Farmers market economics

You’ve probably read at least one Southwest Journal article about the Kingfield and Fulton Farmers Markets: the weekly bounty of local produce during the summer months; the fresh-from-the-farm eggs, poultry, grass-fed beef and artisan cheeses trucked to the markets every Saturday and Sunday by local vendors with actual dirt under their fingernails.  Then there’s the carnival atmosphere created right in your own neighborhood every weekend — the colorful tents, foot-stomping music and funky food trucks that somehow materialize, as if from nowhere, at Fulton and Kingfield from May to October.  

Over the winter, we have continued to work behind the scenes to recreate the farmers market experience again this year.  We’ve even added another market which will make its debut this summer — the Nokomis Farmers Market at 52nd and Chicago — and we’re busy putting together a new website to handle all of the markets easily and in one place.  Then realizing, perhaps belatedly, that “Kingfield Farmers Market” (the official name of our nonprofit corporation) no longer adequately describes our three markets, we took the plunge and changed our name.  Now we’re officially “Neighborhood Roots.”  Don’t worry though.  The individual identities of the three markets will stay the same: Kingfield, Fulton, and now Nokomis.

But what about farmers market economics?  What are our expenses, where does the revenue come from?  Why do we rely on sponsors?

Overhead. 

Aside from the tents, tables, chairs and banners that make up the architecture of the markets, we’ve invested in upgraded electrical systems capable of running the vendors’ freezers, hotplates and food trucks.  We have lease expenses for market space, and liability insurance to cover the whole operation.  Unbeknownst to most, we rent an office at the Performing Arts Center so we have a place to accomplish the market paper work  (processing permits and vendor applications and balancing the weekly books for credit card and SNAP purchases, among other things).  Then there are lawn signs and printing costs in connection with our hand-delivered postcards: marketing reach, 3000 houses at a pop.  We do advertising as we can afford it and maintain an ample social media presence.  But our major expense is staff: a full-time executive director, and an assistant market manager to help run the trains on time.  Putting on two — soon to be three — farmers markets throughout the season has, for a long time now, out-stripped the capacity of mere board members and volunteers. 

Revenue. 

What about revenue?  Don’t the vendors pay to be at the market?  Doesn’t Neighborhood Roots take a cut of vendor proceeds?  Surely you don’t do all of this for nothing! 

No, we don’t.  But one of the things we decided early on was to keep our stall fees, the fees paid by the vendors, artificially low and egalitarian.  All vendors and food trucks pay the same amount to rent their space, no matter how much product they sell.  The mission of the farmers market is to provide a place for small local growers to sell their produce.  They often get up before dawn to pick whatever they’re bringing to the market that day.  Then they cart their product all the way to Minneapolis to sell it right out of the field.  But sometimes there’s too much rain, sometimes there’s too much sun, sometimes there’s a freeze.  

Nearly every year, at least one of our growers loses his or her entire crop to the elements. Recognizing that small-scale farming is a labor of love, when a catastrophe occurs we often refund that farmer’s vendor fees for the season.  The reason we keep those stall fees low is to make the flow from the small farm (sometimes very small, we’re talking a few acres here) to the neighborhood possible.  We don’t go through vendors’ receipts at the end of the day and take a percent, and we don’t balance our books on the backs of the growers.

Sponsors. 

So, as a practical matter, there’s always a gap between the amount of vendor fees we collect and the cost of running the markets.  That gap is filled by our sponsors — neighborhood businesses who want to support the community by supporting local farmers.  These business sponsors include: Nicollet Ace Hardware, France 44 Wines & Spirits, Broders, realtors Todd Teeple and Larry Lavercombe, Calhoun Cycle, Uptown Heating and Cooling, Linden Hills Coop, Bachman’s, Fulton Brewery, Quality Coaches, Jardin Magico, Lake Winds Food Coop, Road Runner Records, Bryant Lake Bowl, The LowBrow, Rare Form Properties and Arrowplane. 

For their support of the markets, our sponsors in turn receive varying levels of visibility at the markets, on social media and in our marketing materials — reaching a broad array of residents from South and Southwest Minneapolis and beyond.  A well-promoted sponsorship at the farmers markets is a creative way for sponsors to support the communities where they do business, and connect with their customers. 

So that’s farmers market economics in a nutshell.  The vendors pay a small fee to rent their stalls, and the sponsors help us fill out the rest of our revenue needs.  It’s a model that’s worked well in the past and hopefully will keep working long into the future.  If you’re interested in sponsoring the markets, please call the head of our Sponsorship Committee, Meg Cowden, at 518-5284.  She’ll be happy to explain everything you need to know.

Jeff Alden, a Minneapolis attorney, is the chair of Neighborhood Roots, which operates the Kingfield and Fulton Farmers Markets.  He can be reached at chair@kingfieldfarmersmarket.org.