By: Billy Mitchell and Kathryn Kavanagh
As spring turns to summer in 2023, we wanted to reflect back on a conversation we had with farmer market farmers on the first day in 2022 at the Wednesday night farmers market at Creature Comforts Brewery in Athens, GA. With psychedelic music wafting through the air – this was not a night of folksy guitar and banjos – the farmers discussed what they love about growing, what gets them to market, and a few of their favorite things to grow and eat. Listening to their stories, and occasionally zoning out to some wild woodwind instrumentals, a few themes emerged.
As every farm is unique, so is every farmers market. They all come with their own unique twists that can present both challenges and benefits to each farmer. Considering that uniqueness, these farmers focused on some best practices that could be applied at any market. All of the farmers manage diversified produce farms – they grow a mix of crops, including fruits and vegetables, and a few of them grow flowers as well. They are also all qualified exempt from the Food Safety Modernization Act’s produce safety rule, but are still committed to following the food safety practices outlined in that rule. On this warm Georgia autumn night, their tables were overflowing with garlic, hot peppers, flowers, tomatoes, and more. All the farmers grow the produce they sell on 10 acres or fewer, and the majority of the stands are staffed by the people who own the farm.
The following are some of the key recommendations three farms provided, including quotes directly from the farmers themselves. To give the farmers the chance to speak openly, all the quotes are anonymous:
This was the number one piece of advice and, honestly, it caught us off guard! We expected “make the product look good” or “stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly” but this was the most consistently offerd piece of advice. For the farmers, the biggest challenge was time. One farmer reflected that every day on the farm, whether in the field or at market, presents time management challneges – “there’s no more challenges getting ready for the market than there is like any other day.” Every day you’ve got employee management, weeds, harvesting, maintenance, cleaning, sanitizing, etc. When it comes to the market, you’ve got to not be “messing around doing other stuff” and instead focus on getting everything packed for the market. This usually means getting as much done the day before market as you can. Part of that time management is being prepared to handle all the “moving parts so that you can show up on time, well rested, and in a good mood.” Once you are at market, you need to be ready for “a long day, because either you wake up really early” for a morning market or “you worked all day harvesting” for an evening market and you’ll need energy to be “hanging out with and smiling at people.”
Time management is a key skill for harvest, knowing what crops you’ll be harvesting and in what order. For example, on a hot summer day they’ll harvest the greens before the okra. It’s also the coordination of what you’ll wash and pack first and how you’ll wash and pack them. One farmer said that “every vegetable has a different way that we package it for market. And then it even has a different way that we package it for restaurants and for wholesale versus retail.”
Recognizing all the work that will go into the market, it’s also important to schedule time off. The day before market, one farmer tries to find a balance and set a boundary where they “get done as early as we can and then we don’t work when we’re done.” There’s always more to do, but the body needs rest – especially to stay energized throughout an entire market. That means, for at least one farm, they try to take the next day off because there can be a lot of potential for burnout.
Almost all the farmers identified more as plant people than people people, but they’ve got a job where interacting with the public is very important. It means talking to and listening to your customers – both to build strong relationships and figure out what they like. A big part of the job is “anticipating the customer’s demand.” If you have a good idea of what they like, you might take steps to extend the season for a crop like growing it in a hoop house or under shade cloth. You also have to accept that, “at a certain point, people just kind of lose interest.” One farmer can move 250 pounds of tomatoes the first weekend of tomato season but, as the newness of tomatoes wears off, will only sell 50 lbs a weekend by the end of the season.
While it might be true that “most farmers are not also customer service folks,” you learn that marketing and customer service while selling a product makes a big difference. We watched every farmer engage their customers, asking them questions and treating them with care and respect. One farmer shared that sometimes, like when a customer might squeeze every tomato but not buy a single one, that “putting on that customer service face can be difficult.” It’s another reason to show up as rested as you can to bring the energy you need to the job. For one farmer, a hard day on the farm is never “as hard of a day like a Saturday market.”
It sounds like the stand, like the farm or a food safety plan, is always changing. For one farm, their stand their first year at market was “very two dimensional. Everything was flat on the table.” Now they focus on “alternating colors, giving more depth, and how to build structure.” Their table looked and felt very three dimensional and their layout was designed to catch a customer’s eye and draw them in. Simply put, “it’s all about presentation.”
Another farmer found that making their table consistently look good is a big challenge. But, when it works, it feels great. “There’s definitely been markets where I’m like, I nailed that. That was a great setup. And as a result, you see things sell.” They’ve also had some strategies that got a little tricky, like when they tried to “create the tallest tower of melons possible. Because you know, if somebody pulls out the wrong one, it all falls.”
Keeping Things Simple
It can take time to find your niche, both in how you display and what you bring. One farmer remembered that their first year they decided “we’ll grow weird. The things that specialty restaurants would want, but then we learned that’s not worth the time.” Unfortunately, even though a chef might have been excited, they found that at the market they were “spending the whole time talking to people about what [the crop] is.” Now, they focus on quality and do their best to “grow the best version of the standard thing that you can possibly find.”
Most farmers started out growing a lot of things, but trimmed down the variety over the years. If they grew a wide variety of potatoes, they found that people would “ask me which potatoes are the best? Can you describe each one to me?” They know that when they reduce variety, “some people don’t like that,” but they have limited time to describe their products and “a limited space at the market and it’s hard to have, you know, a little bit of every variety.” To figure out what to bring, they follow “customer demand.”
A food safety concern at market is the potential for a lot of people to touch the products, just like at a grocery store, and that some of those people may be sick or have not washed their hands. A few farmers reflected that the one benefit from early COVID markets was the rule that people could not touch the produce. “That was really nice.” Markets can help reduce this risk to their vendors and customers by providing hand wash stations. Vendors also mentioned that signage can be helpful while ruefully admitting that “there’s only so much signage you could put up.” A combination of good messaging from the market, signage, and easy to see and use hand wash stations help make a big difference.
The vendors also said that they are “very particular” about enforcing food safety on their farms. They are all small scale and know a lot of their customers and are motivated by their commitment to keeping themselves and their customers safe and healthy. They emphasize with all their employees, part-time and full time, the importance of food safety practices and work hard to get their whole crew to care. A piece of advice for other farmers was that, for food safety, “it’s easier if it’s a protocol at the beginning and you never let it slip.” That means making sure that “everybody takes part” and having Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) like “certain standard procedures to wash bin” that everyone knows and can do.
At the end of the day, to be a market farmer “you got to love growing.” You also need to be OK with both sides, the growing side and the selling to the public side. For both sides, taking care of customers and your employees with good communication and food safety practices makes a world of difference. If you love it, like one farmer we talked to, then you might not ever really feel stressed because you are just happy doing what you’re doing – feeding your community one market at a time.
This week, head out to your local farmers market and give a word of thanks for all the time that went into growing, harvesting, packing, planning, and smiling as your farmers bring low-risk, high quality produce from their farms to your table. And, to help lower food safety risks and the stress levels of your farmers, please don’t squeeze the tomatoes.
For more producer focused stores and information, please visit the Local Food Safety Collaborative website along with the Food Safety Resource Clearinghouse for a curated source of food safety guides, factsheets, templates, and more. Don’t forget to follow LFSC on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates on the latest food safety news.
This project website is supported by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award 2U01FD006921-03 totaling $1,000,000 with 100 percent funded by FDA/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by FDA/HHS, or the U.S. Government.