Here’s What Makes a Winning Farmers’ Market

by Alexandra Jones

Published: 11/22/22, Last updated: 11/22/22

For the past 14 summers, the American Farmland Trust and National Farmers’ Market Coalition have asked farmers’ market fans from all over the country to vote for their markets as part of the America’s Farmers Market Celebration. Each year, the top five markets with the most votes earn prize money to support their programming — and a place of pride in their communities.

This year’s five winners beat out more than 2,000 markets nationwide. They come from the Midwest, the Northwest, the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Some have been around for more than 40 years, others for less than half that. Two are affiliated with or run by city governments, while the others sprung up via grassroots efforts from local citizens.

But all of them are doing something right — a lot of things, in fact. We spoke with folks from the five prizewinning markets about the reasons they think their customers flocked to the web to show their support.

Focus on Local Food

To keep shoppers coming back every week, farmers’ markets have to offer something people can’t get at their local supermarket: fresh, seasonal food from nearby farms, often sold by the person who raised, harvested, or made it. This year’s winning markets ensure that local farmers make up around half, if not more, of their vendors.

At the Columbia Farmers’ Market in Missouri — this year’s second-place winner, and 2021’s champion — the market’s bylaws ensure that 80 percent of vendors are agricultural producers. “We really focus on the ‘farmers’ part of the farmers’ market. Not all markets do that,” says manager Corrina Smith.

Rather than bringing on new vendors to sell value-added products (like jam, sauce and jerky), Smith encourages farmers to make and sell their own. She sees this as a win-win for shoppers, who can find more of what they need in one place, and for vendors, who can increase revenue with new products. “We want them to be successful,” she says. “We’re always trying to come up with new ways to help them grow their businesses.”

Kelly Plunkett, manager of the Monroe Farmers’ Market in Connecticut, 2022’s fifth-place winner, agrees. “Stay focused on being traditional,” she says. “When you start bringing in food trucks and more crafters than farmers, it loses the connection to what a farmers’ market looks like.”

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Help Farmers Feel Supported

Markets that strive to meet their communities’ needs will always have a better chance of success. But there’s no market without vendors — and a market must be financially worth it for a farmer to spend the time, labor and gas money to attend.

“This is their livelihood,” says Kristina Stanley, who manages this year’s champion, the Overland Park Farmers’ Market, in her role as recreation supervisor for the city of Overland Park, Kansas. “The money they make on market days determines how they feed their families, pay their bills and put clothes on their kids’ backs.” She’s found that investing in promotion and community engagement pays off for the market’s 90 vendors, creating a positive feedback loop that keeps vendors happy and customers coming back.

Making sure that a market is set up to support farmers with bustling business and easy load-in is a good start. Giving vendors a voice in decision-making or a role in market leadership is another way to ensure the market will work for them.

At Idaho’s Nampa Farmers’ Market, which came in third in this year’s contest, manager Jeralynne Bobinski is in charge of the vendors as a whole but answers to their representatives on the board. “It’s sort of a cool checks and balances system. That’s important, because we’ve had some really good success as far as dialoguing and getting people on board with what we’re doing,” she says.

Happy farmers mean happy customers — which makes it easier even for new agricultural businesses to thrive on market day. For Jason Riley of Druids Dream Acres in nearby Payette, Idaho, the opportunity to sell his family’s pasture-raised meats at the Nampa market has been a game-changer.

“There’s always people that are actually there to support their local businesses,”

says Riley, who quit his off-farm job working nights at a potato factory to go all-in on the farm enterprise in early 2022. Strong, consistent sales at the market gave his family the ability to purchase additional pigs and turkeys, the latter of which sold out quickly in anticipation of Thanksgiving. “The feeling is amazing, the layout’s awesome. It did miracles for us,” he says.

Give Shoppers Lots of Variety

Part of what entices shoppers to support a market week after week and year after year is the right mix of vendors and products. That means going beyond fruit and veggie farmers to seek out diverse purveyors: growers of mushrooms and microgreens, cheesemakers, beekeepers, bakers and prepared food makers, flower farms and herbalists.

For Chris Cirkus, manager of the West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market, that means pulling from Central New Jersey’s rich agricultural community and incorporating local businesses that reflect the town’s diversity. In addition to apple orchards and vegetable farmers, shoppers can hit up vendors who specialize in mead, yak meat, empanadas, crêpes, Polish sausage and more.

“The vendors that participate in the West Windsor market are our curation of what we feel works here,” she says. “The vendors all really like each other, and it matters, because I strategically pair folks together when I do the layout each year.”

The result isn’t just happy vendors, but new, collaborative products for market patrons. “The fresh pasta guy is across from the vegan chocolatier, and now they’re working on a partnership to make a chocolate pasta,” Cirkus explains. “The local oats grower is working with the sourdough bread baker, and supplies him with oats and, and some different wheats. There’s this really great collaboration.”

Create a Community Hub that Goes Beyond Retail

Anyone who has a favorite farmers’ market knows they’re much more than just places to shop. Markets spark social interactions between neighbors, bridge the urban-rural divide and serve as places to learn, connect, and relax. On any given week, shoppers can take in cooking demos, meet adoptable dogs, listen to live music, support a local cause or organization, or see a Bollywood dance performance.

At the Monroe market, “we hire talented musicians to perform for our customers each week and allow nonprofits like the Rotary, senior center, and high school groups to set up a booth and share information about their organization,” Plunkett says. “We also have a tasting tent, which samples two items each week from our vendors to allow customers to try something new.” The market even offers kids’ activities like scavenger hunts and blind tastings through their Market Minis program.

In Overland Park, Stanley and her team work with a dozen community partners in areas like food access, education, and sustainability to enhance the market’s vitality for its patrons. “People love this market and recognize the value we offer this community,” Stanley says. “The Overland Park Farmers’ Market is the focal point and heart of this vibrant and diverse neighborhood where all are welcome.”

Weaving a market into the fabric of a community takes time and investment — but as Cirkus has seen, getting your community excited about the market — and engaging dedicated volunteers to help keep it running — is key to its longevity and success on both sides of the market stall. “Finding community members who care about community is such an important piece of what makes a market vibrant,” she says. “You need people who love people. It’s not just about the food. It’s that combination of all of these magical pieces that intertwine that make a market vibrant.”

Top photo courtesy of West Windsor Community Farmers’ Market.

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