People looking for quality food have come around to the idea of buying at farmers markets once more. Market sales were on the decline during the 1980s and 90s as mega stores enticed customers away with the one-stop-shopping concept. However, the rebirth and re-greening of the United States—and the world—has brought locally grown foods back to the town square. Locally produced goat milk cheese is one of the popular items bringing all classes of society back to the concept of buying quality food at a point closest to its source—the local farmers market.
In the state of Missouri, local farmers markets increased from 53 in 1997 to 131 in 2007, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. The economic impact is significant as market sales are brisk. An old cliché states, “When the farmer makes money, everyone makes money.” The basis of that statement is that the farmer will infuse the local economy by turning their gain into sales for other hometown enterprises. Farmers are known for being loyal customers in their local feed stores, implement dealers and seed companies as well as other hometown endeavors. More and more, people are recognizing the key importance of supporting local farmers and realizing that top quality food choices have always been right around the corner.
The United States Department of Agriculture recently implemented a program in which those receiving WIC coupons, food stamps, and local and state nutrition programs can purchase food at the local market. This brings high quality food to the tables of those participating in these programs. Many school kitchens now shop through local farmers and arrive at the markets to place orders for their students. Organizations such as Slow Food continue to promote the concept of local foods bringing the value of locally grown goods into the spotlight. Local farming (and eating) remains a focus for many authors: Joel Salatin, Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal; Michale Pollan, the now classic, Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals; and Deborah Madison, Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets, all shed light on the importance of locally grown foods, responsible stewardship of our lands and the sustainable lifestyle. Numerous publications support what many Dairy Goat Journal readers have known and practiced for years!
For the farmer, the local market is the opportunity to showcase the fruits of their labors. Meeting on a weekly basis with their awaiting public allows this style of direct marketing to flourish. Many people become regulars and loyalty to a particular vendor is soon established. As always, word of mouth is the best advertisement and customers love to have bragging rights about purchasing their goods at the local market. This can only serve the farmer’s endeavors. The buying public is going through an educational process. Most importantly, they are connecting food with the farmer. What a wonderful gift for children! For most readers of this publication, we well know the value of agriculture, the experiences on the farm, the connection with the animals. However, for a time, the disconnection of the farmer with the food source was evident and a major public relations issue for the farmer. With the return of the local market, the consumer will come to know more about the efforts, the methods and the person standing behind the production of their food.
From the consumers’ standpoint, the small effort made in shopping more than one venue pays off with a number of benefits. In our world of tainted foods and product recalls, our farmers market shopper will know where their food came from. They can speak directly with the producer about the methods used in the production. “Is this tomato organic? What is an heirloom variety? Why don’t you have corn in April?” All questions consumers are curious about and sometimes have little understanding of can be answered right at the point of purchase.
I once heard a customer ask a man who was selling at local farmers market what he did for a living. He looked at the customer as if she had lost her mind. He was standing behind an amazing array of vegetables. He quickly recovered and stated with obvious pride, “I am a full time farmer, ma’am.” He went on to explain, stating he grew row crops, sweet corn and grass fed beef in addition to a vegetable garden beyond compare. The customer left with more knowledge of farming than she came to the market with, as well as a new level of appreciation for the business of agriculture. Mission accomplished!
For those involved in the dairy industry, farmers markets can be an excellent venue for sales. However, dairy producers are subject to federal and state requirements. These are governed by the USDA. Laws vary greatly from state to state, so those interested in selling at a market must first contact the state Department of Agriculture to find out about laws governing the production of milk and milk products such as cheese and yogurt.
For those who meet the requirements of the USDA, the State Milk Board and other governing agencies, the market can be the primary marketing site. A local producer in Missouri states sales of goat cheese to be an estimated $75,000 a year with 33% of that coming from two markets a week. Both of the markets are in metropolitan areas with a great appreciation for locally produced goods. Granted, there is time involved in travel, transport costs of the goods and the efforts involved in selling. However, the return is significant and a major portion of this producer’s annual sales.
“There are almost 30 cheesemakers in Maine now,” said Caitlin Hunter, Appleton Creamery, Appleton, Maine. “Most of us are very small scale, and not looking to expand to the point of needing a distributor, so farmers markets make sense. There are over 70 local markets in Maine. When I first started doing farmers markets 20 year ago, having a cheesemaker at a market was a novelty and goat cheese had a steep learning curve for the consumer. Today, most markets want at least one cheesemaker and all the markets I am in have at least two.”
Hunter said that personal involvement and attachment to her products and her customers make the time investment worth every penny.
“I participate in six markets,” she said. “I really enjoy knowing who my customers are and why they are buying my cheese. I just couldn’t send my cheese out into the world and not know who is buying it. I want to know it’s the same customer week after week and not 100 people buying it at once and not again.
Hunter also said that the markets are an ideal testing ground for new products.
“My customers don’t hesitate to tell me what is good and what isn’t. They give me lots of ideas for new cheeses to try as well.”
An added bonus for Hunter comes in the form of bartering with other vendors.
“In this economy, every little bit helps,” she said. “We eat very well, our freezers are always full of the best food I can find: pork, beef, chicken and other locally grown foods. I can get it all at the farmers market.”
Good management practices on the average goat dairy farm can be for naught unless a good market for products is established. For those considering small-scale commercial production and wondering about how to sell goods, the first step is to get out, go to a market and see what is happening. Pay attention to displays, packaging and pricing. Check with other producers there for assistance and advice, find a niche product that perhaps no one else is doing. Communication with governing agencies cannot be overlooked and a good place to start is by obtaining a copy of a farmers market kit from the state Department of Agriculture. This information details tips on selling at markets or starting a new market in an unserviced area.
Current economic trends have customers looking closer to home for safe and healthy buys. Goat milk producers and cheesemakers are the best at knowing and sharing the benefits and value of their products. Finding success in farmers market sales can be a rewarding experience for both buyers and sellers. The time to get started is now.