As Portlanders, we love our farmers’ markets. With 21 markets in the city and nearly double that throughout the metro region, the appeal of farm-fresh food as well as the opportunity to interact with our comestible producers makes our markets a place to come together as a community, socializing while supporting local and eating healthy.
But, is it easy to start a neighborhood farmers’ market? Does each new market face similar or unique challenges when it starts out?
Considering the suggestions and lessons learned from several new markets, view the following as the potential ingredients, if you will, of a successful market. Each particular market will have its own recipe brought about by the individual circumstances and challenges that each neighborhood faces, so not all of the following suggestions may apply to every prospective market, but they should at least be considered.
Keep The Rent Low
Perhaps the first thing to remember is that a farmers’ market plays the role of a landlord. Its purpose is to rent out space to farmers and vendors, and take the steps necessary to ensure the market has an effective outreach and communications plan that guarantees large crowd counts.
Just like every other landlord-tenant relationship, it needs to be beneficial for both sides. The bulk of a market’s operating budget is derived from vendor fees. If a market keeps them low, it will be attractive to both new vendors who are looking to get their name out there as well as established vendors who might be willing to take an inexpensive risk on a new market. But to be able to keep vendor fees low, the market needs to be located on a property that has affordable rent to begin with.
In a 2008 report on the direct-market economic analysis of Portland’s farmers’ markets, it was pointed out that “the lack of a permanent site is the most significant issue farmers’ markets face.”
Farmers’ markets in Portland lack either long-term leases or their own property. As such, it is important for potential markets to do a little bit of asset-based community development and identify suitable—and inexpensive—market sites.
The Montavilla Farmers Market in SE Portland, for example, rents a gravel lot from the Montavilla Animal Clinic, a member of the Montavilla East Tabor Business Association (METBA). Churches and schools are also effective—and affordable—sites, often willing to host markets at a low price as long as liability concerns are addressed.
The wrong site can also make or break a market. For years, the Interstate Market at Overlook Park had a healthy relationship with Kaiser Permanente, “and then something changed, resulting in decreased funding and dwindling support,” explains Trudy Tolliver, the executive director of Portland Farmers Market (PFM).
Looking for other options, Interstate expanded to a second location at Lombard Street and Interstate Avenue. This second site proved to be too expensive, and when crowd sizes couldn’t sustain operating costs, both Interstate markets closed after the 2011 season.
Another way to encourage vendors to participate in a new market would be to consider temporarily waiving fees. This was a tactic used by the Cully Community Market.
“As an enticement, we waived the vendor fees for the first two weeks this season,” Market Manager Anne Chenott explains. This helped see an increase in the number of vendors at the Cully Market from 10 in the 2011 season to 26 this year.
Get The Support of a Business Association
A farmers’ market may be like a landlord, providing space and services to its clients, but first and foremost is the fact that the operation of a market is like running any other business. But farmers’ markets aren't typically started or operated by those who have the strongest business acumen. By partnering with a neighborhood's business association, the learning curve in regards to budgeting, communications and strategic planning can be greatly reduced.
The Montavilla Farmers Market, for example, was started through organizing efforts by the Montavilla East Tabor Business Association (METBA).
According to Elizabeth Kluvers, METBA’s treasurer, at this initial meeting, representatives from the PFM counseled that it would take at least two years of planning to get a farmers’ market open in the neighborhood. With the resources provided by METBA—from vendor recruitment to marketing to site location—the Montavilla Farmers Market was able to hold its initial market just seven months after that initial meeting.
With METBA supporting the Montavilla Farmers Market from idea to reality, the market now serves as an anchor for the redevelopment of the Stark Street business strip in the neighborhood.
PFM has seven market locations, with the newest one recently opening in Kenton, another area that is seeing redevelopment efforts. Normally, PFM works with neighborhood associations to develop markets, but, according to Tolliver, there is a marked difference in working with the Kenton Business Association.
“They understand that a successful Kenton Market will increase opportunities for local businesses,” Tolliver says.
Vendors Should Complement Local Businesses
Creating an effective vendor mix is another essential aspect of a successful market. Besides a mix of products, demographics should also be considered.
The ethnic makeup of a market’s vendors should reflect the desired diversity of customers that a market wants to draw. A market should consider the neighborhood's demographics as it develops its strategic outreach. If a neighborhood is majority minority yet an overwhelming number of the market's customers are white, it would be difficult to suggest that the market is best serving its community.
Economic considerations should also be kept in mind as well. The infamous $4 heirloom tomato may be suitable for sale in Lake Oswego or West Linn, but probably less so in, say, Cully.
The same vendors at PFM's PSU Market can also be found at King Farmers Market the next day, selling the same products at a slightly lower price. They do this because they understand the neighborhood and know that regular shoppers in the King neighborhood have less money to spend than those who shop at the destination market on the South Park Blocks.
Markets should also consider nearby businesses to avoid competition of available food dollars. Business associations are going to be less likely to support a market that will result in a financial loss for their members.
The Kenton Business Association, who helped PFM select vendors for the new Kenton Market illustrates this point. “This market does not have a meat vendor,” Tolliver says, “as there is butcher shop right there where the market is.”
Consider a Weekday Market
There is a farmers’ market in Portland every day of the week. It just so happens that there is a glut of markets open on the weekends. To a degree, this makes sense: It’s when the majority of people have their days off and when the most desired customers (e.g., mothers with disposable income) purchase their family’s food for the week.
But for a prospective new market, opening on a Saturday or Sunday means you are competing with PFM’s PSU Market, Hollywood, Montavilla, and Lents markets. Facing such steep competition makes it difficult to get a well-recognized vendor to serve as an anchor for a new market. Opening a mid-week market could help fill an available niche, and, as a result, could lead to a market’s success.
The new Kenton Market is open on Fridays from 3-7 p.m., the only market in the metro area with Friday evening hours. According to Tolliver, these unique hours have resulted in large crowds during the first two weeks, which saw both a power outage as well as a “torrential downpour.”
Sponsorships—“Get as Much Support as Possible”
Lents International Farmers Market received funding support from the Northwest Health Foundation to get its inaugural season on the books in 2007. When PFM was set to open the King Farmers Market in 2009, it was approached by Alberta Co-op Grocery, which provided a check for $3,000 that served as the initial seed funding for the Foodshare Fund Northeast that helps provide access to healthy food in NE Portland.
Sponsorships are key to a market’s success, and while these examples might be unique, every farmers’ market worth its salt has a sponsorships page on its website highlighting those in the community that have provided financial or in-kind donations.
New Seasons Markets—through its Pacific Village Grant Fund—provides financial support to Portland-area markets to offer matching benefits, typically up to $5, to low-income shoppers who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
There are opportunities for strategic sponsorships in every community, even if some neighborhoods are more wealthy than others. Chenott admits that the Cully neighborhood is economically challenged, and that lack of financial support results in no paid staff—the Cully market is entirely volunteer-run.
“You should get as much financial and community support as possible before you begin,” Chenott advises prospective markets. “Still, we’re just trying to make Cully as cool a place as possible!”
Virginia “Jin” Darney, the board chair of the Woodstock Farmers Market, which is in its second season, agrees with Chenott’s suggestion. Darney points out that it’s a “big job” to start and operate a successful farmers’ market.
“It helps to have a sponsor,” Darney says. “And other markets were tremendously helpful [when the Woodstock market was getting started]. Now, we are no longer all-volunteer. We have three part-time staff and have split up duties into various committees. It helps to know the life cycle of a nonprofit before you start a farmers’ market.”
As Darney points out, there are many resources available to help prospective farmers’ markets. Existing markets are often more than willing to answer questions, and some even offer the opportunity to observe how they operate.
The City of Portland is another resource. “The city’s Planning Bureau holds regular market manager meetings,” Chenott says. “We explained our situation in Cully, and other markets started referring vendors to us!”
Finally, the Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council can also provide technical or marketing assistance.
Does Your Neighborhood Have What It Takes?
Do you want to make your neighborhood as cool a place as possible?
A farmers’ market that provides the community with farm-fresh, healthy food certainly fits that bill. Certainly, there are challenges to starting a farmers’ market, but if you consider these suggested ingredients, then it’s possible to get a successful neighborhood market up and running.
There are 95 neighborhoods in Portland, and it may be inconceivable for each neighborhood to have its own farmers’ market. However, considering the city’s love for local farm-fresh food along with a new zoning code update intended to remove barriers to farmers’ markets, the number of neighborhood farmers’ markets should only increase.
Has your neighborhood farmers’ market used any of these ingredients as a part of its recipe? Tell us about the successes (or even shortfalls) of your local market and hear what your neighbors have to say in response.