Saturday, March 25, 2006

Farmer's Markets and You

This piece was originally published in WRENzine.

By the time you read this spring will have arrived in the North Country, perhaps a few weeks later than it does here on the prairie. Growers and sellers are busy as signs go up, equipment is brought out and made ready for the work to come, and people start to think about whether it would be a good idea to use a farmers’ market as an outlet for their spare garden truck, home made products and the like. On the buying side, townsfolk and those who do not garden are eagerly awaiting the first fresh produce of spring to grace their tables and inspire their palates.

A farmers’ market can provide you with low cost, direct access to many customers who you might not have served otherwise, including consumers and buyers for the local trade. As you build a following at the farmers’ market you may find that other business opportunities present themselves. Chefs from the better class of restaurants often use farmers markets as a source of seasonal goods, and you can be sure that a good showing of your produce will lead to new opportunities. Because internet access is now as commonplace as the old party line used to be, a number of chefs have organized informal producer groups to supply their needs, and these contacts were mostly acquired through exposure by direct marketing and at farmers’ markets.

One of the key considerations to investigate is what sort of rules and restrictions are placed on sellers at the farmers’ market you are interested in joining. Some important issues are:

Do I have to be licensed?

For the most part, sellers at a farmers’ market do not have to be licensed to sell what they grow. However, when any sort of processing in undertaken beyond a water wash or you are involved in selling meats, dairy products or eggs you probably will need some sort of license to operate, and this will most likely be through your local authorities or your state department of agriculture.

What can I sell from my stall or booth?

The answer to this question lies in what is contained within the four corners of the membership agreement. For the most part, farmers’ markets deal in fresh farm products and there may be restrictions on sales of crafts, general merchandise, or other things not directly associated with local agricultural production.

Do I have to be a farmer to sell at the market?

This is another question that is controlled by the four corners of the membership agreement. In some cases, membership is limited to actual producers of the farm products they sell. In some cases, the seller must offer at least a percentage of product that they grew themselves. In yet other cases there is no restriction on origin of products you sell.

Who collects the sales tax?

In general you will be responsible for collecting taxes and paying your obligations to the state or city you are located in.

Does the farmers’ market have to be certified by anyone?

Some farmers’ markets require organic certification, and in that case you may have to certified by some third party or have complied with USDA organic certification rules.
If the farmers market requires you to be a producer you might have to submit extensive documentation and a farm plan to demonstrate the ability to meet your commitments. In some cases you may have to open your farm for inspection. In other cases all that will be required is that you pay for the space. Farmers’ markets are idiosyncratic and there are no hard and fast rules that apply to all of them all the time.

Who owns or operates the market?

In cases farmers markets are operated by nonprofit groups, civic associations or municipalities. Some are longstanding operations that have been in existence for many years and some are relatively new on the scene. In any case you should acquaint yourself with the rules that the market asks its members to follow.

What penalties are involved if I violate the rules of the market?

Violating the rules of the farmers’ markets may cause you to lose your ability to access the market. Because of that, it is sound business to know the procedures that are in place for governance of the farmers market and what procedures can be used to resolve disputes among members or between members and management.


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