The Market Bell

Posted by Laura Young on 10/11, 2011 at 07:00 AM

Have you ever been to a farmers market a little earlier than start time and were told that market sales cannot begin until a certain time? Has that ever knocked the wind out of your local food shopping sails (sales?) and caused you to be disappointed or confused?

I’m guessing that the answer to that question is yes for many devout farmers market shoppers who have no doubt encountered this situation at least once or twice.  While I know this can be an awkward moment for customers, it is often awkward for vendors too.  As we’re setting up for market, it is so exciting to see customers beginning to swirl about.  Suddenly, all the struggles of owning a small farm or business seem so minor when we see the smiling faces and anticipation of new and returning customers. Instantly, we feel like we’ve done something right, that this thing we are all striving for is succeeding when customers stand waiting to buy something we poured our hearts into creating.  So, you might ask why then do we turn away sales until the start of market when many customers are willing to buy whenever they show up?  The reasons are equal in their advantages as they are in their disadvantages and I thought I would take a stab at writing this post to address the traditional market rule that market sales start at a certain time and not a moment before.

Farmers markets are comprised of individual vendors coming together for a common purpose and functioning as an organized unit during market hours. Being a vendor at a farmers market involves all the obvious fun stuff that a market offers (like Bob Ricketts from Fasta Ravioli, Co.  bringing water guns to the market on really hot July days) but also it involves more serious things like paying dues, following rules and by-laws and being a member of a group of individuals working together towards a common goal or set of goals. Goals vary from market to market, but often involve some key points as follows: (1) building community (2) educating the community about sustainable growing practices (3) educating the community about seasonality of food via the offerings available each week and (4) creating a space where farmers and food producers can sell their product and meet customers without having to build that infrastructure at home where sales may be more difficult due to zoning, resources, available space or distance (just to name a few hurdles). Once the farmers market is over for the day, vendors return to their own farms and businesses with their own profits from the day and function as independent units for the rest of the week.  At home on our own farms or in our own storefronts, we can open and close the door for start of sales whenever we wish, but at a market, where we lack doors and walls, our structure becomes the time that the market starts and the time that the market ends.

Indicating a start time for sales provides vendors enough time in the morning to do what they need to do to get to market. Depending on the type of vendor and the product that they sell, this can mean so many different things. For meat vendors, like my husband and I, our morning is usually very calm as we merely need to pack the meat into coolers and then pack the truck to get to market. We can usually schedule our market days to be quite calm to allow enough time to feed and water the goats, take care of the guardian dogs and llamas and then pack the truck and coolers for market.  Our crunch times come at different points in the year, usually during winter, when the goats are kidding or when we are moving goats from one pasture to another. Produce vendors have different challenges. Their challenges include making sure that their product is fresh (often being picked the very morning of market), safely packed so that it doesn’t toss about during transport and safely packed so that it doesn’t expire during transport (think: fresh herbs cut that morning for market that wilt easily on a hot July day). For produce vendors that are vending scores of varieties of vegetables and fruits, this can take a lot of time and can be quite challenging. Think further to our dairymen who need to get up to milk the herd of cows or goats and complete all of the sanitation requirements pre and post milking with enough time to pack their product and then cleanup and make it to market on time. 

The solid start time provides all of our different types of vendors enough time in the morning to do what they need to do and enough time to come to market and set up. Other advantages to having a solid start time relate to safety. When vendors are pulling in to their spaces with big trucks, lugging around heavy boxes of produce or product, popping up tents and moving around weights to hold down those tents, it can be quite difficult to do with customers milling about. Those of us that help to manage markets go home at night and have nightmares about the car that pulled into the farmers market space before setup was done and almost hit a child or a vendor or harmed themselves in some way. We all do our best to block our spaces to prevent these issues from occurring, but they happen. When customers know that the market starts at a certain time, it is something they can count on and something that they can rely on when planning their menu and shopping for the week. They can also be sure that the great produce that they want will be there when the market starts because sales are not to occur before that moment. The regularity it provides helps us to create a shopping experience as similar to that which you can count on at a store, only with fresher, higher quality, local product that we picked just for you.

As I stated, there are also disadvantages to this rule which include unhappy customers walking away if they don’t have time to stay until the start of market and even worse yet, confused customers wondering why we are always touting our local banner and then turning them away. Vendors are encouraged to deal with these situations on a case by case basis. A sale made before start time that avoids a screaming customer, is just fine in most of our opinions.

So, whether this clears anything up for farmers market customers or not, I hope it at least helps to fill in some gaps as to how we organize and why we do things the way we do. In a recent post by Tony Ricci entitled Preparing for Market Day, Tony’s last paragraph mentioned that their “master of ceremonies”, James, bellows out when they are open for business and I knew then that this post was important to put out there. While I know we all wish that we had a strong voiced James to make the start of market more personal and fun, many markets in the Central PA region use a market bell to mark this moment. If you are ever at a market right at the start time, find the manager and ask if you can ring the bell and take another step in your Local Food Journey.

Tags: market |

{name} Author: Laura Young

Bio: Farmers Market Vendor and Organizer | Goat Farmer and Horticulturist at Young American Growers | Business Analyst at Penn State

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