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STARTING A FARMERS MARKET IN RI
Successful markets have deep community roots and offer a thriving marketplace for farmers and eaters. There are many details to consider before starting a new farmers market. Below you will find resources to guide you through the planning process.
The following information on starting a new farmers market is brought to you in partnership between Farm Fresh RI and the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program
Begin by asking yourself these questions:
Do you have a vision? Have you visited other markets? What will your market look like in five years? What day of the week will it be on? How many vendors? Who will run it?
Many things make a market successful, especially the location.
How big of a space could you fill? Is there a density of potential customers nearby? Where will people park? Is the site easy to find? Is there a lot of foot traffic? Is it close to public transportation? Is there a restroom for customers? Is there shade for delicate greens? Will you be competing with other markets nearby? Are those markets struggling or thriving? Are there businesses or organizations nearby you could work with? Are there neighbors who might be opposed to a farmers market?
Who will come to your market? Where do they live? How will they get to the market? Are there EBT and WIC clients in your neighborhood? How can you reach out to these populations? How many vendors can your market support? Will you need bilingual signage? Will people be familiar with what grows locally? Will you need educational materials?
Season and Schedule
You should choose a schedule that makes sense for you and your community. It’s good to think about the needs of your area. If there is already a summer market in your town, you may want to consider a winter market, or a market another day of the week. When do people in your community work and purchase groceries?
What kind of management or oversight makes the most sense for your market? Will there be a board and paid staff? Who might be able to fill these roles? Do you envision incorporating the market into a nonprofit organization? Could you partner with a preexisting farmers market organization? Transparent operations help build trust between vendors and the market — these are vital relationships to build and maintain. Management might be determined or influenced by the market's source of funding.
Do you have funds, sponsorship, or a business plan? How much will you charge vendors? How will you buy market insurance? How will you pay for ads and other materials? Will you solicit corporate sponsorships? Offer market memberships? Who will manage the budget? Will you have to pay rent? Will you have to pay staff to organize and set up the market? Will you offer a market manager stipend? Vendor fees can go a long way in covering operational costs, but start-up money may need to come from other sources. Think about sponsorships or local government resources. Decide if the market should work toward economic autonomy or if it benefits from a close financial relationship with other groups or institutions.
Next, look into nearby markets, and research what local farmers and products may fit your vision.
Connecting with Farmers
As a new farmers market manager, you need to ensure that the market will be worth a farmer's efforts. It's important to create a balanced mix of vendors. For example, do not have three bakeries and only one vegetable farm. If you are having difficulty locating vendors, it may be because there are already over 40 farmers markets in Rhode Island. Please bear in mind that while the popularity of farmers markets is growing, the number of farmers is not growing as quickly.
What products do you want the market to emphasize? Some markets host farmers and other vendors selling anything from value-added products such as baked goods or preserves to local crafts. Other markets choose only to include growers.
Are vendors allowed to buy-in products, or sell just what they grow? Will a local bakery be allowed at the market, even if none of their ingredients are local? Would you allow ice cream on site that didn't use local milk? What are the guidelines for buying in? How will you determine who is accepted? What kinds of vendors will receive priority?
Make sure you choose a place that people can find easily, perhaps in a well-known area. A highly trafficked spot goes a long way for promoting the market to people who already frequent the neighborhood. With that in mind, be sure to have adequate parking both for vendors and the public. Observe where levels of foot traffic are likely to be highest and establish car traffic flows accordingly.
Pedestrians should feel relaxed and safe at the market. Another important consideration is accessibility for anyone with challenges such as people in wheelchairs, walking with canes, or pushing strollers. This is a must! The site of the market should be as level and smooth as possible, clear of tripping hazards, and large enough to host all the vendors with plenty of room for people to walk around them. Farmers markets greatly benefit from proximity to public transit, so keep this in mind as well when choosing a site.
Is it possible to have running water, restrooms, or electricity at the market? These are all elements that increase the comfort of both customers and vendors, and encourage people to stay at the market longer. Plans are also needed for emergency situations. Maintain a first aid kit and review your emergency responses.
Respecting local authorities in the initial planning and startup stages of the market can go a long way toward avoiding problems later. Talk to the local health department and inform them of what kinds of vendors will be at the market to find out which rules will apply to you. There are specific licenses you need as a market manager yourself. Some cities in RI require a Vendor or Peddler’s License. Check with your town clerk to see what is required in your location.
Vendors are responsible for having the appropriate licenses based on what they sell, but local health department officials can help you understand and inform your vendors as well. You may choose to require that vendors go through the appropriate licensing and inspections before signing on to the market. Or you might want to work with them to facilitate the process. In general, vendors with meat, dairy, or prepared/processed foods need Department of Health licenses. All of these products must be prepared/made in a certified facility. Prepared foods can be made in a “farm home kitchen” or any other commercially licensed facility. Dairy and meat must be processed in a USDA certified facility. Working with the RI Department of Health will ensure that everything is correctly licensed, for the protection of you and your customers.
For more information, contact: Tom Nerney, Rhode Island Department of Health, (401) 222-2749
Once you’ve located your farmers market site, consult an insurance specialist. In general, the market will need general liability insurance coverage. This will provide coverage for the market as a whole, against such issues as slip and fall. In general, these policies cover fresh fruits and vegetables as well. Vendors with products other than fresh fruits and vegetables should have their own product liability insurance policy. This should be a requirement for participation in the market, along with any needed Department of Health licensing.
What is your connection to the community where you’ll host your market? Hopefully you have some personal resources and networks to draw on in order to build support. In addition, you could partner with community groups that may have an interest in the market such as gardeners, local schools, musicians, restaurants, and community organizers. Contact local food banks, soup kitchens, and gleaners who may be interested in gathering leftovers at the end of the market day. Let these groups know that you are committed to making the market a strong presence with positive energy in the neighborhood. Identify your common goals and see what you can work on together. On the other hand, consider who might be opposed to the market. Are your neighbors worried about noise and trash around the market site? Are you diverting resources and attention away from another community event? It is important to try to work with the people and groups around you.
Similarly, you can also find partners in the folks at neighboring farms and local agricultural groups. These, too, are people in your community well worth working with. Get to know your fellow nonprofit neighbors, especially land trusts, food policy advocates, and other organizations whose missions overlap with the goals of your farmers market.
The WIC FMNP program is a great vehicle for market success in low-income neighborhoods. Through this program, low-income families receive $21 per year in vouchers to be used for fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. Administration of this program is through the market manager — a market must be certified by the RI Department of Health WIC office before farmers can accept these vouchers at a market.
WIC vouchers are issued to clients at health clinics in a packet of information that includes lists of area farmers markets that are licensed to accept WIC. Farmers market vendors in RI are now able to accept "in-store" WIC CVV checks for fresh fruits and vegetables as well. These vouchers will be in $6, $8, $10, and $15 increments. Please contact the WIC vendor office for complete information on both of these programs. They will be able to guide you on how to certify your market for WIC redemption and provide you with the most complete and up-to-date guidelines.
For more information, contact: Kathy Guilmette, FMNP Coordinator, RI Department of Health, (401) 222-4630
The SFMNP operates somewhat like the WIC-FMNP, providing low-income seniors with $5 vouchers to be used at farmers markets. Unlike WIC vouchers, SFMNP programs can be utilized at some farm stands too. The vouchers are distributed at senior centers and senior facilities. Farmers register individually with the Division of Agriculture to accept SFMNP. Many RI farmers are already certified, but it's a good practice to make sure that your farmers are registered. Market Managers do not have to apply to participate in the SFMNP program.
It's also important to help vendors understand what they can and cannot accept the vouchers as payment for. These vouchers can be used for fresh fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs. They cannot be used for:
- Dried fruits or vegetables
- Potted plants (including vegetable starts or herbs)
- Nuts of any kind (even raw or unprocessed)
- Maple syrup
Again, it's important to make benefit recipients feel comfortable and welcome at the farmers market. Hosting a Senior Day (or similar) event — for example on the last market day of each month, when seniors receive an additional discount — can encourage seniors to visit the market and also make it more worth their while.
For more information: Christopher Rueckel, Rhode Island Dept of Environmental Management, (401) 222-2781 Ext. 4510
Many Americans use plastic for their grocery shopping, whether it be credit cards, debit cards, or EBT cards (for using SNAP benefits). It's difficult for individual vendors to accept these cards at farmers markets. A wireless card reader costs between $700 and $1,000, and monthly fees run about $30–$70 per month, depending on the number of transactions.
Many market managers overcome these barriers by purchasing a single machine for an entire farmers market. The machine can then be used by customers to purchase tokens to be used at the market vendors. The credit/debit/EBT funds are deposited in a market bank account, and vendors redeem the tokens with the market manager at the end of market day. Tokens can be created in two denominations to distinguish between credit or debit purchases, which have no restrictions, and EBT purchases, which do have restrictions.
A farmers market must be certified by the US Department of Agriculture to accept EBT, and vendors and customers must follow EBT guidelines for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), formerly Food Stamps.
Find out if you’re eligible for free equipment, processing, and data services for accepting SNAP at your market through MarketLink.
In 2007, Farm Fresh RI invested in creating the Fresh Bucks infrastructure — a token-based currency now used at farmers markets across Rhode Island. Fresh Bucks enable farmers markets to accept debit and credit cards in exchange for Fresh Bucks coins that customers can use to purchase items directly from farmers market vendors. Though an increasing number of vendors are accepting debit/credit cards at their stands, not all can afford to. Fresh Bucks empower even the smallest farms and food businesses to accept payment from a wider array of customers.
Fresh Bucks are metal coins in denominations of $1 and $5. We encourage markets to keep Fresh Bucks in circulation through the season, and have materials to help explain Fresh Bucks to market-goers. Contact us for more information and to acquire Fresh Bucks tokens for use at your RI farmers market: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To help you model your use of Fresh Bucks, here's how it works at the farmers markets operated by Farm Fresh RI.
- Farm Fresh RI runs a booth at the market that serves as a single "point of sale" with a wireless card-processing machine. Customers swipe a credit or debit card for $5 coins or an EBT card for $1 coins to spend with any food vendor. Food vendors then redeem Fresh Bucks at the Farm Fresh RI booth and we issue them a check by the end of the market.
- There are currently no redemption fees for farms or other participating vendors. Customers with credit cards are charged $1 for each transaction to cover the 2-3% processing fees we pay and our wireless service. While we may lose some money on larger credit card transactions, it is balanced by the smaller transactions, the convenience for customers, and the increased revenue potential for local farms at the market. There are no fees for customers with EBT cards.
- Since $1 Fresh Bucks coins function as a scrip system that allows EBT users to participate in the market, the same restrictions that apply to EBT also apply to Fresh Bucks. $1 coins can be used to pay for any food item that is not served hot or for immediate consumption. $1 coins can also pay for food-growing plant starts. A cup of coffee, flowers, soap, or a sandwich at the market is unfortunately off limits. Baked goods should be wrapped in a bag for consumption after the market. The USDA provides a full list of SNAP eligible items.
- Consistent with EBT rules, vendors can not give change for $1 coins. It's not very hard for customers to spend the full $1, and it serves as a commitment to supporting local food producers.
- We make sure all our vendors know these details. We display EBT, Visa, and Mastercard signage at our farmers market Welcome Table (where our market managers work during the market) and explain Fresh Bucks to customers. At the Farm Fresh RI Welcome Table we provide gift tags and special baggies for customers purchasing Fresh Bucks as a gift. We also coordinate with the SNAP Outreach Project for online, print, and on-the-street outreach.
- Farm Fresh RI will redeem Fresh Bucks from farmers and farmers market managers for US dollars. Farmers at markets managed by Farm Fresh RI can receive same-day reimbursement by check.
The Market Manager booth (table or stand) is a place to conduct the business of the market, but it’s also a place to promote events, as well as distribute information on agriculture, nutrition, and so forth. It could also be a place to sell items not already at the market, such as bread for a nearby bakery, seeds, or eggs. Be sure to follow your own market guidelines and don't compete against your own vendors! Selling things can keep you busy during market, and give you a clear idea of whether your market is failing, surviving, or thriving.
Another consideration is if you will be processing credit, debit, or EBT cards. If so, you will need to staff a management booth each market day. This can be a large, but worthwhile, commitment. Volunteers can help ease this responsibility if chosen with care.
The market should feel comfortable and pleasant both for vendors and customers — and also for you! Staying on top of your continuing responsibilities can help keep things running smoothly, and overall make the market better and your job easier.
Tasks to keep in mind include:
- Check in with vendors to ensure they attend and sell only approved items.
- Maintain publicity for the market to ensure steady attendance.
- Continue outreach to new customers and, if necessary, new vendors.
- Request regular feedback from vendors, and respond to criticism constructively.
- Collect vendor fees and pay bills in a timely fashion.
- Make sure all the market's financial obligations are taken care of.
There is an amazing diversity of personalities at any given farmers market. Every farm has its own draw, and the success of your market is dependent on that. The market is a place of work as well as a community space, and everyone needs to work together.
As a market manager, it's ultimately up to you to foster and maintain a good working environment at your market. This means foreseeing possible conflicts among various market community members and working to mitigate or resolve them. As part of market management, establish and communicate the rules of the market clearly, right from the beginning, to prevent problems later. You'll need to both reinforce and enforce these rules. Find a method that is comfortable for you and fair to your vendors.
It is very helpful to have cell phone or home phone numbers for all your vendors in case you need to contact them on short notice or touch base about a market-related issue during the week. And they should know how to contact you if issues or questions arise.
Create a Buzz
To operate a successful market, you need to effectively inform prospective customers about your market. Purchasing advertising, such as on buses and bus shelters or in newspapers or e-news can be effective options, depending on your budget. Making posters, flyers, and other outreach materials and distributing them yourself can be an affordable option for getting the word out. Some ideas for promoting your market:
- Visit community centers, senior centers, libraries, or schools to do presentations.
- Send a press release to your local media outlets. Include photos! A well-written press release with accompanying high-quality photo provides newspapers, magazines, and other media with a quick, easy way to promote your market online, as well as in print, at no cost to you. They will often literally cut and paste from your press release, so write it with that in mind.
- Contact local radio or TV stations to set up an interview.
- Ask your network of like-minded organizations to send out emails promoting the market, or invite them to an opening event.
- Work with local chefs and restaurants to promote the market. Consider inviting chefs to host cooking demonstrations during the market.
- The Local Food Guide is a local food database that hosts complete listings of RI farmers markets. If you don't see your RI farmers market there, please let us know: email@example.com.
Be sure to keep Farm Fresh RI updated about your farmers market! We can’t help support your market if we don’t know about it.
The early days of a farmers market's life can be challenging. It takes time to build up support for the market. It can be hard even for the most committed would-be customers to remember to visit the market at the right time and day. Talk with vendors to ensure that they understand the time commitment the market requires and that they must stay for the duration of the market day, as well as come to every market! Customers won't feel excited about coming to the market if the vendors don't feel excited about sticking around. And offering customers consistency is key.
Farmers are at the market to make their living. A big part of your work as a market manager is to support your vendors and the vitality of the market. This means thinking creatively about ways to bring people in and to make them want to stay. Remember that the market is both a business setting and a service to the community — and you must balance both sides of this scale.
Hosting events during your farmers market not only helps create additional buzz and give you an excuse to promote your market, it also draws new people to the market and keeps regulars at your market longer. Here are some ideas for events at the market:
- Music: Invite local musicians to play. Think about what type of music customers would enjoy. Kid-friendly music is often a big hit at markets with lots of families. Think about where a musician could set up, whether they need electricity, if there is a shady spot for the musician to play and a comfortable spot nearby where families can sit and enjoy the music.
- Workshops: The market is also a great space to host workshops or tables with information on relevant topics, like composting and vermiculture. Consider having visiting community organizations table at your market to create interest and further promote your market.
- Cooking Demonstrations: Cooking demonstrations are a great way to draw customers to the market around the very thing farmers markets do best—local food. And showing customers how they might prepare items from your market at home can help increase sales. Involve vendors in your demonstrations by highlighting their ingredients, and be sure to point out their stand at the market! Remember, free samples go a long way while shoppers benefit from nutrition education and cooking tips. The University of Rhode Island's SNAP Education Program provides cooking demonstrations at farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods, cooking up easy, healthy, and affordable meals.
- Contests and Scavenger Hunts: Remember the little ones when you plan events at your market. Families are often return shoppers, and can be looking for ways to get their children excited about visiting the farmers market. And again, any time you can turn your farmers market into a destination, people of all ages will stay longer. Try things like a scavenger hunt through the market, a tomato-eating, or corn-shucking contest.