With warm days and sunshine in abundance, Montana these days is all about things growing. We watch as wheat and barley fields bask in the sun and we anxiously wait while tomatoes and sweet corn ripen, preparing for sale at one or more of Montana's 52 farmers markets.
What we may not think about is that our farmers markets foster the growth of a lot more than fresh fruits and vegetables. Farmers markets are a great way for the public to get to know who grows or makes the products they buy, but the markets hold a different opportunity for the small farmer or food manufacturer.
While it is expensive and difficult for a new company with a new product to grow and break into the grocery store market, it is relatively easy for them to get started selling at farmers markets. Selling directly to the public does still require the product to conform to public safety standards, but it doesn’t necessitate the inventory, distribution and packaging required for selling through large retail stores. That is one of the reasons why farmers markets are so great for startups.
"For a new company, getting their story out there and meeting potential customers are crucial," says Angelyn DeYoung, marketing officer with the Montana Department of Agriculture. "Farmers markets provide a way for companies to get feedback on their products and packaging, which is a very important step if the company eventually wants to grow big enough to sell in grocery stores."
On Thyme Gourmet got its start at the Billings farmers market 15 years ago. "We sold garlic, herbs and unusual potatoes to start with," owner Bonnie Martinell says. At the time, garlic wasn’t a well-known product and didn’t sell very well -- Bonnie couldn’t even give it away! Now she has to accept pre-orders and never has enough.
Although she continues to sell from her garden to the farmers market, Martinell found that, "After spending more time telling people how to cook with fresh herbs and garlic, we decided to design a product that made it easy for them." Hence the emergence of On Thyme Gourmet’s line of fresh herb products including sea salt, butter, olive oil, and tea, which are now sold in grocery stores in Montana, Wyoming, and even a large health food store in Alaska.
Lee McAlpine launched Montana CiderWorks at the Hamilton Farmers Market in 2007 and didn’t even have a product for sale. It made sense, though, to get the word out pre-emptively. "I know that selling at markets allows me to connect with the consumer and tell them about the cider craft," says McAlpine. She began selling Montana CiderWorks handcrafted hard cider made with fresh Bitterroot apples at the farmers market in 2008.
A setback was imminent, though, because it turned out that special winery permits available in Montana do not allow sales of beverages containing alcohol at farmers markets. That left Lee to sell to local groceries, delis and pubs, eventually expanding regionally.
McAlpine says she still would prefer to sell at farmers markets, explaining, "Direct sales at retail prices are important to the profitability of my venture, and the shoppers at farmers markets are my best customers." She plans to lead an effort to request a change in Montana laws to allow Montana wineries to sell bottled product at farmers markets.
Montana Monster Munchies effectively launched its company at Bozeman's Gallatin Valley Farmers Market in 2004, growing it to the point where the gluten-free monster cookies are sold in grocery stores throughout Montana and in several other states. Owner Rich Powell found that farmers market shoppers are tough judges when it comes to products, often indicators of a product's eventual success.
"The farmers market consumer is like the Montana weather; (they) will make you strong or blow you away!" Powell says. Montana Monster Munchies weathered the storm and came out on the other side prepared to face even the toughest grocery store customer thanks to the start at farmers markets.
While farmers markets are a good place for small companies to start, Vickie Perkins, owner of Senorita’s Specialty Foods in Manhattan, has returned, focusing her company growth on selling at farmers markets. She started with only two products at the Bozeman Farmers Market in 1998, making them by hand in her Manhattan kitchen.
Over the years, Perkins' business grew to 30 products including fresh salsa, tamales, enchiladas and pestos, and began selling in large grocery stores throughout the Northwest. The income was great, but she found it more difficult than she expected to grow profits in the larger marketplace after all the bills were paid.
"I realized that I just had to go back. Farmers markets were always a good selling venue and something I enjoyed tremendously," Perkins says. "It is a rewarding experience to buy fresh produce when available at the farmers market and turn it into a fresh product that I can turn around and sell at the market the next week." Her customers like it, too, coming back weekly to re-stock.
Thanks to farmers markets providing a place for Montana companies to start and grow, we not only get to buy fresh produce and locally-made foods from the people who grow or make them, but we also get to buy Montana products year-round in local grocery stores. To locate a Montana farmers market, visit farmersmarkets.mt.gov. To find Made in Montana products that are available at farmers markets, grocery stores, gift stores and restaurants, visit madeinmontanausa.com.
Published: July 31, 2012 4:11:00 PM MDT.
Last Modified: July 31, 2012 4:20:55 PM MDT