PIKETON, Ohio -- With the current economy driving increased interest in local foods, more communities are looking to either start a farmers' market or expand an existing one as a way of fulfilling consumer demands.
Through a new Ohio State University Extension program, Ohio farmers' market managers and vendors have access to training and technical assistance to increase their knowledge, skills and abilities in the area of farmers' market management, financing and marketing.
"With the current state of the economy, many people are expressing interest in wanting to start their own farmers' market, or existing markets are looking to find ways to attract new vendors. Consumers are interested in spending their food dollars locally to support their local producers and the local economy," said Christie Welch, an OSU Extension farmers' market specialist with OSU South Centers at Piketon. "Farmers' markets are a good way of capturing a greater share of the demand by consumers to have easy access to locally grown foods."
"Growing! Ohio Farmers' Markets" is a program launched by OSU South Center's Business Development Network that provides no-cost consulting to farmers' market managers, vendors, producers and board members to aid in improving direct marketing efforts to the consumer.
Welch said that farmers' markets can be an important source of income for local producers and an inexpensive way to direct-market products to consumers, but starting one or maintaining an existing farmers' market can be challenging.
"The biggest mistake people make is not carefully thinking through the logistics of managing a farmers' market," said Welch.
For individuals looking to start a new farmers' market, staffing, marketing and location are big factors that need to be considered.
"Most of the farmers' markets are staffed by volunteers and it can be time consuming. It's important to find volunteers who are committed to the market," said Welch. "Another factor is finding a suitable location that is visible to the consumer and is convenient for the shopper, yet has adequate space for vendors and their equipment. Farmers' markets should also be handicapped accessible."
Welch recommends managers work with city, county, and township officials, and local businesses in finding a suitable location for the farmers' market.
"Some locations may charge rent, while other locations can be utilized free of charge. Some communities will allow a street to be closed on certain days and certain times to accommodate the farmers' market," said Welch. "Some businesses will also host farmers' markets within their location."
Whether an individual is interested in starting a new farmers' market or looking to add vendors to an existing farmers' market, developing a marketing program is critical.
"Don't overlook the benefit of marketing. Developing a mission and vision statement that outlines the market's purpose and the types of products it allows is important for attracting consumers as well as vendors," said Welch. "Then develop and implement your marketing plan based on the mission of the market."
Welch also encourages producers participating in a farmers' market to use all available resources to promote their products to attract consumers.
"Invest in attractive displays -- brochures, signs, fact sheets. Offer recipes or nutritional information on the products being sold," said Welch. "Recent research indicates that consumers shop at farmers' markets not only for the fresh, local foods, but also because they want to know the person producing the food."
Welch said that producers should also invest in product liability insurance and be aware of the rules and regulations set forth by the Ohio Department of Agriculture when it comes to selling food products at a farmers' market. Producers should also be mindful of the requirements established by their local health department.
Above all, it's important for producers to maintain the quality of their products, said Welch.
"As a producer, be sure to choose a farmers' market that fits with your individual goal, but also meets the needs of the your target customers," said Welch.
Welch said with the current demand for locally grown foods outweighing the availability of farmers' markets or an adequate number of vendors, opportunities abound to launch a new business or seek out vendors to add to an existing farmers' market. One resource is Ohio MarketMaker -- a free Web-based tool that connects businesses in the food supply chain. To learn more, log on to http://ohiomarketmaker.com, or contact Julie Fox at (740) 289-2071 or e-mail email@example.com.
To learn more about additional resources through the Growing! Ohio Farmers' Markets program, log on to http://ohiofarmersmarkets.osu.edu, or contact Christie Welch at (740) 289-2071 ext.234 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to the Farmers' Market Coalition, the number of farmers' markets in the United States has increased 40 percent over the past decade. More than 3 million consumers shop at farmers' markets, spending over $1 billion a year.