In A Retail Frame Of Mind

Courtesy of Wally S., Saskatoon SK

Once farmers take on a year-round, permanent stand inside a Farmer’s Market building, they are in the retail business, whether they realize it or not. This presents some unique opportunities and challenges. On the plus side, you have less work because there is no setup and teardown on every market day. You can also invest in a more attractive design to give your stand huge curb appeal, which builds your brand and establishes you as a real pro.

And here’s what the pro’s know that beginners sometimes miss. Chances are your indoor market will be open multiple days per week, even in the winter. Some of these days the market can seem like a tomb. But to have a viable market means you have to maintain your presence, even during slow periods. This can be tough if you don’t have the right mindset. You need to think of your stand as a retail storefront. All retailers have slow periods, but they don’t turn out the lights and lock the door. They stay open even when the number of daily customers can be counted on one hand. The plus side at market is that, without the crowds, you can take time to forge deeper relationships with your regular customers.
SF photo blog empty market
The only way to sustain and grow a Farmer’s Market is to make it a place that customers want to come to, and can rely on, regularly. And that requires a critical mass of vendors being open. Beginning farmers, especially SPIN-scale ones, who don’t have a retail mindset, come and go at market, which is why I’m always glad to welcome and mentor new ones. Because the more of us who remain open, the stronger all our businesses will be.


How Do you Project Market Share?

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

With selling season almost upon us, one first year urban SPIN farmer writes:

“At this point I am taking a stab in the dark and estimating 5-10% of my local farmer’s market 3,000 weekly customers might pick up a 1/2 lb unit of salad mix or baby greens = 75-150 lbs. of greens a week. I have been shopping at this market for 15 years and it has grown very popular. Most vendors have fairly conventional fair and I haven’t yet seen microgreens and baby salad and greens mixes, which will be our focus. We are aiming for the ‘instant salad’ niche with salad mix, sunflower shoots, herbs, small table bouquets and tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, carrots and baby roots as the season progresses. Is this a realistic range or way off?” 

I never think in terms of market share because it is too hard to pin down. There are too many variables in play for a projection like that to be made. These variables include:

> > what your produce looks like – quality and packaging
> > what your stand looks like
> > how well you connect personally with customers
> > the appeal of your niche crops
> > how successful you can be at capturing early season sales– customers stick with             who they buy from first
> > how well you differentiate yourself from other growers at market – if most aren’t city-            based that could be a huge selling point for you

You just have to go in ready to compete.

SF photo local foods 1

Related posts: How the Pros CompeteCompetition is Healthy


Selling a Cure for the Winter Blahs

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

Specialty produce is what sets SPIN farmers apart at market, but it requires a well thought-through marketing strategy. Take the potato. A “staple” that can be picked up in any supermarket, it is a low-value crop. I sell purple potatoes which aren’t yet widely available in supermarkets and try to turn it into a high value crop.

Adventurous eaters will try anything, and once they do they are pretty loyal purchasers of exotic crops. But they are a not a very big market. To sell the non-early adopters takes some effort. Since everyone knows what a potato is, it is not as tough a sell as if you were introducing an entirely novel crop like kohlrabi. I start by explaining that purple potatoes go way beyond regular white fleshed ones in their anti-oxidant value. Having a print out of their history, such as their origin in Peru, makes for a good story. What you attempt to do is connect people with the story of a particular produce item. They all have a story, so in essence you become a story teller at market.

Doing research online is a no brainer nowadays, so it is easy to research each of your crops and do printouts you can give to your customers, or do your own. For instance, this link to has lots of intriguing information, even which trendy restaurants are serving them.

While a big consumer focus today is on the health benefits of food, we can’t forget taste. That’s why you need to be cooking with your own produce, so you can give convincing first-hand accounts based on your own experience. You can display photos of your dishes at market.

SF photo purple potatoes blog 3

Visual appeal is something you can really play up, especially during the drab winter months. I cut open the purple potato and display it with other crops. They are a stand magnet and also create upsell opportunities using SPIN’s mix-and-match multiple unit pricing.

SF photo purple potatoes blog

With increased consumer demand, more marketing opportunities and a wider array of crops and varieties to grow, there is no reason to regard winter as an off-season any more.

SF photo purple potatoes blog 1

Tell your customers that instead of going to their doctor or their travel agents, they can come to you for a cure for their winter blahs.

For Sampling, You Really Have To Be There

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

You might have been hearing that marketing is becoming much more experiential. At the farmer’s market this means participating in onsite cooking demos. Farmers showcase their offerings by preparing them and giving out free samples. My intern Bryon Hall roasted squash this weekend, using coconut oil, salt, and pepper supplied by another market vendor Intuitive Path SuperFoods.

SF photo sampling squash ingredients


Bryon enthusiastically pointed out the taste profiles of the different types of heirloom squash I am growing now – Australian Butter, Boston Marrow, and Jumbo Pink Banana, and their suitability for different cooking applications. Some people are familiar with the classic Butternut, but I can’t grow it well here. I am finding customers are more than willing to transition to the trendy heirloom types.

SF photo sampling Bryon

Once Bryon got everyone excited, he pointed them towards my stand where they can buy pre-cut slices – $3.00 each or 2 for $5.00. Mix and match multiple unit pricing works like a charm and slices are much easier for customers to buy and use. Adding this convenience factor also allows for higher pricing.

SF photo sampling crowd

Sampling doubled our squash sales this weekend, with many customers buying more than one kind of squash. It brought new customers as well, including some visitors from Asia.

SF photo sampling Wally and friends

Sampling can be done  for many different types of produce. You can’t do it on the Internet, and that’s really why it works so well.

SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson: Respond to Seasonal Trends and Supply/Demand

Courtesy of Bryon H., Saskatoon SK

Over the last two weekends at the Saturday farmers market I learned creative ways to increase exposure and sales. The first one was the transition from being an outdoor vendor to an indoor vendor. The challenge was notifying as many customers as possible that Wally’s Urban Market Garden would continue selling indoors throughout the fall and winter. Leading up to this weekend, we mentioned this to customers at the outdoor stand.

Last Saturday was the transition, where we set up a stand both indoors and outdoors. The satellite outdoor space cost an additional $15, but its sales quickly covered this expense. In addition to sales, we guided many customers inside to the indoor stand.

SF photo Bryon outside market stand

The indoor stand has some big advantages, like heat, since temperatures are now barely above freezing. Others are:
>> extending your marketing period
>> less logistical steps without full stand take down

SF photo Bryon inside market stand


This past Saturday happened to fall on Halloween! Not the regular market day for sure, and everyone had a good time. I was dressed as a stack of pancakes and was quite satisfied with the laughs I got.

SF photo BryonHalloween


In addition to the permanent inside stand, our satellite stand this time consisted of a temporary pair of tables featuring many heirloom pumpkin and squash varieties. If some of you out there grow or plan to grow unique pumpkin/squash (esp. large ones) you should sell of slices using SPIN’s price tier structure. These work very well for customers who are curious but intimidated to commit to an entire pumpkin.

Our Halloween pumpkin table could not have been timed better. Apparently the grocery stores in the city had sold out the day before and couldn’t restock due to an American crop failure in Illinois. As soon as the market opened we had numerous people buying multiple pumpkins. Some of these were customers who had never shopped from us before. So splitting up and having multiple inside stands definitely increased our sales.
The lesson I learned was to into get stuck in a rut with your farm stand, and always be looking for ways to change up your display and positioning, take advantage of seasonal trends, and be responsive to supply/demand issues. The more creative you are, the more people you reach.


SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson Learned: Market Day Selling

Courtesy of Bryon Hall, Saskatoon SK

One of the most beneficial things I’ve done with Wally has been market day selling. Very quickly I realized it wasn’t as simple as it looked. However there are some key things I have noticed make a difference.

Engagement covers all of these things and is something Wally told me was important from Day 1. Once a customer takes a look at your stand you have an opportunity to make a sale. A positive, energetic greeting is a great start that every customer will pick up on. Knowledge of your product is also something the customer will sense right away. Not simply what types you grow and their benefits. Customers always appreciate hearing how you have personally prepared vegetables you’ve grown and speaking on flavor profiles/pairings is something more informed consumers will take notice of. This is much more important on varieties that are more exotic and will ease their concerns of cooking something unfamiliar.

Keep the market day objectives in focus, this is pay day! One of the most effective things I have noticed is how easy and effective an “upsell” can be. What is meant by an upsell is that when a customer comes to the stand for something you suggest something else they can buy. This can be done either through a recommendation for a meal plan or for economic benefit. The economic benefits are much easier to portray if you have a tiered pricing structure as Wally employs. This also gives you a nice goal to reach with individual customers always trying to get them to purchase a full tier.  Hopefully this will help you develop some of your own marketing strategies to deploy on market days!

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For SPIN farm apprentices, pay day is market day. 

SPIN Apprenticeship Lesson Learned: How to Market an Ugly Crop

Courtesy of Bryon H., Saskatoon SK

This week I had quite an interesting experience. Wally took me out to one of his backyard plots to harvest horseradish. What I was expecting was a typical looking SPIN plot with beds. When we got there it was barely noticeable what we were going to harvest! Once we walked to a back corner of the lot Wally pointed out the horseradish patch,an area that was teeming with plants.
SF photo Bryon horse radish plot
The more shocking event was actual harvesting. The harvestable part of horseradish is the root portion. They establish very deep roots which are very difficult to harvest completely. The good thing is that those unharvested portions will grow back aggressively the next year. Being a perennial, horseradish is a very low maintenance crop.
SF photo Bryon horse radish harvesting
Now the difficulty with this crop is the marketing and selling. A lot of people have never purchased and processed fresh horseradish. I’ve had some success at market today with offering a small sample to cook with and explaining a simple recipe. Two of the customers I did this with ended up actually purchasing a bag of horseradish.

Alternatively this is a much more marketable crop to restaurants. A chef who is a regular at the farmers market picked up five pounds and said he wanted another five pounds on the weekend!
SF photo Bryon horse radish crop

One thing I’d like to touch on that is a huge SPIN farming principle, workflow. Yesterday Wally and I were slicing  pumpkins for sale, and he commented on something I really took notice of. Ideally your work flow once organized should be fast and efficient, but as Wally had to remind me today is that it’s never worth working panicked.When you are rushing it is too easy to miss details or steps which could result in inferior quality produce being sold or damaging some of your own equipment. The former possibly resulting in a poor first impression, reducing the chances of customers returning and probably eliminating the chance of them becoming a word of mouth advertiser for you.

SF photo Bryon horse radish with Wally


It was a lot of fun trying to sell a niche product like horseradish. I noticed that the cultures who traditionally cooked horseradish were much more comfortable buying it. It is probably worth it to do some research on your city’s demographics and see which vegetables are used in those cuisines when deciding which new crops to test out.

Are You Over-delivering?

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK 

Deliveries are killers. They are a huge time suck and expense.I’m hearing from other farmers that the fuel and labour costs are getting harder to justify, no matter how valuable the face time with customers is. I feel your pain.

My solution is to have my customers come to me, with my stand at the farmers market being the hub. My CSA customers come to me. They have a running credit at my stand, which also greatly simplifies logistics. Chefs come to me. I post chef visits on social media to promote how they are sourcing local. They re-post, getting cross-marketing going, and if you promote them, that’s even more incentives for them, and other chefs, to buy from you. Creates a virtuous circle.

The point is to turn your farmers market stand into a storefront, with all your marketing channels converging at that single location. You never have a slow day.

SF photo chef at Wallys stand

More and more chefs are coming to Saskatoon Farmers’ Market . This one is from is Dale Mackay’s Ayden Kitchen & Bar. Ayden is one of my steady customers, and Dale was winner of Top Chef Canada a few years ago. Now you know one of the reasons why. Sourcing locally and getting to know your producer. Here one of his chefs is  getting golden and candy cane beets and broad beans. Sometimes they come to the market a couple times a day. For all you foodies out there, here’s how Dale does it. 


My Farmers Market Provides the Best of Both Worlds

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

I have lived in two worlds at our local farmers market. For the last several years, I sold year round indoors at our fixed stand. But in early May, Gail and I switched to an outdoor stand in front of the market. The spots are about the same in price, and each has pro’s and con’s.

The obvious advantage to an indoor market is you don’t have to think about weather. No wrestling with canopies in the wind or trying to salvage rain-soaked produce. The disadvantage is having to haul your produce indoors, which can be grueling. We addressed that by installing a reach-in cooler at our stand, so we could store any unsold produce in there until the next market day.

An outside market poses the logistical headache of having to lug your stand to each market and set it up. We have a van that we leave our tables and canopy in. And I find once you establish a set routine for stand set up and take down, you get good at it, and it soon becomes a non-issue. Outside, there is also the pressure of having to lug unsold produce back home, so projecting sales volume becomes much more exacting.

But the good news is that our move outside has actually resulted in increased sales. We make much higher sales at Wednesday’s outside market than we did inside. Sometimes we make just as much money that day as we do on the big market days, Saturday and Sunday. So I find I am doing better outdoors right now than I would be if I were inside. Here is the dynamic I think is in play.

Most of the fresh produce vendors are outside, whereas the inside is dominated by food-court like vendors who sell prepared foods. It seems in the summer, serious shoppers expect to buy their produce outside. In fact, many prefer it. They don’t even go inside. It is much easier for them to grab and go without having to navigate through those who come to the market more for entertainment. Those types hang out inside or on the outside terrace. So the inside/outside areas are a natural way to segment the two different types of customers, and eliminate any conflict between their market behaviors.

My current strategy is to swing both ways, depending on the season. Outside in summer. Inside in winter. So be observant and be sure that you are following your customers, instead of making it hard for them to get to you. And if there are tensions at your market between the grocery shoppers and those just making the scene, let your management know there is a way to create the best for both worlds. My market here in Saskatoon is a great model.

SF photo market 1

This summer, I am an outsider at market …

SF photo market 2

along with the other fresh produce sellers…

.SF photo market 5who cater to the grocery shoppers…

SF photo market 4t

who find it quicker and more convenient to shop outdoors…. 

SF photo market 3

while those who just want to enjoy the scene can hang out  inside the market or out on the terrace over  a leisurely snack, breakfast or lunch.  Having both inside and outside areas is a great way for farmers markets to cater to two different types of customers.   

Don’t Let a Sales Opportunity Go to Waste

Courtesy of Wally S., Wally’s Urban Market Garden, Saskatoon SK

Food waste is turning into a big cause, and I had a reporter come by my farm stand this last week to interview me about it. SPIN farmers take great care to be sure all their crops are ready for their close-up, but she was scouting out the ugly kind, blemished, and not suitable for sale. So I showed her some examples of lower grade, spoiled produce.

I explained that every week I typically get around 10 lbs. of cull carrots. Same with potatoes, beets,  pumpkin, winter squash and onions. This could be due to harvest damage, which then causes the crop to go bad sooner, or it could also be due imperfect storage conditions in some of my storage area.

What’s a SPIN farmer to do? Well, maybe we should borrow from the big boy’s playbook and try selling them.

This type of product offering and positioning makes it possible to cater to people not willing or able to pay premium prices. If you’ve got an ugly carrot or a disfigured eggplant, you might just be looking at a new product line.

SF photo cull produce