Looks are so important: Tips given for displaying produce at markets
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — After 43 years of selling at “green” or farmer’s markets in New York City, Ron Binaghi Jr. has learned plenty — such as how to display produce, interact with customers and stay profitable doing it.
At last month’s New Jersey Agriculture Convention, he and his son, Ron Binaghi III of Stokes Farms in Bergen County, talked with other farmers about what’s helped them in the farmers’ market realm and what they’ve learned over more than four decades.
Stokes Farms is a 17-acre facility in Bergen County, one of the richest counties in New Jersey.
Both Binaghi Jr. and Ron III offered up a lively engaging talk to a packed house of interested farmers.
Binaghi Jr. pointed out he’s come to the New Jersey Agriculture Convention for years, “and I’ve always complained that there are not enough growers telling us about their problems.
“It’s always Ph.D.s and these other academic types,” he added
“I’ve also always complained there are too many pie charts here so this is the only pie chart you’ll see,” he said, noting there are only four working farms left in Bergen County.
Stokes Farms is now only 17 acres, but the farm was founded in 1873 on 40 acres of land purchased for $600 back then.
The land is worth considerably more than that now and “we’re surrounded by 2- and 3-million-dollar homes.”
In the mid-1970s when gasoline prices doubled, Binaghi’s father wondered how to keep the family farm profitable.
“Somehow, we continued,” he said, “and in the mid-1970s a gentleman from New York City came to our farm and said ‘We’re surrounded by farmland in New York, yet nobody can find a fresh tomato. Why don’t you come and try out our green market,’ ” Binaghi said.
He said he recalled the green market at 59th Street and Second Avenue was the busiest place he’d ever seen in his youth.
“My Dad was quoted the next day in The New York Times, and he said, ‘Is there a famine in New York City?’ ”
Binaghi said he and his son and their team from Stokes Farms participate in two farmers’ markets in Manhattan, one downtown at Union Square and another in Lincoln Center near the Juilliard School of Music and Jazz at Lincoln Center, not far from Columbus Circle.
He urged the farmer audience not to use ripped up pieces of cardboard and handwritten signs on produce, but rather, to make it slick by using printed signs with large fonts.
Each sign should tell the market patron what the produce is and how much it costs, that’s it, he said.
“People want colorful displays, so there’s a lot of color involved and layers of color involved in marketing your produce,” he said.
“I can’t tell you how many good growers are out there that have these awful handwritten signs, ripped off from a tomato box with cardboard, yet, they’re really good growers,” he said, noting that Stokes Farms uses a series of two-color signs that feature name and price.
He urged farmers to set up their produce at different heights to sell more of everything.
“If you can, you want to make everything within reach,” Binaghi stressed, “because people always want stuff that’s just out of reach.”
He said he’s noticed many things about older and younger patrons of the farmers’ markets in Union Square and Lincoln Center through the ensuing years and one of them is that people have to pick up the biggest tomato, all day long.
“There are different types of customers; the older person who picks up a tomato and drops it, picks it up and puts it back, but the millennial drops a tomato and walks away,” he said, adding all the millennials in New York City carry their backpacks with them everywhere.
Thoughtful arrangement of vegetables by color is useful in attracting more customers to your stand. Never have the collards next to the broccoli, he urged.
“When people walk up to your display, they’ve already made up their minds about whether they’re going to buy stuff from you, based on the way your stuff looks,” he said, “and they’ll say, ‘Your stuff looks great,’ so, in our society, looks are so important.”
Binaghi boasted some of the world’s best chefs patronize the Stokes Farms booth at both downtown and midtown farmers markets in Manhattan, and if they see something they really like, “they’ll send their porters back for 10 more trips.”
Showing slides of an anonymous woman who has to smell every piece of produce she picks up, Binaghi urged farm market staff be firm with these ‘smelling patrons’ and let them know their noses are not welcome on fresh produce they’re then putting back into the wood baskets.
“We try to educate them,” he said, “that we really don’t want people’s noses on every piece of produce.”
He urged farmers to think about and write down all of their expenses associated with getting to the farmers market each week, including gas, tolls, labor and paying yourself for your time there all day.
“Just because you take in a lot of money doesn’t mean you’re necessarily making a lot of money,” Binaghi said.
Finally, he offered tips on a frequently asked question.
“When people say, ‘Are you organic?’ You cannot say ‘No.’ Once you say No, you’ve lost that customer. You’re the devil. That’s it.”
Instead, he argued, a better response from market managers is “we follow organic principles, but we haven’t pursued certification because it’s too expensive.”
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