Fruit, vegetable growers find 'uptown' markets

Farmers markets are showing up in a variety of new places, and they are creating new sales opportunities for fruit and vegetables sales.

The big state farmers markets that sell both local and trucked-in produce are still going strong. And you still see what we used to call “tailgate” farmers markets in cities and towns.

But a trend is catching on as farmers go after the city dweller by way of specialty farmers markets right in the middle of town.

One new one is the North Hills market at the upscale shopping mall of the same name in Raleigh, N.C. The market, which operates on Saturday mornings on a seasonal basis, just opened last year. Farmers report encouraging results so far.

“This is a good venue for us,” said Tom Kumpf of Garner, N.C. “I always go home empty handed after a day here. And I don’t have to go around scrambling to find a buyer for it.”

It helps that the market is located in a relatively affluent area.

“Location is the biggest plus about this market,” Kumpf said. “Here we have access to an upwardly mobile, educated clientele which has time to put into food choices.”

Those consumers seem to appreciate that Kumpf’s products — though not sold as organic — are very low in residues of anything.

“We are operating somewhat separately from retail world,” he said. “Our market is clearly defined for us. The consumers here are very concerned about where the food is coming from.”

Another grower, Roger Ball, said participating in the mall market had yielded a number of benefits.

“I think a market like this is a lot better for consumers,” said Ball, whose farm is several miles south of Raleigh. “They are not buying from a broker, but directly from the people who grew it.”

Over time, the North Hills market should prove a great location, he said. “There are a lot of people living close by. With the gas prices high, people will check us out rather than driving to a grocery.”

He noted that so far, prices have been less than what consumers found at local groceries. “We definitely need to be competitive with the grocery stores,” he said.

The mall market isn’t the only city market that Ball patronizes. Raleigh has another market in the center of town at an historic city park. It operates every Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 2.p.m., and Ball has sold there for several years.

He also sets up a stand at a Saturday morning market in the little town of Holly Springs, about 15 miles from Raleigh.

But the three farmers markets make up a fairly small proportion of his sales. Most of his marketing is done at Ball Berries and Produce, made up of a pick-your-own strawberry operation and an adjoining roadside stand.

The stand is open seven days a week. At the city farmers markets, he just gets four hours of sales time one day a week. But nevertheless, they provide a very valuable additional layer of marketing.

“Any kind of farmers market is a good way of marketing fruits and vegetables,” said Ball. “You are selling straight to the consumer with no middle man. The consumer gets a fresh product and frequently a little better price.”

Of the three farmers markets, Ball said he likes the one at the shopping mall best.

“It seems like the customers at North Hills are a little older,” he said. And there is a recreational aspect to the traffic by the stands. “We call it the ‘walking dog’ market because so many of the customers have dogs with them.

“At Holly Springs, you get young people who are making house payments and are careful about what they spend. At Moore Square (the downtown market), you get working people out on a break.”

Ball has recently taken a step to increase his offerings.

“I arranged with a company to make preserves and cider from my strawberries to give the berries better shelf life,” he said. “This way, if we have strawberries that are left over or are getting too ripe, instead of throwing them away, we clean and freeze them.”

Once he has 100 gallons, he takes them to D’Vine Foods in Elizabethtown, N.C., where the berries are processed and packaged on a contract basis.

“They even put our label on them,” said Ball. “We don’t make a whole lot of profit, but we get something else to sell into the fall (after the fresh strawberries are gone). Most of our customers like it that we grew the fruit in it.”

“These products won’t be big moneymakers, but they keep people coming to our table... and they might buy something else while they are there!”

Ron Taylor, the owner of D’Vine Foods and a produce grower himself, said, “What we are doing is adding value to what the grower has already produced but hasn’t already sold,” said Taylor. “We process it and put a label on it, and return it to the farmer to sell.”

This stretches his opportunity to sell the product, Taylor said. “You get some added value, you increase the length of the season and you add something to the bottom line.”

Taylor said specialty farmers markets are meeting a demand that probably wouldn’t be there otherwise.

“You are putting fruits and vegetables in front of a group of people who are looking for a safe, local-grown product,” he said.

Both Kumpf and Ball devote roughly 10 acres to their produce operations, but Taylor said this market strategy is not just for small farmers. “In fact, the larger the farm, the more the need for extra layers of marketing.”

A recent survey by the Center for Profitable Agriculture in Tennessee quoted a farmer on why farmers markets are a boon for any sized grower.

“The farmers market is ‘an affordable’ way for me to advertise and get my name out,” said the grower. “It is much less expensive to sell at the farmers market than to have a retail store. The market also provides a concentration of customers in a concentrated time frame.”

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