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Ultimate Guide to Farmers' Markets

How Farmers' Markets Operate
Farmers' markets offer a lot more than fresh food. The Farmers' Market Fall Festival in Los Angeles sports a pig race.
Farmers' markets offer a lot more than fresh food. The Farmers' Market Fall Festival in Los Angeles sports a pig race.
Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Although your local farmers' market may seem rather informal, every market has a business plan. Markets are managed by a small group of leaders who form that market's association and outline the market's rules and regulations. These leaders may be the vendors themselves or a combination of vendors and community members.

One of the first decisions the leadership will make is who can and cannot sell goods at the market. This decision is usually based on what types of foods will be sold and what the criteria for "local" is. Ninety-four percent of all farms are considered small farms. Farmers who manage their own operations and make less than $250,000 annually are considered small farm operators [source: USDA]. Small farms are the center of vendor membership at farmers' markets, but many markets also allow local crafters and artisans to set up shop. The rules are as individual as each community.

Potential vendors typically apply for space at the farmers' market. They let the leadership know about their products and their products' quality as well as any other detail the association requests. Vendors pay fees for membership and space and acquire any permits or licenses that may be required by local laws. Physical liability insurance in case of accident or injury is either provided by the market or purchased by each vendor, depending on that market's established rules.

The rules and regulations also establish the kind of activities allowed at the market. While food sales are the staple of most farmers' markets, some communities turn their markets into festivals. It's not unheard of for farmers' markets to have cooking demonstrations, music, local crafters and artisans selling their products. Many patrons attend simply to enjoy some people-watching.

Farmers' markets are not only spring to fall operations -- you can enjoy the foods and festivities year-round in some communities. Winter markets are similar to summer markets but are held indoors. For example, the Bloomington Winter Farmers' Market in Bloomington, Ind., is held in a school gymnasium on Saturday mornings. The products at a winter market reflect the vegetables and crops that are in-season, including hearty vegetables such as potatoes, winter squash and parsnips as well as herbs, dairy and even goods such as wool or alpaca fibers.

Winter markets aren't the only variation to the farmers' market. Farmers' markets are also available online, allowing you to order directly from wherever you might be located. Virtual vendors offer the same types of goods as traditional open-air markets.

Next, we'll learn how farmers' markets help us meet our daily nutritional needs through farm-to-school and farmers' market nutrition programs.