January 17, 2007 | By: Aimee Nielson
LEXINGTON, KY.

More than 1,800 farmers sold in Kentucky community farmers’ markets and farm direct markets in 2006. Many of them were part of a standing-room-only crowd at a recent fruit and vegetable conference in Lexington, where they learned about new trends that could increase sales and market interest in the future. The conference was co-sponsored by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Kentucky State University and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Cynthia Brown is the manager of Findlay Market in Cincinnati, one of the oldest public markets in the United States. She spoke from experience and relayed new trends that work at her market, which averages approximately 5,000 customers each week.
She said some keys to their success are having a permanent structure and year-round merchants.

“A major trend in farmers’ markets is extending the season to year-round,” she said. “This year, because of the weather, that was easier. We’ve had vendors with things like lettuce and potted herbs from the greenhouse here into the winter.”

She explained that consumers shop out of habit and if farmer’s can have something to sell at the market year-round, those consumers will return again and again.

“The longer you are there promoting yourself, the larger customer base you’re going to have,” Brown said. “Why do you go to Kroger every week? Out of habit or because there’s a sale – public markets have to create that, too.”

One way to extend the season is for farmers’ to sell value-added products such as canned foods, in the winter. Brown said the best marketing for those items is to advertise in the summer so the consumer knows they have a reason to return after the “normal” season ends.

“Another thing is niche marketing,” Brown continued. “It goes hand-in-hand with marketing to local chefs. Ask them what they want that they can’t get; ask them to come to your market and talk to your farmers about what they need.” 

Brown was a chef for 23 years before she began managing Findlay Market. She said many times chefs assume they’ll get a better deal from wholesalers, which may be true in winter, but farmers need to convince chefs that they can offer a better deal in the fall.
“Restaurants are interested in locally grown produce,” she said. “And customers want to know where things (they are eating) come from. Chefs need farmers to grow to their specifications. What I’m saying is that you need to know who your local chefs are because, even in small towns, there is someone to sell to – restaurants, bed and breakfasts, nursing homes, schools, etc.”

Brown went on to tell farmers if they grow something well to find a chef who is looking for that product or, if they don’t already have a niche product, to ask what the chefs need and start growing for that need.

“You don’t have to be the TGI Friday’s of farmers’ markets,” she said. “Find two or three things you do well, especially if you have them in different seasons.”
Janet Eaton, farmers’ market specialist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said it costs a lot of money to hire a manager for a market, but that the benefits were obvious after listening to Brown.

“In markets where you see the management of the market taking up so much time, it becomes a case of, ‘Do farmers want to charge themselves a little more to have someone come in and really make a difference (by taking over management duties)’,” she said. “It’s valuable to have someone make the market work; to drive more traffic into the market and to create relationships with potential buying groups, like chefs.”
Brown also talked about events and promotions she uses to bring more customers into the market.

“We have done promotions to coincide with the seasons – a ‘Food for a Feast’ promotion highlighted items to make holiday meals with cooking lists; a ‘Taste of Summer’ event where visitors were able to taste many items,” she said. “We’ve had bands, a mounted patrol dance – it’s a very delicate balance with limited resources, but these things work.”
She concluded by saying that with the “return of family fun,” markets must be safe, kid-friendly and offer music, food and free items, especially in urban areas. She called it the “Disneyland approach.”

Contact: 

Janet Eaton, 502-564-4983