Aside from deciding what to grow, location may be the biggest factor in determining a farmers market’s potential success. When choosing a location, there are several factors to consider that tie directly back to the growing process. Here are four to start with.
Picking the right spot
Nony Dutton has spent the last few years opening up farmers markets in Washington D.C., Virginia and Maryland. At FRESHFARM, a company based in the nation’s capital that looks to stimulate local economies through farmers markets, Dutton serves as the Deputy Director of Markets. That means he’s been directly involved in picking where a FRESHFARM market will open.
For him, the first characteristic he considers is population. Generally speaking, Dutton favors locations with higher populations, particularly communities with lots of families. The idea is to give a farmers market and its vendors the best possible chance of reaching a large number of consumers.
“When we are looking at possible locations, we are looking at highly populated areas typically,” he says. “Specifically, higher populated areas with families. Areas that are family oriented tend to cook more, which is good for the farmers and producers, and a little more into healthy eating and living. That’s not exclusively the best type of neighborhood, but markets can be big draws in those neighborhoods.”
Additionally, picking a farmers market location involves understanding how consumers and producers will travel to the market. If they are in a more rural area, can everyone drive, walk, bike or take a bus? In an urban environment, is public transportation accessible and can producers from outside the city easily bring in their products?
Farmers markets also must be visible, accessible parts of the community they exist in. According to Dutton, picking a location that people a) know and b) can get to is paramount to a market becoming successful. One model that Dutton says has been successful is farmers markets on college campuses that draw in students as they walk from class to class throughout the day. Another that has worked: markets that are open during the day near office buildings that attract workers on their lunch breaks.
“You don’t want your farmers market hidden,” he says. “We also place farmers markets near other local businesses — restaurants that are farm-to-table, so the chef can come out and shop, for example — to help markets. And if we can nestle in the market near where people do their other shopping for other necessities, that’s great too.”
Thinking about cost
Not every farmers market is able to operate with at least some overhead expenses, particularly those located in busier cities like Washington D.C., New York and Los Angeles. Because space is so limited, markets in cities often must surrender some of their profits in order to operate out of a desirable location.
In Dutton’s experience, farmers markets in the heart of the nation’s capital tend to be busier than their more rural counterparts largely due to their higher population density. He, does, however, note that finding open space for a farmers market is easier the farther away you get from the city.
“You can usually work with counties to give you a space, or at least lease you a space at a lower cost,” he says. “Especially when you have to provide parking for farmers — and it’s scarce — we end up having to pay parking fees or renting parking lot space from private companies. That always ends up being very expensive.”
In Ohio, many successful farmers markets thrive in large part due to the open space they should work with, according to Christie Welch, a program specialist in Direct Agricultural Marketing at Ohio State University. She cites two markets — the Clinton County Farmers Market near Columbus, Ohio and the Athens Farmers Market in Ohio’s southeast corner — as examples of markets leaning into their more rural locales and pulling in consumers and producers alike from across the region.
Connect with the community
Utilizing the surrounding community to build up a customer base is another way to maximize location. Take Stearns Homestead, a farmers market located in Parma, Ohio, for example. The goal is to give people easy access to locally grown products that aren't readily available anywhere else in Parma.
According to owner and founder Debbie Sillett, Stearns also finds success by leaning into its heritage and Ohio’s role in shaping modern agriculture. Soon, she’ll be teaching a course for kids on how the tomatoes consumers eat today were largely developed by native Ohioan A.W. Livingston in the mid-to-late 1800s.
“We’re an educational facility first,” she says. “I’ve been a master gardener for over 30 years and I’ve been trying to teach people about where their food comes from and I try to teach about Ohio. The market is built to teach people.”
Additionally, Stearns partners with Cleveland Crops to provide greenhouse-grown produce to its consumers. A nonprofit organization run by the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities and Solutions at Work (SAW), Cleveland Crops trains and employs people with disabilities to work in the greenhouse. Cleveland Crops also has a stand that sells crops like tomatoes, kale and miscellaneous fruit grown a short walk from the farmers market. They even turn excess kale and tomatoes into products like nacho cheese kale chips and ketchup.
“They took the farmland and made it into something great,” Stearns says.
Consider the alternatives
Joining a larger, busier farmers market isn’t for everyone. Sometimes, there just isn’t a need for producers bringing the same few crops to market. And oftentimes, it doesn’t make economic sense for a farmer to open their own market if there aren’t other businesses in the area to collaborate with.
In those instances, Dutton says there are alternatives to consider. In some cases, growers do sell their produce to vendors already at a market or have someone sell it on their behalf. In other situations, where a grower wants to take ownership of the process, Dutton says they should consider operating a farm stand.
A farm stand is essentially what it sounds like: A grower can simply set up a stand not unlike an old-fashioned lemonade stand and sell their produce from close to where they grow it. Additionally, if the grower can drive to a higher-populated area, Dutton says they can set up farm stands at different spots and establish a consumer base over time.
“It’s also a model to get the neighborhood interested in a farmers market and grow it from a farm stand to a fully formed market in a few years,” he says.
In short: There isn’t one correct way to find a location. It’s best to find where best suits each individual market.