Markets for Homegrown Produce

How to earn a financial harvest from your garden

By Margaret Buranen

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roadside farmer's standMore customers than you might imagine are eager to buy that wonderful organic produce growing in your back yard. You don’t need to be a full-time farmer to find buyers who will pay enough to make selling worthwhile. Here are some ways for home gardeners to sell their extra harvest.

Farmers’ markets. At the Palafox Market in Pensacola, Florida, vendors range from those who sell every week to others who appear only once a year, and they are all different sizes, from the backyard gardener to commercial farmers.

Farmers’ markets vary in the fees they collect from sellers; fees may be reduced for low-volume sellers. Alternatively, markets may encourage individual gardeners to share space and costs with other sellers.

“Some farmers’ markets have community tables or tents where you don’t have to pay a booth fee to sell,” says Weston Miller, community and urban horticulturist for the Oregon State University Extension. “That would be the easiest for a very small-scale gardener.” To find out if a particular market is a cost-effective venue for selling your produce, talk to the market’s manager.

Markets may require vendors to have insurance. Timothy A. Woods, Ph.D., agricultural economics extension professor at the University of Kentucky, says that some markets have an umbrella policy that covers all sellers. Smaller farmers’ markets are less likely to have insurance and fee requirements, Woods says. For those that do, homeowner insurance policies may provide the needed coverage. In some circumstances, a food handler certificate may also be required.

Roadside stands. In some communities, you can start selling as quickly as it takes to move a few baskets of vegetables to the front yard. Other cities have regulations that prohibit selling in residential neighborhoods. Rules may allow selling only on private property or in commercial zones. Churches, businesses, or shopping centers may permit individuals to sell vegetables from a vehicle at the far edge of a parking lot.

With the increasing demand for locally grown food, many communities are reconsidering their zoning laws. “Portland, Oregon, just changed its zoning to make it easier for people to sell produce at roadside stands,” Miller says. Before setting up a roadside stand, ask about pertinent ordinances in your community.

Wholesale produce auctions. While most sellers at produce auctions have large commercial operations, smaller growers can participate, Woods says. Wholesale prices are lower than direct retail sales to customers. But because the grower typically leaves his produce and returns later to collect payment, he can sell a larger volume faster. Auctions also work well for gardeners who have regular jobs.

Restaurants and grocers. Chefs at upscale restaurants have a constant need for fresh, top-quality produce. Other venues, including specialty grocers, school cafeterias, facilities for senior citizens, and food cooperatives, may also be willing to buy in small quantities. You’ll be paid at wholesale rates, but the market is steady.

“We’ll buy as little as one bushel of tomatoes, to fill the holes” and have enough to meet demand, says Shayne Wigglesworth, deli manager at the Good Foods Market & Café in Lexington, Kentucky. “Our goal is to promote local produce.”

Don’t just show up at a restaurant or food market with vegetables; call the manager and schedule an appointment. You’ll need to establish a professional relationship with chefs and produce buyers, proving to them that you are reliable and that your harvest is of consistently high quality. As much as possible, let buyers know what you’ll have available and when, so it’s easier for them to plan their orders.

“Choose a couple of vegetables to specialize in, things that are in high demand and fairly expensive for the restaurant to buy, such as arugula, cilantro, basil,” Miller advises. “Heirloom varieties are especially popular.” Focus on items that are difficult for buyers to find locally. Offer only produce that is in top condition.

Certified-organic produce commands higher prices. But the certification process, which involves annual inspections, recordkeeping, and fees, may be impractical for small-scale sellers. Even without certification, most buyers will want to know that the crops were grown following organic practices and are free of synthetic chemicals.

Photograph by Joan Ford
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, June/July 2014

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