Elements of a Successful Farmers Market

A thriving, robust farmers market is an asset to any community.

Farmers markets date back to the beginnings of our nation. Often the market was informal, simply a gathering of farmers who drove their team and wagon to the town square and sold their excess produce. The historic Soulard Farmers Market in St. Louis is the oldest continually operating farmers market west of the Mississippi River, dating to 1779. East of the Mississippi, there were even older established markets in the East.

After World War 2, at the beginning of the Baby Boom, grocery stores sprang up in newly built communities and farmers markets slowly faded away. But in recent years there's been a remarkable resurgence of the farmers market model and many communities have embraced and encouraged these markets in their area. It's evident, though, as I travel around the country visiting markets, that not all farmers markets share the same benefits. I've visited farmers markets in many countries, as well, and all share most of the same elements of our best ones in the U.S. I decided to make a list of what elements appear to go into making the most successful farmers markets. My survey isn't precise, it's simply my own observations based on visiting a lot of markets in many states.

Water for vendors and visitors.

First and foremost, the most important element I found in a successful market, is how enthusiastically the city itself encourages the market. I visited several small town markets and the ones that struggled the most and had the fewest vendors, all voiced one opinion: the city where the market was located was barely tolerated by the city government. In some instances, the city had made finding space difficult, insisting the market take the worst spots in town and changing every year where vendors were allowed. Some small towns required expensive permits. However, cities that offered encouragement and welcomed the vendors, had the most thriving markets.

Here's my list of what it takes for a successful farmers market in a community:

1- Encouragement from the city in the way of space for the market. That includes simple things like giving vendors a predictable space, year after year, where shoppers can find them and that is cordoned off so that traffic doesn't present danger to shoppers. Having restrooms open and available for vendors and shoppers is important. Vendors having access to water, both drinking water and for watering their plants during the hours they are selling, is equally important. It was startling to see how many towns with struggling markets, closed their restrooms on weekends, and wouldn't allow access to water. Making vendor fees and applications simple and easy, is also important. When a city tries to price the vendors out of business in the hope the market will go away, is detrimental to all, including the city.

Market location and signs are important.

2- Help from the city with advertising the market, with city businesses taking advantage of the increased traffic flow to the market. Something as simple as letting the market organizers use the city photocopy machine for flyers, can be a big help. Groups such as Rotary, Lions, Elks and others, giving some encouragement can be vital, as well. When civic organizations were involved and told their members about the good things the market was doing for the community, it was always helpful.

Some civic groups get involved in the markets with selling their cookbooks, encouraging new members to join, such as art guilds and neighbor-to-neighbor groups like Welcome Wagon, and find that farmers markets are an excellent way to bring in new volunteers.

Wide assortments of produce entices customers, like these purple and yellow cauliflower heads.

3- Local businesses supporting the market, even in small ways. I participated in a market last year set up on a town square. There were about a dozen vendors with fresh produce 2 days a week. Within the square were 6 restaurants and not a one of the owners or chefs ever bought a single item. People who shopped there were seen by businesses as "blocking traffic" and an irritation to the store owners rather than seeing the increased traffic flow as an asset. (In one town I visited, businesses put up signs on their entry doors, "Restrooms open only for our customers" to prevent market shoppers from going inside).
A diverse population of races, age groups and education levels is a positive thing.
4- A diverse, multi-generational population. Retirement communities and tourist towns seems to struggle the most with having successful farmers markets. Farmers markets bring in younger, well-educated shoppers who see the importance of local, often organic food and want to support area growers. 

Resting places for shoppers to rest and visit are important.
Here are a few additional elements I found at recent markets that are also helpful. Drinking fountains in the area, operational and turned on. Seating areas for shoppers - this can be as simple as benches, walls, anything where shoppers can rest and visit. Space and encouragement for entertainers. The market in Fayetteville, AR (Tuesdays and Saturdays) gives space on all 4 sides of the square for budding entertainers to have an hour to play, sing, juggle, etc. Access to restrooms is important, too. Encouragement for shoppers to bring their dogs, with signs reminding people to clean up after their dogs gave opportunity for shoppers to spend some time with their pets in a social setting.

Encouragement for young musicians to try out their craft.

At one market I found the County Extension Office with a booth and table, with garden insect displays and someone on hand to answer questions about garden bug pests. I found the Humane Society with a booth, and dogs on leashes, looking for adoptive homes for their animals. Politicians, too, had booths to answer questions about their platforms and meet prospective voters.

Shoppers of all ages.
Humane Society introducing pets to prospective new owners.

Allowing beverage and food vendors is important, as well. The best markets I've seen, all had a coffee/beverage booth so shoppers could linger and visit over a cool drink. Food sampling at the bakery booth was allowed and the fruit vendors had little covered sampler displays where you could taste apples, peaches, etc. before deciding to buy the item.

Encouraging kids is just good business for any town. After all, they grow up to be your customers!
This enterprising young man had his own booth, selling his marshmallow guns.
Another important element was activities for kids. The best markets that I visited, in California, Michigan, Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, all had something that made it fun for kids to come. Games, demonstrations, crafters who showed kids how to make something, all made for a total family environment that made it fun for everyone.

Vendors make it fun for people to shop with them.
Farmers markets are here to stay. Some towns and cities struggle to have a market. Memphis, TN, for example, has a small market given its population, while Fayetteville and Bentonville, AR both have large and thriving markets. Branson, MO, with 7 million tourists a year, struggles to have more than 3 or 4 vendors and each year the market is in a new location so it's almost impossible to find (even for us locals). Springfield, MO has 3 thriving markets and is about to build a permanent location for a market. Small towns across the Ozarks attempt to have markets but the ones that succeed, all have the backing of the city, the community and local businesses. It's exciting to see these markets as they grow and become permanent parts of their communities.
Mark Cain of Dripping Springs Farm near Huntsville, AR sells cut flowers.

Visit my website to see the books I've written on herbs and gardening. It's salsa-making time, you might enjoy my Sensational Salsas book this summer!