Farmers Markets Can Be A Test For Bigger Ventures

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“They’re also place for growers to learn more about marketing that can form a basis for more specialized marketing efforts, test-market a specialty product or find out whether direct marketing is for you.”

EILEEN KOTOWICH

If you want to polish your marketing skills, there may be no better place than the local farmers market, says Eileen Kotowich of Alberta Agriculture’s Explore Local initiative, which supports expansion of local markets.

Kotowich says farmers markets can offer much more than a spot to make a little cash from a garden or a few chickens.

“They’re also place for growers to learn more about marketing that can form a basis for more specialized marketing efforts, test-market a specialty product or find out whether direct marketing is for you.”

She says there’s an opportunity to build relationships with your customers, but there’s also the time commitment to be at the market and to make time for picking and washing.

Kotowich says the markets have become extremely popular, and have more than 3,000 vendors at over 110 approved markets across the province. They sell a huge variety of products including fruit, meat, eggs, honey, bedding plants, fresh flowers, baking, processed food products and crafts.

Crowds are increasing too, as people look for healthy local products. “We’re seeing more and more U-Picks, as well as market gardens and greenhouses,” Kotowich says.

“Selling direct to restaurants is an exciting opportunity for some, she adds. “Many restaurants really want to use local ingredients and they’re very creative, they can definitely work magic with a specialty ingredient, but you have learn when and how to hook up with chefs and how to work with them.”

Easier regulation

Farmers markets have another advantage in being considered a special case under provincial food regulations. Producers can sell baking or jams, jellies and pickles that aren’t made in a commercial kitchen as well as ungraded, uninspected eggs from their own chickens. This is a privilege only allowed for registered farmers markets that Kotowich sees as a great opportunity to try out a new venture before making a big investment.

“It gives producers an opportunity to test the waters, to see whether they’re making the right decisions before you go further,” she says. “It’s a recognition that food safety isn’t entirely in the facilities, it’s in following the best practices as well. But, if you sell food outside approved farmers markets, say at a flea market, or to a restaurant, the exemptions don’t apply. “

Health inspectors have a key role in ensuring food safety at the markets. If they deem homemade products to be higher risk, they want to discuss best practices. Kotowich advises working with your local health inspector before you start marketing.

Her group has also developed a food safety manual that has all the information on processing storage and selling to consumers in one place. For on-farm food safety information, she advises talking to the commodity group for your product or to the staff at the Farm Information Centre.

“Safe food practices are important for all, large and small producers, organic, pesticide-free and every other group,” says Kotowich. “We all have to live within the rules and follow the science so we know what we’re selling is safe.”

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