Rutgers hosts workshop to assist organizers of urban farmers’ markets
NEW BRUNSWICK — Ideas and tips for selling produce at urban famers’ markets were discussed in detail here at Blake Hall on the Cook College campus of Rutgers University on Dec. 10.
Lauren Errickson, Rutgers Cooperative Extension senior program administrator for the New Brunswick Community Farmers’ market and Rutgers Against Hunger, offered up her ideas and took questions from a small class gathered here as part of Annie’s Project for women farmers.
“It’s important to know your customers and be selling products that can match the diverse needs of your customers,” Errickson said at the outset of her talk. “One of the things we have here in New Jersey is ethnic diversity.” Errickson has been directly involved in running the New Brunswick Community Farmers’ market on Georges Road on the site of John B. Smith Hall and RCE’s former printing operations.
“I work with Extension primarily to think about ending food security issues in urban areas,” she said, noting barriers like cost and transportation are barriers to healthy food choices.
“One thing cities have going for them is population, so that translates into customers,” Errickson said, noting New Brunswick has about 56,000 year-round residents with many different cultures and ethnicities. A diverse area comes with many diverse food preferences, but this allows for some niche marketing, too, she noted.
“We focused on increasing the availability and affordability of fresh fruits and vegetables and we also accept federal food assistance benefits,” she said, “we know there is need everywhere in every community throughout New Jersey so considering accepting SNAP benefits and seniors farmers’ market nutrition program benefits can be a nice addition to your business and provide a nice service to your community as well.”
The New Brunswick Community Farmers’ market on Georges Road has assistance from Johnson & Johnson, whose corporate headquarters are also in New Brunswick. That assistance allows farmers to get full price while less fortunate urban customers can get half price on produce.
“We also offer children’s programming and that comes in handy during the summer when families come in. Having something for the kids to engage in as well comes in helpful,” she noted, including backyard vegetable growing skills they learn at the market.
While there are lots of opportunities for local farmers at urban farmers’ markets, the question remains: What do people want to buy?
“We know major drivers include taste, cost and familiarity, but how do we know what is most important? We ask them.”
Figuring out what types of produce people want to buy and then working with local growers to make these products available was part of what Errickson and others have done with the New Brunswick market. A second phase of their work began with promoting the market and making sure residents of New Brunswick from many different ethnic backgrounds were aware of the market’s location and hours.
“We hired three market ambassadors and their job was to conduct surveys. We asked [customers] for their three most important fruits and vegetables, learning what kinds of things people wanted,” she said. To get a broad range of city residents, ambassadors went to churches, cultural centers and schools to do their survey work, she added.
Results from 851 surveys with a broad cross-section of New Brunswick residents revealed the top fruits were apples, peaches, strawberries, followed by bananas, grapes, watermelons, mangoes, oranges, blueberries and cherries.
While people are at the Georges Road market, “we also make it a point to demonstrate, here’s all the local produce that is grown in New Jersey. It’s kind of a process of meeting people where they are, meeting their needs and then building upon them to help increase the local ag sales,” she said, noting her top 10 list of vegetables includes “crops that are all grown by farmers in New Jersey and they are all ‘Jersey Fresh.’”
Ethnic vegetables that grow well in New Jersey’s climate and soils include crops like tak soi, bok choi, kinto meleeks and amaranth. Even the prickly pear cactus grown here in New Jersey can be a draw for customers from central America.
Errickson said the New Brunswick Community Farmers’ market is always interested in working with new farmers and they work with them on a one-to-one basis.
“One major barrier for anyone considering farmers’ markets is the time it takes to be there, especially if you’re paying someone to be there,” so you need to work off a baseline of income, she stressed.
“If you’re interested in joining an urban farm market it’s important to know your audience, recognize their diverse food preference. There are some significant niche crops that we’re continuing to learn about and experiment with, so know your audience as best you can,” she said.
“You can capitalize on some of these things by working with the market manager or store manager if you’re looking to wholesale, or to a restaurant manager, depending on your own unique marketing needs, you can ask some of these questions and figure out where and how you can fit in.”
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