Harris, Staisey share Historic Lewes Farmers’ market anecdotes
DOVER, Del. — Founded in 2005, the Historic Lewes Farmers’ Market is the oldest and largest producer-only market in the Delmarva area, but it takes new ideas to keep it growing.
Helaine Harris and Nancy Staisey shared some of the market’s successful ideas at the MidAtlantic Women in Agriculture conference that was hosted by Dover Downs on Feb. 13.
Harris said the producer-only market allows vendors to only sell what they themselves grow.
The market attracts 54,000 visitors a year and recently grossed $875,000 in one year.
The market is not only part of a system for direct sales for farmers. The market managers said it also aims to educate consumers, teach kids where food comes from, link farmers and chefs, create a community meeting place and even offer scholarships, including one for women to go to conferences.
The market partners with farmers to provide fresh foods for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program, Seniors Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program and local food pantries.
“We aim to have an impact on protecting farmland, supporting new and established farmers and connecting the community with the hands that grow their food,” Harris said.
As for what can be done to increase sales and attendance at the market, Harris said they were not interested in opinions, but what works and how well it works.
“We conducted experiments at the market level and the stall level. We try out an idea or intervention, then compare sales with the week before and after and with sales in previous years. We’ve collected a ton of data, and we’re able to do that because we’ve collected information from the beginning.” She listed as examples attendance and sales, noting farmers pay a percentage of their sales to the market; the number of children who are present for story time; information on farmers, including the amount of land owned and the distance traveled; the number of SNAP and other program recipients; the amount of food donated and scholarships provided. Data is also kept on weather of market days and if there are special events in town or was it a holiday.
“When we started our experiments, we asked what ideas might increase sales,” Staisey said.
“We saw that products sold from a freezer or cooler were being overlooked. We found that a photo on the cooler increased sales by 33 percent.
“In retail stores, the manta is ‘stack ‘em high, see them fly’ and we saw that an increased amount on hand increased sales,” Staisey added.
The most frequent response on surveys indicates it would help to provide recipe cards. “We tested the impact. We did not find an increased impact. We did find recipe cards were more effective based on how they were used. They worked better with unfamiliar products.”
Staisey also noted the cards offered an opportunity for a sales person to interact with customers.
Another test was of loyalty programs with punch cards. In one test the vendor offered one punch for every $10 spent, then a credit for five purchases.
Susan and Tommy Eliason of Kalmar Farm in Harrington, Del., offered one punch per visit no matter the amount of purchase. After five punches, the customer was entered in a raffle for a basket of produce.
“We compared changes in sales to the previous year,” Staisey said, “and found conflicting results. Sales were up 39 percent in one case, down 12 percent in another — but the second farmer had brought less product due to a health problem.”
The market held “Meet the Farmer” demonstrations and compared sales of the featured farmer’s stall the week before and after. The results: sales were up hardly at all on the day of the presentation. This may have been because many customers have a list of what to buy and had already purchased those items. But the next week, sales were up 41 percent, and sales continued to be higher in weeks after.
The market considered the cost/benefit of their tests. Some were no or low cost, such as getting a third party endorsement, as from a chef who uses produce from a given farmer.
For photos on freezers, you might hire a photographer to take photos, and print cost is about $25.
“The cheapest, most effective way to improve sales is to smile, be friendly, engage with customers and wear a name tag,” Staisey said. “Some people are natural smilers; others are not, even with prodding. Smiling, friendly sellers consistently did better.”
In order to attract more customers, it is important to communicate the value of your market. The Lewes market is in the process of applying to the city for a 10-year lease.
“We want to promote that we’re a non profit,” Staisey said. “Sharing data is not enough. It gives us a sense of accomplishment, but so what? We’ve given $33,000 in scholarships to farmers, but so what? Farmers travel an average of 27 miles to get here, but so what? Sharing data alone does not work. You have to put it in context.”
For example, eggs from Twin Post Farm travel 60 miles to get to the market, she said; while eggs and other produce in a grocery store travel an average of 1,500 miles.
“The implications are the farther food travels, the less nutritious and the less tasty. Food produced nearby lasts longer,” Staisey said.
What makes good a “data driven” story? It must be true to data and simply true. One local story that can be confirmed by the Lewes target audience is nearby construction taking place where a cornfield once stood. Data shows that in the United States, more than 175 acres are being lost to development every hour.
Staisey shared one about a SNAP recipient. “On Kids Day, any kid with a SNAP recipient gets a $5 in tokens. One boy looked at his tokens with a gigantic smile.
He looked at his dad and asked, ‘Is this enough to buy a peach?’ He was told it would buy a whole bag! Then the boy said, ‘I’ve always wanted to know what a peach tastes like.’ This story lives on in our hearts.”
The audience of 220, mostly women, had many questions.
The regular market is open from 8 a.m. to noon; the fall market from 9 to 12 because it’s still dark earlier in the morning when farmers are preparing their wares. The Wednesday market is open from 8 to 11 a.m.
“We’ve only closed the market four times in 10 years,” Harris said. “It’s important to be open even when it rains. If there’s lightning, we close until the storm is over. Staying open is a challenge for a lot of markets, but it helps us be successful because our customers know we’ll be open no matter the weather. We had a nor’easter once, and farmers sold out of their trucks. The customers were in raincoats.”
Volunteers had been mentioned. Saisey elaborated, “We have 20 volunteers per day plus eight who set up the tents. ‘The Tentations’ return to take down the tents and load them in a trailer.” She credited Harris, who comes from an operations background, for soliciting volunteers.
“Who pays for incentives?” was another question. A percentage of sales pays for half the operational costs. The group fundraises for the other half and other expenses. For a fundraiser last season, 20 of 35 vendors contributed.
Vendors are limited to producers in Delmarva. Vendors do change. There are multiple vendors of multiple products, and competition is encouraged. There are no price controls.
“We see what is missing and start growing that market, for example, we had no microgreens, One farmer started to focus on them, now more are,” Harris said.
A mailing list was created by giving away a bicycle every year. Raffle cards require a street address and e-mail address, with a warning the customer will be added to an e-mail list. The list now has 4,000 names.
Advertising methods were tested, comparing social media to print ads, Staisey said. They held a raffle. An ad in the local paper advised readers that if they said, “no farms, no food,” they would get two entries. A post on social media advised use of the words “buy local, eat local.”
“We were surprised (that newspaper ads) were most effective,” she said. The fact that Lewes has a large elderly community played into the results, she added.
For more on the market, visit www.historiclewesfarmersmarket.org or call 302-644-1436.
1-800-634-5021 410-822-3965 Fax- 410-822-5068
P.O. Box 2026 Easton, MD 21601-8925