A Day in the Life of a Farmers’ Market Manager
Even if you arrive first thing at the farmers’ market to get the best berries, it’s very likely that the farmers, vendors and staff that make the market run smoothly have been up for hours (and we mean hours) before you. For Kelley Villa, who was a market manager for the Prescott Farmers Market for two years and now manages their community outreach, getting up early isn’t too bad. “I love when I get to substitute for a staff member who’s out of town,” she says, “because it’s really great to kind of wake up and be in that good company in the morning.”
That’s in part because the Prescott market has created a special community. As a producer-only, non-profit market, vendors either have to grow or raise everything within in the state, or in the case of prepared foods, use a percentage of Arizona-grown ingredients to produce their foods, which means it’s full of high-quality, locally grown ingredients. Four years ago, the staff decided to extend to a winter market, encouraging the farmers to scale up and increase their annual income. The Saturday market, about two hours outside of Phoenix, AZ, is popular with locals and tourists alike, both for the slightly cooler climate outside the city, and the all-year growing season that keeps the market open 51 weekends a year. Although Villa doesn’t have to wake up for those early mornings as often anymore, she shared with us what a recent Saturday at the market was like, along with some of her favorite finds.
Kelley Villa. Photograph by JB Del Campo.
Time to get out of bed! Villa and other members of the Prescott market staff wake up around 4 a.m. every Saturday, grabbing a quick coffee and breakfast. The farmers and other vendors are up even earlier. “The farmers probably leave between 3:30 a.m. and 4 a.m. to get to the market at a time when they need to set up,” says Villa.
Villa arrives with two assistant managers to the site, near Yavapai College. Along with setting up tables, tents and other equipment, the team also helps the more than 30 vendors find their spots in the market, especially important if they’ve moved or are new this week. “We try to keep vendors in the same spot generally,” she says, “because it helps customers find their favorite vendors and kind of explore the market in an organized way.”
After the vendors are taken care of, the team sets up their own information booth, where they’ll answer questions and sell market merchandise like totes, t-shirts and aprons. At the booth, market staff will also charge credit cards and SNAP EBT cards, aka food stamps, for custom tokens to use at vendors’ stalls in lieu of cash. They’re also in charge of setting up rest areas, signage and an area for the weekly musical performances that the market features.
Brrrrnnnng! The market opens every Saturday morning with the ringing of the opening bell. “You can smell coffee, you can smell bacon,” Villa says. “You can smell other delicious things that are sizzling on grills that are the breakfast options of the market, and we are open.” And there are always early-birds ready at the start, cash and shopping list in hand. “The regulars know exactly what they want, who they want to buy from,” says Villa. “They want it to be super fresh, and not at all wilted, and not at all, picked over. They want the cream of the crop.”
The market staff usually take breakfast breaks in shifts around 7:45 a.m. and 8 a.m. Villa tends to grab fresh fruit, breakfast burritos or quiche from market vendors. “We want to be really refueled and energized for the rush, which typically happens around 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.,” she says. “Those are customers who are new to the market or came to the market on an impulse and didn’t bring cash.”
At the top of every hour, the staff counts the customers who enter the market for 10 minutes. By multiplying this number by six, they can estimate how many people come to the market on any given day. Although the number fluctuates based on weather, the tourist season and holiday events, on average 1,000 people come to the Prescott market each summer Saturday.
The new rush of customers arrive: shoppers who may have slept in, arrive with children or simply enjoy browsing and chatting more. At the information booth, the staff answers all sorts of questions. Villa, who worked originally as a volunteer serving samples before coming on staff, is used to chatting with customers. “We are answering questions about why so and so vendor isn’t here today because they had car trouble or whatever is going on in their life,” she says.
Although many of the vendors are manning their booths alone and can’t escape, if they can manage to get away they’ll also shop the market and support each other. Villa especially loves seeing her farmers using each other’s produce on social media: “A vendor who sells eggs is constantly posting photos of the amazing veggies from the farmer across the aisle from her, who she buys from, and then next door, there’s a lavender farm that sells herbes de Provence, and she adds those to her eggs.”
The market staff also tries to make time to shop and support the vendors, usually near the end of the morning. Thinking strategically, the team members usually bring coolers to help keep produce chilled during their hot summer work day, and will rotate to allow each member to shop. “I try to limit it because I am someone who will buy everything at the market because I’m very fond of the person who made it and they said it’s delicious.” One of her current favorites: Japanese turnips. “They’re way different from the huge purple ones you get at the grocery story. They’re light, tender, crispy, crunchy, sweet, delicious.”
The market officially closes at noon. The staff breaks off to handle closing down the market. The assistant managers help break down the chairs, tables and booths while the market manager handles vendor checkout. Along with paying the vendors any cash they are owed for their tokens, the market manager also collects 10 percent of the vendor’s daily sales, which contribute to the costs of keeping the market open, including markets staff time, advertising and other special events.
It’s time to head home! The market staff makes sure everyone is packed up, especially farmers with a lot of tents and equipment, and then heads out. After taking the deposit to their office, Villa is finally done. “Then I go home, and take a shower, and a nap,” she says. Until the following week, when, if she’s lucky and a staff member needs her to cover, she’ll do it all again.