Become a Market Gardener!

Have you ever wondered about selling your produce (or seedlings, flowers, seeds, crafts, food items) at a local farmer’s market? We’ve talked to two awesome woman farmer’s here in northern CA about what they would advise to get started. 

Mindy Nickler, from Nickler Acres, sells produce, flowers and eggs at the Saturday Market by the River in Red Bluff, CA and the Wednesday market in Chico. She is a year round market gardener and grows amazing micro greens as well! 


Abby Lawless from Sugar Pine Farm offers her produce seasonally through an honor system in Manton and at the Shingletown Farmer’s Market. After years of market gardening she has developed a loyal following of locals who always come back for more, especially her Padron peppers! 


1) How is growing for the market different from home gardening?


Nickler Acres: I actually struggled with this when I started.  I was a pretty confident home gardener, and I thought it was just simply a matter of "growing more".  Of course, it wasn't nearly that simple and it took me much too long to really figure out why.  A market gardener is in the food production business, and I had to learn to think of it in production terms.  Create systems for every aspect of the work.  Figure out the most efficient ways to do everything.  Eliminate wasted effort and costs.  


Also, you have to really figure out your growing climate, so you know what to start when.  You also have to get very good at seed starting (and have the set-up for it).  You need to master succession planting so that you can have a continuous supply to sell.


Sugar Pine Farm: Growing for market differs greatly from a family food garden. The biggest differences being scale, variety choice, and successional planting considerations that must be taken into account for a market garden. The scale at which you grow crops must be a lot larger and would be determined by various factors including financial goals, profitability, space and water considerations, crop rotation plans, etc. 


 A market gardener must also consider what crops they can grow successfully and plan to plant these crops in sufficient numbers to be able to harvest and bring their produce to market at the peak of flavor and freshness. A market gardener must consider what varieties will sell at their market locations based on customer preferences and local climate considerations as well. For example, lettuce may be a desirable crop for a given area's customer base, but if the weather is too hot to produce lettuce that tastes good, then this would not be a successful choice for the market gardener. 


On the other hand, in a cooler climate, perhaps kale would grow well, but if you live in an area that lives primarily on meat and potatoes, kale would likely fail at selling at local markets and would be considered a loss to the grower. Crops also must be planted in succession in order to have a consistent incoming stream of produce that is ready to harvest for market each week. Produce sold at market must also be washed and packed in an attractive way and damaged produce must be culled (either into compost, your home kitchen, or feed to the chickens!). Customers are picky and will not generally buy produce if it is too small, too large, damaged in any way, not clean, wilted, etc. 


Attention to detail is important! So there is a lot to market gardening that a home gardener may not consider in their own gardens but are important to think about before jumping into market gardening. 

2. Legal requirements- note these may change by state. Below are the basics to get started selling produce at markets in California. It is a great idea to check in with your local Agricultural Department about and regulations unique to your county. 


Sugar Pine Farm: To sell produce at a Certified Farmers' Market, you must obtain what is called a Certified Producer's Certificate (CPC), which is issued by your county's local Agriculture Department. It is a fairly easy process and low fee to apply for a CPC. If you plan to sell any of your produce by the pound you must also obtain a scale certificate as well, which ensures that your weighing device is calibrated for accurate measurements. 



3.) What type of booth display do you prefer? 


Nickler Acres: As a shopper I've always been drawn to a more boutique style display, so that's what I also do as a vendor.  (Matching tablecloths, display baskets, uniform signage, etc.).  However, abundance sells!  I know successful farms who are very boutiquey, and others whose displays are simply big piles of veg on clean tables, so I think it comes down to personal taste.  Above all, remember that your display is a marketing tool, and you are using it to draw a customer's attention.


Sugar Pine Farm: I have always used a 10'x10' tent with folding plastic tables and baskets and wooden boxes to display my produce for sale at market. Other options that I have seen used at markets are shelving units with bins, and even trailers that are self-contained booths that require less set up. Your display setup is important to be able to easily and efficiently set up and break down your booth at market fairly easily, display your produce in an easily accessible and appealing way to your customers, and shade your produce from the elements if you are in extreme heat. There is nothing worse than having the hot sun wilt your beautiful greens at the market!


4.) What are the best methods for packaging produce? 


Nickler Acres: We pre-bag/bunch everything, for efficiency at the market booth.  We used to let people choose what they wanted and weigh it out.  It was more time consuming that way, and we eventually got busy enough that we needed a second person to keep up.  So, we switched to pre-bagging, which cashes out much faster, and we've been able to stick to only one person running the booth.  I do also think you sell more when people have to buy the whole bag/bunch.  Occasionally we lose a sale because a bag of something is more than someone thinks they want, but it doesn't happen very often.  (Personally, I see it as an opportunity to teach someone how to eat a little more veg!)


Sugar Pine Farm: My produce is sold both by pre-bagged items, such as greens, that are sold by the bunch, and items that are sold by the pound, like tomatoes and melons. You can choose how you want to sell each item but pre-bagged items are generally easier because your customers can grab a bag and go without the extra step of weighing each item. 


Other considerations: 


Nickler Acres: My biggest regret is that I didn't work on a market farm before I started my own.  For a year, through all the seasons.  A full or part-time positions would be best, but even if volunteering for a half-day every week is all you can manage, do that.  


Don't underestimate having the right tool for the job.  There's so many options out there (and so many ways to farm), so it's hard to know what tools you need until you've done the work for awhile and start to get your systems down, so don't rush out and buy a bunch of tools before you've got your first plant in the ground.  


Do research, watch videos, talk to other farmers who are farming the way you think you want to.  Good tools are key to efficiency, I've found that DIYing it with what I already own to save some money often doesn't pay in the long run.  


For me, a germination chamber is a good example of this.  I muddled along with a few heat mats and fluorescent lights for years before I finally built a germ chamber - one of the best improvements I've made and of course wish I'd done it years ago!


Education!!!  There are great market farming books available now.  Also good YouTube channels, podcasts, webinars, in-person workshops/clinics.  I think some of the paid online courses available now are probably very good, I wish they'd been available when I started!  Learn as much as you can from others who have paved the way.


Finally, the mantra I've come to live by is:  Start earlier than I think I should, grow more than I think I need, and expect losses/failures (nature happens!)

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