If you were at the Janesville Farmers Market this past season, you probably noticed that business is booming. Many vendors reported their best season ever. The market grew in size and diversity with new daily vendors every week. Many of the new daily vendors became seasonal vendors when they signed up and pre-paid for the remainder of the season. If you are wondering how much advertising and outreach we did to achieve this continual growth, you may be surprised to learn that our best recruitment of new vendors came through the vendors themselves. Throughout the season, produce and craft vendors alike were encouraging their friends in other markets to give Janesville a try. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I had at least one phone call from a new potential vendor every week, even into the cooler fall weeks.
But wait! Why would vendors want to bring in more vendors to the market? Doesn’t more vendors equal more competition? This is an area where I’ve noticed that the local food and small business movements are really on to something. For starters, we know that more local food and small businesses equals more people being educated and choosing to support local food and small businesses. We especially see this with businesses such as farmers’ markets. Though people sometimes want to compare Janesville’s Saturday market to other Saturday markets and vendors occasionally have to make the difficult choice to do one market or the other, having more than one farmers’ market in our immediate vicinity is ultimately good for business.
When a vendor does leave our market in order to put their limited time and energy into a different Saturday market, I wish them well. I’m glad that they have other options. I’m glad that customers have other options as well. Our market has high standards with regard to local food. Another market might offer honey from California or produce from another state that is not yet in season here. I’m glad that customers have the opportunity to get these items from a farmers’ market rather than a big box store. Farmers’ markets have a proven track record of helping to provide healthy food and boosting the local economy. Big box stores, on the other hand, tend to increase poverty, job loss and food share usage.
Additionally, big box stores try to out-sell their competition. While farmers may occasionally lower their prices on items that are in abundance, I typically see them trying to match their competitors’ prices without unfairly under-selling the other farms. Prices will always vary somewhat between farms, based on growing methods and size of the farm. Rather than comparison shopping the prices, I see many market customers every week simply trying to spread their money out to support several different growers. For customers who do need to stretch their dollars, quantity discounts and larger scale farms offer good options for saving money.
Farmers markets as a whole do not treat each other as competition. We don’t keep our trade secrets or wisdom to ourselves. We support each other and share our own best practices. Market managers get together in person and by phone to share tips and help each other with important concerns. We know that more markets means more customers who know about farmers’ markets. I see other market managers shopping at our market, and I patronize other markets when I have the chance.
The same attitude of collaboration appears to be true of most farmers’ market vendors that I have had the pleasure to know. I see a beautiful community that forms in our market throughout the season. I see vendors giving each other bathroom breaks and even sharing tent and table space on rainy days. One day in August, a produce vendor purchased a second stall space that had become available. I wondered why he needed it when his own crops had suffered in the early rains and later drought. It turned out that he had purchased the extra space to give more room to his neighbor, who had a bumper crop of peppers.
I also noticed throughout the season that vendors who had the attitude of generosity and collaboration consistently did well in our market. These were the same vendors who went to other markets and encouraged new vendors to join the JFM. These vendors have a refreshing attitude of abundance that draws people to their booths. They seem to realize that a bigger market with more vendors brings in more customers and encourages repeat customers.
My own first experience of this attitude of collaboration was volunteering on a CSA farm. CSA or community supported agriculture provides weekly boxes or shares of produce from a local farm with an annual investment at the beginning of the season. The CSA community, like the farmers’ market community has the attitude that more is better. The farm where I volunteered was run by a farmer who is also a teacher. (Many farmers are also teachers, which makes them great advocates for local foods.) He told me about the concept of more CSA farms leading to more educated consumers choosing to join CSA’s. Now that I am a market manager, I’m finding that the concept of collaboration rather than competition extends to farmers’ markets, local farmers and even craft vendors. We are all working together to educate consumers about supporting local farms and small businesses.
Recently I asked a successful JFM vendor about the non-competitive trend I was witnessing. She shared with me that her sales are actually higher when there are other vendors who sell her same product or similar products at the market. I’m not sure of all the reasons for this seeming contradiction, but I can think of a few possible factors. First, if customers can consistently find a certain product at your market, they will be more likely to return looking for that product. Second, customers see a product more and keep it fresh in their minds, leading to a greater likelihood that they will buy the product. Third, vendors do a fair amount of education with customers. It may not feel like education because it’s just in the form of friendly conversation and answering questions, but it is education. Farmers’ market customers learn over time which products are in season and the benefits of buying items like meat, eggs, cheese, honey and maple syrup from a local farm. More vendors for a certain product equals more educated consumers who know the reasons to seek out that particular product. Whatever the reasons, a bigger market is a win win situation and a real draw for the community. I’m excited for the future of our market and what it means for the local economy.