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The phrase “farmers market” probably brings to mind for most people visions of outdoor tents displaying bountiful fresh produce in the warm sunshine. Yet the seasoned market farmer thinks beyond this standard summer scenario and taps into another sales season: winter.
Lower temperatures don’t necessarily mean lower sales. With some strategic planning, winter markets can help boost your overall revenue and provide an easy way to diversify your sales throughout the year.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 16 percent of farmers markets now operate year-round with winter markets between November and March. With the expanding demand for local food, this number will probably increase with added opportunity to generate income throughout the year.
Keep in mind, however, that winter farmers markets are different on multiple fronts than summer venues, so adjust your approach and attitude accordingly.
“The winter market is a much more intimate environment,” says Sarah J. Elliott, market manager of the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, Wisconsin. “We see a greater percentage of regulars in the winter, which provides much greater opportunity for vendors to really get to know their customers and establish personal relationships with them.”
Brett Olson, creative director of Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit group helping rural and farm businesses succeed, says that without the busy summer schedule, winter markets naturally are a more relaxed and social setting. “As people have more time to linger and chat, a winter market creates more of a fun party feel, and customers have time to get to know you and your products,” he says.
Before jumping into the winter market scene, though, heed some insider advice.
Plan ahead, ideally a year out so you can plant for diversity and quantity, according to David Kotsonas, who manages the St. Paul (Minnesota) Farmers Market, which also runs year-round. “Think about planning to have root vegetables that can last till spring,” he says. “Your customers will appreciate your efforts and return to you the following season.”
Oriana Kruszewski, owner of Oriana’s Orchard and Nursery in Winslow, Illinois, sells her certified-organic Asian pears at winter farmers markets in Chicago, storing her fruit so it can last through spring. She recommends keeping your income expectations in realistic check.
“Winter markets bring in a third or less for me than summer markets, but [they provide] an opportunity [to] diversify and sell other products like my jam, dehydrated pears and tea,” she says.
Plan Around Existing Events
“A recommendation that was made to me as we started our winter market that worked well is to hold the market at a place that already has a winter event going on, attracting attendance,” says Tiffany Tripp, the winter market organizer in Faribault, Minnesota. “We partnered with the local arts center that has a holiday artists sale already going on, so people could come for the farmers market to buy food and also look for artisan gifts or vice versa.”
The year-round Ann Arbor (Michigan) Farmers Market started in 1919. Today, it features more than 100 vendors that include seasonal fresh produce, fermented sauerkraut and pickles, artisanal yogurt, premier Michigan fruits and nuts, and numerous products from cottage food operators.
To creatively encourage sales, the market accepts three forms of currency to make shopping easier: $5 credit card tokens to facilitate easier credit card purchases; EBT and Double Up tokens, which allow food assistance recipients to double the value of their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars at the market; and Women, Infants and Children Fresh and Senior Market Fresh programs, where some vendors accept seasonal coupons.
Most wares at winter farmers markets require more preparation than some of the peak items during summer abundance. This is all the more reason to offer recipes and preparation tips for what to do with those winter greens or rhubarb chutney.
Even farmers in places such as California need to think strategically to help customers cook up and use winter offerings.
“In Southern California, winter crops require more preparation than summer tomatoes and stone fruit that you can easily just slice and eat,” says Catt Fields White, director of San Diego Markets and CEO of Intents Business. “The best-selling farmers are those who provide recipes for the cauliflower, beets and bok choy that fill the market tables.”
Winter markets generally don’t have the advertising budgets or outreach resources of summer markets and often are run by a well-meaning, committed group of volunteers. Do your part as a vendor to help promote the market through whatever means you use, including social media posts and email updates to your summer CSA base.
“Generally, winter markets have more expenses and fewer vendors … so there is usually little budget for advertising,” Kotsonas says.
He recommends tapping into the power of public relations and sending press releases to local outlets.
“Journalist positions at the paper have likely been cut back to a bare minimum skeleton crew,” Kotsonas says.” You’d be helping them out and making a friend by delivering a completed story.”
Try Holiday Markets
Think beyond specific farmers markets and experiment with selling your wares at various holiday events such as bazaars organized by churches around Christmas. You might find that your pint of pickles that garners $6 at the farmers market sells for a higher price among shoppers seeking unusual holiday presents versus weekly food to feed their family.
Think Like a Retailer
With most winter markets indoors, take advantage of being out of the elements and dress up your display. If you have access to electricity, add a string of lights and draw customers to your booth.
“There is easily burnout during the active summer growing season, and the winter is time to recharge your battery and get creative,” says Danielle Zimmerman, manager of the Monroe (Wisconsin) Farmers Market and owner of Meadow Ridge Alpacas.
Zimmerman finds winter markets a good venue for selling gift items for loved ones such as her fiber products, which include socks, hats and gloves.
Sell Value-Added Products
Transform that summer farm abundance into jams, pickles and other value-added items in your home kitchen for winter market sales. Thanks to state-specific cottage food laws, anyone can readily become a food entrepreneur making specific, nonhazardous food items in one’s home kitchen for public sale. Check your state’s laws about what nonhazardous items are included. Typically, these are items such as low-moisture baked goods that don’t need to be refrigerated, including breads and cookies.
One of the many cottage food operators selling at the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Farmers Market is Mary Wolfe, with Wolfe Orchard of Tipton, Michigan. She sells homemade cherry, blackberry and raspberry jams from berries gathered on her 10 acres devoted to small fruit production.
Grow Your Base
“While there are overall fewer customers at winter markets, the ones who come week after week all winter long are your truest, most loyal customers,” Kotsonas says.
This is the time of year to have those lingering conversations and get to know and appreciate your core customer base.
“The winter market isn’t as sexy as the summer market as there isn’t an abundance of gorgeously manicured produce just begging to be taken home by the customer,” Elliott says. “Lower sales do not mean that the winter market isn’t worth it. It’s a wonderful opportunity to build your customer base, try out new products and identify the niche that your customers desire.
“With plenty of face-to-face time with customers, the valuable information you glean during the winter market will help you plan your upcoming season and give you the confidence that you are producing products that are marketable and desirable.”
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.