Thursday, February 28, 2008


Last year a local business decided to back a Farmers Market in our area. I didn't have anything to sell, but really wanted to see a market in our area, so I volunteered to help. The market where we'd moved from the year before was amazing. Lots of great booths, the atmosphere was perfect for a market, and the community was so supportive that the market had to move to a bigger venue every few years. A real success story. So I wanted to have that for the people who live here.

Problem was, the market I was used to was located in a college town with a community full of international students and academics who were looking for that type of outlet. (And, to be frank, the majority of those attending and selling were not Mormon, so it was a place for non-Mormons, no matter their beliefs, to make connections with other non-Mormons.) Here, in very rural Idaho, people have very different ideas about markets. They want a deal. They want cheaper than a supermarket. I've been told (not by customers, but by some vendors and some locals who never went to the market) that they want a cross between a Farmers Market and a Flea Market. They also want the same type of produce through the entire market season that they'd find at a supermarket - so forget eating seasonal. I had people asking why my only produce in May was rhubarb - why nobody had tomatoes. Our last frost date here is May 15. Tomato plants had barely been planted.

So we started the market with the backing of a generous business who let us use their parking lot, a board of three vendors and the representative from the business, and a few vendors - mostly crafts, but a few baked goods, and me - all I had to sell was rhubarb, but I was there. Later I added some other produce and shared my booth with a friend who sold delicious bread and scones.

This was my booth towards the end of the season - I'm barefoot and pregnant. I'd spilled root beer on my shoes.

By the end of the season, we had about ten really solid vendors, a few of those had done *very* well. A home bread bakery, a home sweets (cookies, fudge, cinnamon rolls) bakery, some produce vendors, and a pork vendor. Some hadn't done very well, but enjoyed the atmosphere and were always lovely to the customers and helpful to me - a quilt vendor stands out in my mind.

By the end of the season we also only had one board member - me. For the last few months of the market, I was the only board member. I was hauling the girls to market every weekend to handle public relations, vendor disputes, and market business and was just finishing off my first trimester of this pregnancy. It was hectic.

We had an end-of-market meeting where we discussed how the market had gone. The vendors were discouraged - they were expecting a big bustling market - so I shared with them how we had done financially and how other market managers that I had talked to thought we had done. Apparently ending your first season with ten solid vendors is really good. I'd gotten some good ideas for advertising for the next year and was excited about going forward.

Then two things hit. First, at the meeting (not before, which would have been nice since I was blindsided in the meeting), the business informed us that we wouldn't be able to be in their extra parking lot the next year since their new restaurant would be open on Saturdays. Fair enough. They were still willing to sponsor us, but we'd have to find a new venue and we weren't making enough to support that. Second, I needed help. The only vendors who volunteered were the quilt ladies (which I was thrilled with) and the pork producers. The problem here is that the pork producers were outspoken about their desire to add another booth to their pork booth. They wanted to add a flea market booth.

Now, I'm a market snob. If I went to a Farmers/Gardeners Market and there were flea market booths there, I wouldn't be back. I don't like that atmosphere, and the people who will pay money for quality produce, crafts (like handmade quilts), and other locally made products don't like that atmosphere either. I talked to some friends who have lived here for a long time and heard the same thing over and over - "You may not like it, but it may be what it needs to succeed here."

But I didn't see that. We had dedicated customers, about 50 that I recognized by sight by the end of the season, who were there for the produce, baked goods, and atmosphere. Since word of mouth is the best advertisement for Markets, it is *those* customers that will help build our market. Those customers who feel the same way I do, that the atmosphere is wonderful, that local and organic is worth paying for (though only one of our produce vendors is organic), those are the customers that will tell friends and relations and acquaintances that the market is worth shopping at.

So now I'm getting phone calls asking me to head up the market again. I'm also, hopefully, days away from having a baby. So my dilemma is this: Do I put lots of energy and emotion into producing, promoting, and running a Farmers Market that has shown quite a bit of potential and, I believe, just needs a bit of tweaking to really thrive? Do I put all of this into a market where I will be fighting some vendors who want to up their profit by having flea market products or reselling products for others (knowing the producer is a big appeal of these types of markets)? Do I do all of this with a four year old, 1 1/2 yr old and infant, and with a homestead of my own?

I think that if I do take this on, my biggest issues, market-wise, will be advertising and education - teaching the community what to expect from a market, what the benefits are for the community and for them.

What do you think? Lurkers, de-lurk and help me out.


Christy said...

This is a really tough one! How important is it to you to have the market be the way you view it? Does it bring you joy and enhance your life or does it suck energy from you? With very limited time is this how you would choose to use it? These are the types of questions I ask myself when trying to do something like this.

Anonymous said...

I'm a farmer and former farmers market vendor. I'm also a market snob. This is a farmers market, not a flea market. I love seeing artisan quality products with a farm background at market. I wouldn't return to a flea market.

If the market has bylaws you lose the responsibility as market manager to say no to flea market items. You can simply say, "it's not allowed."

Do you have vendors who will pitch in to collect the weekly fee (if there is one) and oversee the market for a day? Managing a market and three small children is a lot to ask.

Ten vendors at a new market in a small community is excellent! The market I belonged to printed business cards with the day and time we were open and the name and number of the market manager. We handed them out to new customers to give them a hands-on visual reminder of when to be at market. We handed them out when we met potential customers away from market. Great, inexpensive advertising.

Do you have a local paper that will send a reporter to write a human interest story? One article a month into the market season always did wonders for us. We waited a month to give vendors time to get up to speed with their seasonal crops and have well stocked booths.

If you keep the same amount of responsibility I suggest requiring a co-manager. If the co-manager will handle the week to week market work you could be at home using your "free" (ha ha ha) time while the kids are napping to do the market desk work.

Stand firm and set your limits. Family always comes first. And, something I learned after a decade of running in circles with volunteer work - every time you say no you open up an opportunity for someone else to pitch in and enjoy the work too.

Good luck!


green said...

Wow! I mean, WOW! Congratulations on all the success so far!

Farmgirl_dk: said...

Does your last comment mean that if I'm not a lurker, you don't want to hear from me? Well! I'm going to tell you my opinion anyway! :-)
I didn't read anywhere in your description of all that you did last season, that you loved any of it. Was it enjoyable for you? Did it make you happy to do this? You are going to be so busy (not to mention exhausted) once your new baby arrives, that to survive a growing, still-developing market this next season, it truly needs to be one of your passions.
I completely agree with Robin - family always comes first. Volunteer work will always be there when you find you have some "extra" time again.

Cindy said...

My two cents:

Take a year off. There are enough vendors that if they want to see the Farmer's market stay strong, they will put forth the effort. No one can expect a mother with three young 'uns to be managing a Market. This is your time to let someone else step up and take a turn, and then when you are ready to return to the scene, you'll have an ally that will be ready to take their break.

I agree with someone else, that you write up some basic bylaws that each vendor will sign. You'd want a 'governing board' of at least 3 people to work on the bylaws, but then when they are all done, then you only have to turn to them to say "we don't allow that."

The bylaws could even specify the ratio of how many craft booths to produce/food booths.

Just my random thoughts....

sugarcreekstuff said...

I'm a new lurker. I'm with you on the flea market, I was at a place that had people selling garage sale items out of their trunks and it made the produce and home goods seem trashy to be with all that.
Only you can decide what you can handle or want to handle, and it is ok to say no even if it dissapoints others. (I learned it after suffering volunteer burnout)
I hope this helps.

Twinville said...

I'm popping out of 'lurkdom' just to say I truly enjoy reading your beautiful and educational blog. You really do put yourself out there sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Personally I abhor flea markets. When I have went to some, I often feel like I need a shower just to wash off the trashiness of the experience. (Sorry, but true)

On the other side of the coin, I love visiting farmer's markets and don't mind paying more for produce and craft items set up in attractive, clean booths/tents. The farmers and folks selling items are usually very friendly and you don't get the feeling they are trying to rip you off with second hand junk.

One of my other favorites to visit are roadside stands selling produce, farm fresh honey, etc.

But farmer's markets are so convenient having more of a selection all in one place.