Farmers' markets are becoming all the rage across the nation. As more consumers become concerned about the safety and quality of mass-produced and processed foods, others just enjoy the fresh fruits and vegetables sold in a festival atmosphere.
In Grand Rapids, Mich., the Fulton Street Farmers Market has been in operation since 1922.
"In Michigan, we have the Michigan Farmers Market Association and they are a huge help with not only getting a farmers' market started, but deciding how it is going to be governed," said Melissa Harrington, market manager.
"They help with liability insurance and they are currently offering a certification program for farmers' market managers."
Harrington said farmers' market operations are becoming more standardized and professional, which is helping to make them more successful.
"Community support is also key to making a farmers' market viable and sustainable," Harrington said. She added that the more data markets can collect on the major impact small farms have on the economic viability of a community, the more support they'll get.
Harrington said transparency and honesty about the products sold at a farmers' market are very important.
"People shop at farmers' markets for the relationship, intimacy and trust they build that you don't get at a supermarket," she said.
The Fulton Street Farmers Market is located on city property, and operations are leased by a neighborhood association, which is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization. Locally-grown fruits, vegetables, plants and home-made arts and crafts are offered at the market.
"It's a very interesting public-private partnership that works very well. The city is there for support. They offer the venue. We also have the capability to do fund raising," Harrington said.
The Fort Valley Farmers Market, owned by the city of Fort Valley, Ga., and operated by the Fort Valley Main Street-Downtown Development Authority, was established in May 2010. The market operates through October and follows a policy of selling products made or grown in Georgia, according to Kathie Lambert, program manager for the authority.
Lambert said the market accepts Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards for government food assistance benefits, and she recommends the practice.
"We also started a nutrition class in 2010. People came to the downtown farmers' market and we showed them some healthy recipes," Lambert said.
Certain products that are governed by state or federal laws cannot be sold at farmers' markets, so organizers should investigate these restrictions in their state. In Georgia, they include:
• Meat products
• Dairy products
• Organic products from growers or processors without an organic certification
• Low acid/acidified foods (canned vegetables, pickles, salsa, etc.) unless the processor is licensed, has met all of the requirements, including successfully completing a Better Process Control School.
The Fort Valley Farmers Market is located on city property, so Lambert said liability is a concern.
"Individually, the vendors sign a registration and they hold the city harmless for any damages or other expenses," Lambert said.
She said the farmers' market had a ribbon-cutting ceremony when it opened in 2010, which provided good publicity in the local news media.
"We will probably place an advertisement in the local newspaper this year for farmers and craft people," Lambert added.
As with any business, it's important to take the proper steps when starting a farmers' market. We gathered some best practices from a variety of sources, and here are the essentials:
Start with your local chamber of commerce, which might have valuable advice about suitable locations, applicable regulations and effective marketing.
Write a business plan. Write the bylaws and vendor application as soon as the plan is completed. Review all three documents to make sure there are no conflicts. The bylaws are the rules that are used to achieve the goals established in the business plan.
Locate vendors. Contact the state department of agriculture, local county extension office and local land grant university agriculture extension office for a list of local growers.
Location, location, location. It is important to locate the farmers' market in a vibrant area. Good choices can be in public parks, town squares, shopping malls, parking lots or community sidewalks. Farmers' markets should be located where shelter, parking, restrooms and seating are available.
Layout matters! Develop an attractive mix of stalls. Establish basic stall sizes that are based on the dimensions of standard pop-up or picnic tents in order to accommodate the vendors' shelters. Create a fee structure based on stall size and location and create signage for the market.
Get your attorney involved. You'll need to develop vendor contracts that explain the location, hours of operation, fees, and responsibilities of the vendors. The contracts should describe the penalties if vendors violate the market rules and regulations.
Get your health officials involved for permit requirements and food handling regulations. Food vendors should meet these requirements and display permits at their stalls.
Consult with a tax advisor to see if the farmers' market qualifies for 501(c)3 nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service. If it does, the market will be exempt from income tax.
Consult with an insurance agent to obtain the correct insurance for managing a farmers' market. There are organizations, such as the Farmers' Market Coalition, that partner with insurance companies to provide insurance against commercial general liability.
Hire a market manager. In many cases, this is a full time position. The market manager's duties should include inspecting farms to make sure the produce sold is being grown there.
Marketing is important. Contact local radio and television stations about broadcasting "live remotes" from the market early in the season to help generate a buzz. Also contact the local newspapers and ask to be interviewed.
If there are other farmers' markets in the area, visit them and let their vendors know about your market. Start a website and include a market directory, news, events, a list of seasonal produce and recipes. Ask vendors to contribute to the website.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists a number of federal, private sector, and foundation grant opportunities in the Farmers Market Consortium Resource Guide. The guide includes grants for market development, producer training and support, consumer education and access, and market promotion.