mother of invention
in 1930, cornell university published a little pamphlet entitled "the roadside market - an opportunity for the rural woman" ... let's see how their suggestions translate in 2020
"New opportunities for rural women to make money at home have arisen since the advent of the automobile and the improved highway."
in January of 2020, having read about a virus originating from a market in wuhan, my standard 'hey y'all, i'm at sick kids farmers market today' instagram post mentioned how the farmers markets in ontario were not only epidemic free but truly the envy of the world. then, in march, the province shut down just as farmers were starting to gear up for the spring season. all of the decisions for what i would be growing had been made in january and with global supply-chain disruption causing havoc across the board, there was no direction but forward in terms of what i would be growing. the real problem was, since two-thirds of my income is generated at farmers markets in toronto, where on earth would i sell what i what i had grown? with the reopening of farmers markets unknown, i started to turn my thoughts to perhaps doing farmgate sales - something that has always been in the back of my mind and having now been shoved into the abyss, well, a farmstand was quickly becoming a reality.
i'll cut to the chase right up front: farmstands provide the most transparent farm-to-consumer experience available. if you get excited about the freshness and bounty that explodes through a farmers market then what you get from a farmstand will blow your mind! sounds easy, right? just build a farmstand? it's mid-october 2020 as i write this ... here are some of the lessons learned starting from scratch, in a half-second, decor-on-a-dime budget.
"Location is of great importance in influencing the volume of business. The most favorable location is on a level straight stretch of road or at the apex of a slight curve in the road where the stand can be seen at some distance from both directions."
there were a couple of factors working in my favour - one, my farm is located on one of the most scenic drives in the golden horseshoe and there are many long established farmstands in my region and two, my farm has 200' of frontage on this scenic road. funnily enough, there is also a slight curve in the road where the most logical location for the farmstand to be located. there is also a very significant difference of being on the north side of the road ... the north side of ridge road is governed by the niagara escarpment commission whereas the south side of ridge road is governed by the ontario greenbelt. now you may or may not know this but the niagara escarpment commission is the strictest land-governing board in ontario however, in niagara region only, it has been deemed that "policies that actively deter agricultural uses, agriculture-related uses, agritourism uses and on-farm diversified uses have no place in the niagara escarpment plan". whoopee! no red tape to deal with in getting set up and ready for business.
"Roadside markets seem to fall into three distinct types: the permanent stand, operating the year around, the semipermanent stand, operating regularly part of the year and the temporary stand, which is used only while certain products are in season."
spring is a tough time to decide to set up a farmstand for the first time: free time is non-existent and cash-flow is at the lowest/slowest point of the year. now, i've always enjoyed a good farm auction but i began to scour upcoming events in earnest and i was willing to drive much further than i normally would in order to find useful things to use in constructing the farmstand for the lowest possible cost. i found a fantastic, super solid trailer in an auction in milverton, ontario ... i found some lovely old milk cans and sap buckets in embro, ontario ... i found some great, old corrugated tin in wainfleet, ontario. slowly, the stand began to take shape and it was wheeled out to just inside the farmgate.
the farmstand, as it began to take shape and the logistics of operating it began to be 'more realistic', a "semi-permanent/temporary" hybrid category began to evolve. on june 14th we sprung the idea of our farmstand as being a thing out into the world and commited, on a sign attached to the farmstand, to be open saturday's 8-2. if we got to the thanksgiving saturday then, wow, that would be amazing. yes, there were a few hiccups the first few markets but behind the scenes larger things were evolving and, if i do say so myself, every week there was an improvement here or a little tweak there that made it eclipse any original idea of what it would look like. in just a short period of time, our "semi-permanent/temporary" hybrid farmstand has now evolved to something so much bigger ... a permanent farmstore!
"The most successful markets invariably have alert, courteous operators, attractive in appearance and personality. One of the stand's greatest assets is a saleswoman of pleasant personality, courteous and well-groomed."
well, i do give it my best shot grooming-wise on market days and i always want to project that not only am i a true-believer in vauxhall products, i want that belief to radiate from me and bring confidence to your product decisions. my appearance and "pleasant personality" aside, the reality was that the people showing up at the farmstand were elated to not only be out in the fresh air on an adventure but the human to human contact (respectful contact) was invigorating! many a long visit, quickie tours, repeat weekly visits, my mum coming practically every week!! and some very enlightening information about the vauxhall premises that life-long residents wanted to share was something that was so exciting to learn ... the pleasure of seeing who was pulling in for a farmstand visit just never ceased to amaze me! i was also extremely proud that our farmstand was the catalyst for so many first-time visitors to the area and that some of my suggestions for other places to visit in the surrounding area led to some pretty spectacular memory-making adventures.
"Any device for calling favorable attention to the market or its produce is good advertising."
having attended ontario's largest farmers markets, year-round, for 13 years, we have never lacked favourable attention as thousands of passerby's would see our set-up every market day. in addition, we have a stable of 50+ personal care products of which we've sold thousands of each ... repeat and word-of-mouth sales are the foundation of our 'advertising'. the other critical grassroots effort in broadening our "favourable attention" reach was that for the past decade+, we have handed out 25,000 business cards which led us to writing thousands of thank you cards enclosed in every mail order ... when you create products that are easy to fall in love with and work to form long-standing relationships well, you want all the attention to be favourable.
farmstands are a whole new high-stakes poker game. sure i live on a scenic road and have a cute farm stand but the reality is, it's still a quiet country road - how on earth do you get people to come? here is a brief list of some of the "devices" we used to "call favorable attention" to our new business model of farmgate sales:
- painted signs to hang at the roadside and on the farmstand itself to identify what it is we sell and also our hours of operation. we also had our very long instagram handle painted and placed permanently, front and centre, on the farmstand. if you love the colours we used for the signs, they were all from the 'ontario' palette by sico paint
- updated our google listing with hours of operation
- tibetan prayer flags ... living on the edge of the escarpment means the air is rarely still - their colourful flutter is mesmerizing and eye-catching
- ig stories. it is hard to post on our grid during market but fun shots of the set-up and customers posing with a gorgeous bouquet or cache of vauxhall products keeps it lively. even better? customer posts showing off their spoils from their visit with us. so fun.
- in 2020, the total percentage of time spent 'off' the farm would be about 2% for me. 50% of that 2% was spent at the winona post office dropping off mail orders. many times a week i have the pleasure of seeing the lovely carolyn and leeanne who are the most gorgeous, supportive, all-round-fantastic-people whose calm, straight-forward manner as frontline workers, well, let me tell you, it is a blessing to know them. as often as i could (or remembered!!), i took a bouquet for their counter (as well as occasional personal take-home ones) and it made me feel so proud that i could brighten their day in some small way. and they, in turn, passed my name on to many in my community and quite a few became repeat farmstand customers!
1930? 2020? farmstands don't change that much
when i was scrambling to put together a farmstand this spring, there wasn't much information available. as much as i want to show you everything i learned about building and operating a farmstand, some of the most valuable lessons can't really be quantified. our business is vertically integrated and every level must work for it to be successful. retail is tough at the best of times and 2020 was like the grim-reaper for retailing caveats that have been around since the beginning of time. personally, although we hit the ground running with our farmstand concept, the bottom line is, we were running and picking up lots of knowledge along the way. we are no means at the finish line either and the farmstand will definitely be back in 2021. i can't wait to see how it evolves again.
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