- a new farmer in Rhode Island
- an experienced farmer looking to increase the direct sales of the food you grow
- a well-seasoned farmers market veteran looking for the right forms to fill out
In this guide:
- Which Market is for You?
Strategic considerations, Stand considerations, Types of products allowed
- Requirements to Sell
Registrations, licenses, insurance
- Setup Your Table
Weights & measures, Supplies, Keeping it Fresh
- Products, Packaging and Pricing
Selling your food, Labeling, Playing nice, Donations
- Tips for Selling More
Your booth, your products, you
- Accepting WIC, Senior Nutrition Vouchers, EBT and Credit Cards
WIC, Senior Vouchers, SNAP / EBT, Credit cards
- Events and Customer Promotions
Creating excitement for your products
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
What is a CSA?, Distribution
- Final Words
This guide was made possible by a partnership between Farm Fresh RI, RI Rural Development Council and the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program. We hope it helps, and if you have any questions or comments please just email us.
Strategic Considerations. A successful stand at a farmers market can be a really excellent way to generate income, introduce people to new products, attract community members who may have never seen a ripe tomato the day it was picked, and inspire others to grow their own food. Additonally, it is always good to consider the following when thinking about joining a market.
- Is a market appropriate for your business?
- Do you have enough food for a three-hour market?
- If you can't go to market, who do you want representing you?
- Do you have the time and energy to travel to a market and set up your stand?
- Are you planning on expanding your growing capacity in upcoming seasons?
- If you are applying to many markets, have you thought about the differences between the markets?
- Do you have food that is appropriate for people shopping for lunch as well as dinner?
- Do you want to sell to your community or further from home? What matters most to you?
In your considerations, think about what benefits appearing at a market might hold for you, but also keep in mind all that the Farmers Market asks of you and your farm.
You can talk to the market manager to get a better idea of who is selling and buying at their markets which may help you make this decision.
Farm Stand Considerations. Selling at a Farmers Market is a wonderful experience. You just want to make sure that your original market (whether that be at a Pick-Your-Own operation or a Farm Stand) is not totally phased out with this new endeavor. There are people who rely on your farm. You want to have enough food for your loyal customers and you want to make sure they know your new schedule. One suggestion is to make a flier telling your current customers about your new endeavor. They will be more than supportive if they feel like they are informed.
Types of Products Allowed. You need to know if your product mix is a good fit for the farmers markets where you want to sell. Here are a few examples:
- Class A or Buying In?
- "Class A" markets only allow you to sell what you grow. By and large, these are not the majority in the state of RI.
- Some other markets allow you to "buy in" a certain percentage of your crops from local farms after everyone else is done selling what they grew (for example, people who buy in blueberries can't sell them until all the Class A blueberries are sold).
- Still other markets allow you to buy in items, as long as your maintain a certain percentage of that which is your own.
- RI Farms or Regional?
- Some markets allow only vendors and food from RI, while others accept foods produced in MA, CT and elsewhere in New England.
- Food only or Crafts too?
- There are also markets with no rules like this whatsoever. It should be said, however, that this last style of market is challenging to more selective markets as well as to local producers by confusing customers about what the term "Farmers Market" refers to.
Find a Market. See our list of farmers markets across RI and the region.
New Business Registration. First and foremost, all new businesses in the state need to complete the RI Business Application and Registration (BAR). Another resource is business.gov which will take you through the registration process, step by step.
Is the food you'll be selling taxable? Check with this chart or if you're unsure, with the RI Division of Taxation at (401) 574-8955 to figure it out.
Town Hall / City Hall Requirements. Each town may have specific vendors licenses so please check with the town you will be selling in. See contact information for every City Hall in RI.
RI Department of Health Licenses.
- Food Peddler application if you are selling meat, dairy or prepared foods.
- Farm Home Manufacturer application if you cook approved foods in your farm kitchen.
- There may be other licenses required if you handle meat (see below), seafood or operate a mobile food cart. Contact Tom Nerney at the Office of Food Protection at RI Department of Health at (401) 222-2749 or firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about which licenses you need.
Insurance / Product Liability. Insurance protects you in the unlikely event that someone gets hurt, sick or injured as the result of an act by you. Many markets require it. You should have proper insurance in place for the types of products that you sell, which include a General or Farm/Business Liability policy. Shop around for a good policy quote! Here are some webpages with more details:
- Protecting Your Assets With Business Liability Insurance
- Get Liability Insurance For Small Business
- Understanding General Liability Insurance
Weights & Measures. Do not forget a scale if you are going to sell items that are not pre-packaged. You can bring either a hanging or an electronic scale to market, and you must make sure that you get the scale inspected by the Department of Labor and Training's Weights and Measures Department once a year so that you can make sure you are giving your customer a fair pound of squash... or that you aren't selling two pounds for the price of one! Market scales must be "sealed for trade" or legal for trade.
- Sealers can be contacted online or by calling John Shaw at (401) 462-8568 or via email email@example.com.
Market Supplies. Depending on the market, you will probably have to provide your own transportable tents, tables and chairs. Make sure that you’ll be comfortable for the entirety of the market and that it’s manageable for the number of people working the market to move and set up. Don’t forget to tie down your tent. Some roll over in a gust of wind! Consider weights, stakes and bungees. To keep delicate produce moist on hot days, you may want to bring a spray bottle for water.
Prices and Labels. Bring a cashbox, calculator and laminated price sheet for your reference. Bring cards to label each item on the table names and with prices. If possible, laminate the cards to withstand moist produce and the rain. Also consider labeling foods in Spanish or another language if it's commonly spoken in the area of the market. It will help you communicate with customers.
Cash. Don’t forget cash – go overboard with singles and quarters – for making change. Customers are more likely to spend smaller bills and so by circulating singles with customers around the market, you're helping to boost everyone's sales.
Packaging. Consider how much packaging you will use. It's easy to use too many bags and containers, which will turn off customers who shop at markets for environmental reasons and also be a waste for you and your bottom line. (Although many customers will bring their own reusable bags, make sure you do have some plastic bags available.) Many customers will bring back empty egg cartons and berry containers if you let them know they can. Be supportive. Recycling last week's egg carton is a reason for customers to come back the next week, and they may buy another dozen eggs.
Hand Truck. Another item that may be of use at a farmers market is a hand truck. The hand truck can save you a lot of time moving hundreds of pounds of produce, and could be the difference between needing to hire an extra hand to setup and clean up your market table.
Keeping Your Food Fresh during the Market. Growing beautiful produce is only half-way. It still needs to survive through the market. Keeping your food looking fresh is important and making sure that it remains safe is essential. Here are a few tips to keep your food safe and looking beautiful.
- For fresh vegetables and fruit, it's fine to keep them out for a few hours on a mild day.
- Some vegetables do great in the sun -- tomatoes and peppers, for instance. Use the temperature tolerances of your products to guide the arrangement of your display.
- Provide shade in your display to protect heat-intolerant produce from wilting.
- Some greens absolutely need to be out of the sun. Spraying or misting delicate greens with water helps on a hot day.
- Don't tie closed plastic bags containing greens. The build up of perspiration clouds customers' view and is not good for the greens' longevity. Customers may not cook every day and often decide what to buy based on how long they think it will last. Learn how to best store your veggies and teach your customers. You'll increase their loyalty.
- Keep greens and herbs like basil in containers or flats with a low-level of water for the bottom of their stems to drink from. But don't let the leaves of the herbs sit in the water!
- The shade of trees or buildings can be priceless. If you have a choice of location, figure out where the sun falls on the market to help pick your spot.
- Remember, you can always rotate your items out of the sun if its getting too hot. They will cool off under your table, in the shade or cooler.
- Aesthetics are important.
- If you are selling meat, dairy or egg products, then you will need to keep them in coolers with ice.
Product Considerations. Depending on the the rules of the market, you may only be allowed to sell products grown or made by you. These restrictions on how local market products must be are designed to support both the health of the community and the robustness of the market. Respecting these guidelines as well as your fellow vendors is crucial for long-term market viability. For example, if you sneak non-local fruit into the market at your stand, you will diminish the trust customers (and other farmers) have in your stand and undermine their understanding and appreciation of seasonality and RI grown fruit. Use the market as a chance to highlight what your farm does best, whether it's a special hot pepper jam, heirloom beans, or beautiful braided garlic. Giving yourself a niche helps customers remember you and draws on your strengths as a producer.
Packaging. Some vendors sell by the piece, others by weight, or by bunch or bag. Selling by the piece implies that each piece is approximately the same size or otherwise equivalent. If you decide to sell by weight, making a display of a stated amount of that product can assist customers. For example, bag up a pound of green beans price $2/lb to show people. (Often people will just go for the pound, for instance, if that's what you show them.) These signs should be beautiful, and uniquely you! Its another way to attract your customers!
Specialty Items. At many markets, you are pre-approved to sell a specific set of items. This was determined by your application and your discussions with the market manager because perhaps you are providing the market with a special item that others may not have. These items cannot change without telling the market manager. Meaning, you cannot bring jams or cider without discussing it with the manager first. You may have applied to the market to sell your apples and cider. Imagine how your business would be affected if a vegetable vendor all of a sudden started to buy apples in to sell at their table without any prior notice on their application. Please respect your fellow producers and make sure you communicate with your market manager about these issues.
Pricing. While price fixing is illegal, it can be difficult to know how to price a product. Some other things to consider:
- It takes more than one farm to have a farmers market, and price wars can jeopardize a market. Growers turn to direct sales at farmers markets to make a fair living, but-throat competitiveness can undermine the spirit of the market and farm viability.
- Factor in the socioeconomic demographics of your market customers when you set your prices. One market may be in a community of mostly lower income folks and another in one of those with a higher disposable income.
- You may want to be strategic and bring seconds (and deals on seconds) to the market where you think they will be sold.
- Be prepared to explain why tomatoes may cost three dollars a pound at the end of September. People are curious, more than anything, about their food. Take it as a compliment that they want to know more.
Labeling. Clear labeling of your products is incredibly important in furthering the relationship between you and your customers. This, too, is a valuable form of communication. Consider the following when labeling what is on your table.
- Are your labels large and simple?
- What is the name or variety of each item?
- Can you make small suggestions on how to prepare certain items? (e.g. "great for stir frying" or "super sweet!")
- Is there any nutritional information available?
- Do you want to use color in your labels?
Playing Nice. Most of the information presented here about selling at farmers markets has been about you, your presentation, and your produce. What hasn't been expanded on is the amazing diversity of personalities that are at any given markets. They are your new friends and coworkers. You make the market what it is so make the most of the situation. Every farm has its own draw, and the number of people at your market is dependent on that, so that should be acknowledged if/when comflicts come up. The market is a place of work and a community space, and everyone needs to work together to ensure that. The market manager is always there to help with anything if it arises.
Leftovers. You have many options when you have an excess of product at the market. As the market is coming to a close, you might have customers who are interested in purchasing your seconds (items that aren’t at top market quality), or you could try giving bargains on your remaining product. This can be a really useful way to clear out the day's product, but this practice can also encourage challenging customers to count on your end-of-the-day blow-out sale, so be mindful.
Alternately, if you go to market two days in a row or more, some types of produce (i.e. winter squash) can maintain their quality to come back to market a second day. In fact, harvesting enough hardier produce for more than one market day at a time can streamline your process.
Donations. Another option is organizing with your market manager and other vendors at the market to donate leftover food and products that you can’t sell or use to a local soup kitchen, food bank or shelter. Sometimes you can find a volunteer in the community who is excited about helping out with this and check with your market manager about any donation programs already in place. There are a lot of folks and small food pantries in your community who would appreciate it.
What does your booth look like?
- Use a white tent: Bright light makes the product look best
- Show your farm's name (out in front and inside - BIG LETTERS are key!)
- Use and attractive layout: Don't create a dungeon
- Hide those boxes! Make it look clean and neat!
- Hang signs at eye level, not at waist level
How do you place your product?
- Stagger the height, Utilize corners
- Use hanging baskets - let people smell and see up close - they are going to be eating this food
- Make things easy to reach – prop up low sitting baskets
- Use tablecloths and coverings to create ambiance
- Don't forget color! Make the customers want to shop with you
- Offer samples, especially of unusual veggies, jams or new products
What do you say and how do you stand?
- The customer is always right - tell them yes!
- If the price seems high to them, offer a sample
- Try not to sit or wear sunglasses - seem attentive without being watchful
- When you talk to your customer, it is all about them. What does your product do to benefit them? Make the product personal.
What are you selling?
- Study the trends - sell something that is "with the times"
- Visit Whole Foods, Eastside Market, and markets for ideas about packaging, new products, etc.
- Use a label - make your product uniquely yours – and brand your farm.
- Dont miss an opportunity to brand your goods. Name your pickles after your husband or your salad mix after your daughter - people love it!
Is your booth distinctive?
- Make your booth warm and welcoming, with a display that stands out and tells the story of your farm.
- Use photos! People want to know about your life and your farm. Make your space personal!
Being able to accept WIC, Senior Nutrition Vouchers and EBT is a great way to increase sales as well as expand your clientele base. See this chart to compare/contrast the different programs, and read below for more in depth information.
WIC. WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children. The national program is funded by the US Farm Bill and administeredin RI by the Department of Health. WIC provides nutrition-based food assistance to low-income pregnant women, and mothers with children up to five years in age.
There are a few types of WIC checks, some of which can be used at grocery stores and some at farmers markets. Know which are which to avoid costly bank mistakes:
- WIC Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) checks. The vouchers are $5 each and say "Farmers Market". These checks can only be used for fresh RI grown fruits, vegetables and cut cooking herbs sold at approved farmers markets. Customers usually receive three $5 vouchers for an entire season and they expire on October 31. Farmers must deposit them by the end of November, but are encouraged to deposit the checks throughout the season to make more money available to the program.
- WIC Fruit & Vegetable checks. The vouchers range from $6, $10, or $15 and say "Fruit and Vegetable". These checks can be used for most fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables at approved farmers markets and grocery stores. White potatoes, herbs, dried fruits and prepared vegetables are not allowed. Customers receive these checks monthly. Farmers must deposit them within 30 days.
- Regular WIC checks. These are checks look similar but are for a variety of non-produce items, including bread, milk, and baby formulas. They can only be used at grocery stores, not at farmers markets.
In order to accept WIC FMNP vouchers, you must fill out a Farmer Agreement with the Department of Health along with a crop plan. In addition, your market must have at least 3 farms participating and be approved by the Department of Health.
- Contact Lauren Piluso (401-222-4637; Lauren.Piluso@health.ri.gov), the Farmers Market Nutrition Program Coordinator at RI Department of Health, or your local WIC office for details about WIC acceptance.
Senior Nutrition Checks. The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) provides low-income seniors with $5
checks that can be exchanged for locally grown fruits, vegetables and herbs from farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs. To accept Senior Nutrition checks, a vendor needs to be authorized by the Rhode Island DEM Division of Agriculture.
- Contact Peter Susi (401-222-2781 x4517; firstname.lastname@example.org), the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) Coordinator at RI DEM Division of Agriculture for details about SFMNP acceptance.
SNAP & EBT. SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provides supplemental assistance to low-income residents of the towns/neighborhoods of your market on debit-like cards called Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). SNAP was previously called Food Stamps. In 2010, over 1 in 10 Rhode Islanders received SNAP, which averages a little over $100 per month to spend on food. It adds up to millions of dollars a month being spent on food in Rhode Island and that's a huge opportunity for your farm if your market accepts SNAP.
Most markets in Rhode Island that accept EBT use wireless card-reading machines and $1 metal coins called Fresh Bucks. Learn more about how Fresh Bucks work.
- Contact Georgina Sarpong (email@example.com), Farmers Market Program Manager at Farm Fresh RI, for details about SNAP and Fresh Bucks acceptance.
Credit Cards. Most markets in Rhode Island that accept credit and debit cards use wireless card-reading machines and $5 metal coins called Fresh Bucks. Learn more about how Fresh Bucks work.
- Contact Georgina Sarpong (firstname.lastname@example.org), Farmers Market Program Manager at Farm Fresh RI, for details about Fresh Bucks acceptance.
Pricing for WIC, SFMNP, and SNAP. WIC Farmers Market, WIC Fruit & Vegetable and SFMNP checks and $1 Fresh Bucks coins come in price-specific amounts for which you cannot provide change. Having items available that add up to an even $5 is helpful for WIC and Seniors customers. Be flexible and proactive to help these customers find the right mix of food to add up to the amount they can spend. Also, most people use their checks right before they're about to expire at the end of October -- be prepared for a rush!
Many markets will host special events to encourage more customers to come and spend time at your market. Work with the market manager to play a larger role in these events.
Plan a calendar:
- October's a good time for garlic fest,
- May Day could be a brilliant green event
- Auction your jam at the holiday craft bazaar
See what you can accomplish with other vendors!
Markets may organize a "Seniors Day" or "Chef's Tour" or a similar event to welcome certain populations to the market. Make signs that highlight your specials, post images on your table that show your customers what a day in the life of your farm is like. Remember, the more you share with them, the more they will want to be a part of your community.
Being at a market is a great way to showcase who you are. Be creative. Have a special on your greens because it's getting greener out -- or just because you have way too much mizuna! It is your personal party.
Send customers home with your product, plus a little something extra. Give them a pin, a pen, a hug. Tell them to come visit the farm. Have people sign up for your emails. The market manager works to get folks to the market, but your email reminders are also helpful to the shoppers.
Make your farm stand out with events, flyers, and little treats for shoppers and they will be undoubtedly loyal to you.
A CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is another way for you to sell your produce. Unlike a farmers market, where people will pay for their food at the time of their purchase, CSAs are paid for by members before the growing season and are give a fraction of what is grown every week that you harvest. This continues for as long as your CSA lasts, a time frame that you decided, and the members get local delicious food, while you get some early-season financial stability and support. Let us try to explain further:
A CSA is set up so that you can be given some financial support before you grow anything to cover your initial costs (seeds, any big expenses, some support before you can make any money selling food, etc). Folks in your community, friends of yours, a cousin with the opposite of a green thumb, invest in your opperation early spring as a way to tell you "we are part of your growing season and whatever you grow, we will be happy to take part of it". In the early spring (February, March), folks will sign up to be part of your CSA. Membership in the CSA is based on shares (or percentage) of the harvest and you have to take that into account when you start your CSA. Some CSAs ask for a check as payment for your share, others ask for a payment as well as time working and learning on the farm. The choice is up to you and your model.
Creating Community. Beyond being a way to support your farm, a CSA is a great way to form a community. If you think about it, a number of people are trusting you to grow food for them, which is paramount in our times. These people can be more than just your shareholders, they can be your friends. Often, farmers with CSAs will ask for folks to come volunteer on the same day so they can meet each other. Other times, the farmers will organize potluck lunches or dinners either on their farm or nearby, or ask for volunteers to help distribute food on delivery / pick up day. Even people carpooling to the farm can unite folks. You can really get people talking about the food system in a very organic way by just helping them get away from their daily lives and bring them to the farm.
Distribution. Again, every farm is different when it comes to the best way to run their CSA, but here are a few ways people distribute their shares of the harvest.
- Many CSAs convert a room on their property or take their garage and convert it in to their distribution room once a week (or twice a week. The number of shares you have may determind the number of days you have CSA pickup. If there are a lot of members, it may make sense to split up their pick up for two days, or not, it's really up to you. Or, if you have a secondary CSA - some folks have JUST honey or eggs - make that the second day. Your model is yours and yours alone. We can help direct you to people who have had success in the area)
- Folks often have a scale available for pick up days. Many times, the farmers dont have time to sit in the CSA room and watch members collect their food, so they will get a white board and write the number of pounds or heads each person can take for that week.
- Other times, people will have volunteers run the pick-up. It is a good way to really engage your members in the whole process from seed to table.
- Often bringing your CSA shares to a Farmers Market and getting your CSA members to pick up there makes sense. Often, Markets are in parts of a city that are centrally located (or closer to your members than your farm) and its just more convenient for them to show up there. It's also a good tactic for encouraging folks to "supplement" what you are brining with what other farmers may have. It's hard to have it all. Encouraging your shareholders to get their cheese and bread at market is incredibly important for fostering the greater farmers market community...and that's a family that is hard to please!
- You can always have a "swap table" at your CSA pick up where folks can exchange the items that may just not be their cup o'tea.
- Last, a number of large CSAs bring their shares to a centrally located spot once a week for people to pick up there. This often happens in places like California, where people are just much further away from each other, but it can work for you as well, if that's what you want.
See the CSA page on our Local Food Guide for more info about current CSAs in RI. Or any of the following resources:
- Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen's Guide to Community Supported Agriculture
- The Real Dirt on Farmer John movie
- USDA CSA information page
Thank you for your efforts in helping to grow a local food system that values the environment, health and quality of life of Rhode Island farmers and eaters. You have made an incredible first step toward securing land for preservation, food for delicious consumption, and furthering your success as a businessperson, salesperson, farmer, community organizer, and general inspiration to the thousands of people who shop at farmers markets in the state of Rhode Island. We look forward to seeing you at our markets, or any of the other markets statewide.
This guide doesn't end here. Contact us. We are happy to answer your questions or connect you to the people who can.
The Farm Fresh Rhode Island Team