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There is something here for every farmer and food producer involved with direct sales — whether you’re a new farmer or producer in Rhode Island, an experienced farmer or producer looking to increase the direct sales of the food you grow, or a well-seasoned farmers market veteran looking for the right forms to fill out.
This guide was made possible by a partnership between Farm Fresh RI, RI Rural Development Council, and the USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program.
Selling at a farmers market can be an 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. Additionally, it is always good to consider the following when thinking about joining a farmers market.
- Do you have the time and energy to travel to a market and set up your stand?
- Do you have enough food for a three-hour farmers market?
- If you can't personally be at the market, who do you want representing you?
- Do you have food that is appropriate for a variety of shoppers?
- Do you want to sell to your own community or further from home?
You can talk to the managers of farmers markets near you to get a better idea of what is being sold and who is buying at those markets to help make this decision.
Types of Products Allowed
Determine if your product mix is a good fit for the farmers markets where you want to sell. For example:
- 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 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 you’re maintaining a certain percentage of your own items.
- RI Farms or Regional? Some markets allow only food and farms from RI, while others accept foods produced in MA, CT, and elsewhere in New England.
- There are also markets with no rules whatsoever. However, this style of market can be challenging to more selective markets as well as to local producers by confusing customers about what the term "farmers market" really means.
Is the food you'll be selling taxable? Check with the RI Division of Taxation at (401) 574-8955.
Town/City Hall Requirements
Each town may have specific vendor licenses so check with the town in which you will be selling. See contact information for every City Hall in RI.
RI Department of Health Licenses
All vendors who are selling any food other than fruits and vegetables, eggs, or honey need a license from the RI Department of Health (DOH). For most businesses this will be a Food Business License, but the license you will need must be determined by the DOH.
- Apply for a Department of Health License
If you are only selling fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, honey, or non-food items, you will not need a license from the Department of Health.
- Apply for a Farm Home Manufacturer License
If you are a farm selling jam or bakery products, you may qualify for a Home Manufacturer License if you cook approved foods in your farm kitchen. Contact the RI Department of Health if you think you might be eligible.
If you plan to sell farm-raised meat, you will need to apply for a RI Dept of Health Retail Food Peddler License. This license will allow you to sell directly to consumers both at the farmers market and at your farm. To sell to restaurants, grocers, or other wholesale buyers, you will need additional permitting (for your refrigerated truck and on-farm freezer storage). The Rhode Island Raised Livestock Association (RIRLA) has prepared guides and resources for you in this process, including wholesale permits and contact information for people and procedures.
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 farmers markets require vendors to have it. You should have proper insurance in place for the types of products you sell, including a General or Farm/Business Liability policy. Shop for a good quote! Here are some resources with more information:
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 — just make sure you get the scale inspected by the Department of Labor and Training's Weights and Measures Department once a year! Market scales must be "sealed for trade" or legal for trade. For sealing services, contact Anthony Goes at (401) 727-0173.
Depending on the farmers market, you will probably have to bring your own 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 or weigh down your tent. Some roll over in a gust of wind! To keep delicate produce moist on hot days, you may want to bring a spray bottle for water.
Price Tags and Labels
Bring a cash box, calculator, and laminated price sheet for your reference. Bring cards to label each item on the table with names and 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.
Don’t forget cash — especially singles and quarters for making change. Customers are more likely to spend smaller bills. So by circulating singles with customers around the market, you're helping to boost everyone's sales.
Bags and Containers
It's easy to use too many bags and containers. This will turn off customers who shop at farmers markets for environmental reasons, and is also wasteful for your bottom line. 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 return next week, and they may buy another dozen!
Another item that may be of use at a farmers market is a hand truck, or dolly. A hand truck can save you a lot of time during setup and clean-up, and could make the difference between needing to hire an extra hand or not.
Focus on Your Offerings
Keeping your food looking fresh is important, and making sure 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 buildup of perspiration clouds a customer’s view and is not good for produce 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 it gets too hot. They will cool off under your table, in the shade, or in your cooler.
- If you are selling meat, dairy or egg products, then you will need to keep them in coolers with ice.
Farmers market product restrictions differ by market. But in general, they 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 farmers market as a chance to highlight what your farm does best. Giving yourself a niche helps customers remember you and draws on your strengths.
At many farmers markets, you are pre-approved to sell a specific set of items. This is determined through the application process and your discussions with the market manager. These items cannot be changed without giving the market manager prior notice. Please respect your fellow producers and make sure you communicate with your market manager about these issues.
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. Cut-throat competitiveness can undermine the spirit of the market and a farm’s viability.
- Factor in the socioeconomic demographics of the farmers market’s customers when you set your prices.
- 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 about their food. Take it as a compliment that they want to know more.
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 priced $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. It’s another way to attract your customers!
Clear product labeling is incredibly valuable communication that furthers the relationship between you and your customers. Consider the following when labeling products for the farmers market.
- Are your labels simple, large and easy to read?
- What is the name or variety of each item?
- Can you include short suggestions for preparing certain products? (e.g. "great for stir-fry" or "extra sweet")
- Is there any nutritional information available?
As the market is coming to a close, you may have customers interested in purchasing your seconds, or you could try offering bargains on your remaining product. This can be a useful way to clear out the day's products, but this practice can also encourage challenging customers to count on your end-of-day blowout sale, so be mindful. Alternately, if you go to market multiple days in a row, some types of produce can maintain their quality for a second market day. In fact, harvesting enough hardier produce for more than one market day at a time can streamline your process.
Another option is organizing with your market manager and other vendors to donate leftover food to a local soup kitchen, food bank, or shelter. Sometimes you can find a volunteer in the community to help with this. Check with your market manager about any donation programs already in place.
What does your stand look like?
- Use a white tent: Bright light makes products look best.
- Show your farm's name (out in front and inside - BIG LETTERS are key)!
- Hide those boxes! Make it look clean and neat.
- Hang signs at eye level, not at waist height.
How do you place your products?
- Stagger the height of products on your table, or use hanging baskets.
- Make things easy to reach, such as propping up low-sitting baskets.
- Use tablecloths and coverings to create ambiance.
- Offer samples, especially of unusual offerings 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 customers, it’s all about them. What does your product do to benefit them? Make the product personal.
What are you selling?
- Study the trends and sell something that is "with the times."
- Visit other markets for ideas about packaging, new products, etc.
- Don’t miss an opportunity to brand your goods — and use a label! Make your products uniquely yours.
Being able to accept WIC, Senior Nutrition Vouchers, and SNAP/EBT is a great way to increase sales as well as expand your client base.
WIC stands for Women, Infants and Children. The national program is funded by the US Farm Bill and administered in 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 $7 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 $7 vouchers for an entire season and they expire on October 31. Farmers must deposit them 30 days after their expiration date, but are encouraged to deposit the checks throughout the season to make more money available to the program.
- WIC Fruit & Vegetable CVV checks. The vouchers range from $6, $8, or $11 and say "Fruit and Vegetable: fresh, frozen or canned". These checks can be used for most fresh, frozen, and canned fruits and vegetables at approved farmers markets and grocery stores. Dried fruits and prepared vegetables are not allowed. Customers receive these checks monthly. Farmers must deposit them within 30 days of their expiration date.
- Regular WIC checks. These checks look similar to the above but are for a variety of non-produce items including bread, milk, and baby formula. 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 farmers market must have at least three farms participating and be approved by the Department of Health.
- Contact Kathy Guilmette Cipriano (401) 222-4630, the FMNP 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 (CSA) programs. To accept Senior Nutrition checks, a vendor needs to be authorized by the Rhode Island DEM Division of Agriculture.
- Contact Christopher Rueckel (401) 222-2781 Ext. 4510, at RI DEM Division of Agriculture for details about SFMNP acceptance.
SNAP & EBT
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly called Food Stamps) provides federal assistance to low-income residents on debit-like cards called Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). Many Rhode Islanders receive SNAP, adding up to millions of dollars a month spent on food using these benefits — a huge opportunity. Most markets in Rhode Island that accept EBT use wireless card-reading machines and $1 metal coins called Fresh Bucks.
- Contact Molly Ellis (firstname.lastname@example.org), Farmers Markets Accounts Manager at Farm Fresh RI, for details about Fresh Bucks.
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. 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! Get more information from the USDA about WIC FMNP and SFMNP.
Many farmers markets 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, and plan a seasonal calendar. For example:
- October is a good month for a garlic fest
- May Day could be time for a green event
- Auction your jam at the holiday craft bazaar
See what you can accomplish with other vendors!
Markets may organize a "Seniors Day," "Chef's Tour," or a similar event to welcome certain populations to the market. Make signs that highlight your specials, and display images that show what a day in the life of your farm is like. Remember, the more you share with customers, the more they will want to be part of your community. Being at a farmers market is a great way to showcase who you are. Be creative.