720-8042.

Aaron and Kimberly Bolster have been marketing their fruits and vegetables in Oregon’s Willamette Valley since 1998, gradually expanding Deep Roots Farm from three to more than 100 acres. Their diversified approach to marketing includes a community supported agriculture program, sales to restaurants, local supermarket chains, and even cannery crops. Yet, farmers markets have consistently been among their best outlets.

In 2006, Deep Roots’ employees were selling at 12 farmers markets a week during the height of the season. Several are in Portland, a city known for its vibrant and bustling markets that offer everything from heirloom vegetables to bouquets of freshly cut flowers, dry beans, specialty breads, fruit, nuts, beef, lamb and even rabbit.

Asked what makes for a successful farmers market stand, Aaron Bolster emphasizes “the old cliché that you have to have a quality product at a good price. People need to have a reason to come back.” Customers develop loyalty to particular farms based on price, quality, the range of offerings, their desire to support local farmers, and the personal connection they feel with you and your farm.

Farmers markets vary widely in size, setting and sales volume. If you’re not satisfied with farmers market options in your area, you may be able to improve them by forging alliances with other members of your community. Merchants’ associations, chambers of commerce and other civic groups have come to recognize the power of farmers markets to draw customers into retail areas.

Betty King, a University of Kentucky extension specialist for community development, calls farmers markets “America’s first grocery stores.” King was part of a group eager to emulate the success they saw in the city of Lexington, which enjoys a thriving farmers market with as many as 60 vendors. In neighboring Woodford County, King and other community leaders were eager to encourage a new market in the town of Versailles.

When Versailles’ downtown underwent renovation, developers offered to create a covered space where the market could operate year-round. The Woodford County Extension Service built a certified community processing kitchen, and a SARE grant helped fund a training program for farmers interested in developing value-added products to diversify their market offerings. Downtown merchants show their support for the market by purchasing bedding plants and other items from the farmers for seasonal decorations.

The Woodford County Farmers Market now has 10 to 12 vendors selling produce, honey, meat, cheese and freshwater shrimp. “You have to start small and grow the market,” King says. “Farmers should realize that they have to invest, too.” For example, paying higher stall fees to pay for advertising or a salaried market manager can pay dividends later.

A similar partnership in Santa Rosa County, Fla., spearheaded by a SARE community innovation grant, led to the establishment of Riverwalk Farmers Market in downtown Milton and the creation of a “Santa Rosa Fresh” marketing program to highlight produce grown within the county. Cooking demonstrations with themes like “Cook it Like Your Grandma Did” and “It’s Too Darn Hot to Cook” drew record crowds. Other special events featured antique car shows and swing dancing demonstrations.

The county hopes to erect a permanent covered structure for the market on the courthouse square. Another plan is to let high school students earn community service hours to gain eligibility for state college scholarships by working at the market. “It really fits with our mission for the farmers market to have an educational component,” says Chris Wilcox of the Santa Rosa Economic Development Council.

Most growers enjoy interacting with other farmers, and many say that cooperation is as important as competition. Expect to have slow days when you do not sell all that you bring, and be prepared to encounter bargain hunters. You may want to investigate gleaning possibilities; many food banks and homeless shelters will pick up extras directly from your stand or farm.

If you’re interested in selling at farmers markets, keep in mind:

  • Successful markets are located in busy, central places and are well-publicized.
  • Don’t deliberately or drastically undersell your fellow farmers. The more farmers and farm products at the market, the more customers.
  • A good market manager promotes the market and enforces its rules.
  • Selling at a farmers market may provide contacts for other channels, such as special orders or subscriptions.
  • Get feedback from your customers. You can learn a lot about what they find desirable – and what to grow next season.
  • For tips on displaying produce, pricing and other practical advice, consult The New Farmers’ Market.