Selling homemade food is a great way to put a little extra cash in your pocket. If you are just getting started and are looking to attract customers, selling at a farmers market can sound like the best way to do that in Maine — but where do you begin?
Here’s what you need to know about selling your homemade food at the farmers market.
Step 1: Make sure you have all your licenses and insurance
Before you apply to join a farmers market, you need all the appropriate licenses. Cottage food p roducers are required to get either a home food processor or commercial license depending on what exactly they plan to sell. A product may also need to go through testing at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension as well.
“If they already have the licensing in order they are welcome to apply to any of the farmers markets in Maine,” Jessie Dowling, owner of the Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield and the membership coordinator of the Orono Farmers’ Market. “They just have to be able to show the appropriate licenses for what they have.”
You also need to get a separate Mobile Vendor License with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, which is under the Food & Fuel License Application on their website. The price depends on what you are selling, but ranges from $15 to $50.
Dowling said that what might be more challenging for small producers is getting product liability insurance, which is required by many farmers markets in Maine. Most farmers’ markets have their own insurance for the market writ large, but product liability insurance is still useful for producers in case someone were to get sick from one of your products.
“If they are making products out of their home, they may want to put a rider on their home insurance,” Dowling said.
Step 2: Apply to markets
Once you have all your legal ducks in a row, the next step is to apply to the farmers markets where you want to sell your goods. Most farmers markets accept applications through early March, though deadlines vary.
Dowling explained that Maine is fairly unique in that most markets are independently run by a committee of their members. The Maine Federation of Farmers Market provides guidelines for markets.
“It’s all juried by the actual members,” Dowling said. “We have a meeting once a year. People will apply and everybody who’s interested in applying can come [and speak about their product] for five minutes. We’re going to do it on Zoom this year.”
Each market will have different considerations when choosing who to accept. One factor is space.
“It’s different for every market,” Dowling said. “The parking lot we have the [Orono Farmers’] Market in in the summertime is at the University of Maine Steam Plant [but] winter is crammed [because the market is held in the smaller downtown Orono parking lot].”
The committee will also consider what products they already have for sale at the market.
“We don’t want to saturate the market,” said Lauri Philbrick, market manager at the Hampden Farmers’ Market. “We need to diversify. If we already have six baked good vendors then it’s not a good fit for the market.”
However, just because there is a similar product at the market doesn’t mean that yours isn’t a good fit, too.
“There’s not just one type of cheese, [and] if you made a really good preserve and someone else made a really good preserve there’s a need for both,” Dowling said.
Given the variables, Dowling and Philbrick both recommend applying to multiple markets.
“The best way to get out there is to apply to as many markets that are in an area that you feel like you can get to,” Dowling said. “It’s a good idea to get your name out in a smaller market, and then if you make a reputation for yourself you can get into the bigger markets.”
Make sure you read the rules and regulations for the markets you are applying for. You should also be prepared for any fees that an application — and, if you are accepted, membership — might include.
“Because each market is self organized, every market is different,” Dowling said.
Philbrick said that the Hampden Farmers’ Market, for example, requires applicants to submit a membership fee of $40 with the application.
“If you’re not voted in, the membership fee gets returned to the applicant,” Philbrick said. “We keep the application on file in the event that somebody drops out of the market and we have an open spot.”
Step 3: Make yourself stand out
You can do a few things to make your application stand out. Consider bringing samples, or at least pictures, of your product if you are given the opportunity to present to the judging committee.
“Some people have linked photos to the Zoom call to their products,” Dowling said. “Some people have dropped off samples at the market the week before so they can try it at home because we can’t sample anymore at the market.”
It would also be beneficial to try to get as many ingredients for your product in Maine as possible.
“If there were two pickle vendors applying, I feel like the one [grows] more of their own produce [for] their pickles is going to be [chosen over the] one that doesn’t,” Dowling said. “If somebody made the best pickle I’ve ever eaten [though] they might get in on their own merit.”
Get to know the people at the market as well. They are the ones that will be voting on your membership, after all.
“If you go to the market and introduce yourself and say, ‘Hi, I am this person and I make this thing,’ people will like to know a little bit more about [you] and [your] story,” Dowling said.
Step 4: Follow through
If you are accepted to a farmers market, make sure you are committed before you agree to start selling there.
“You want to make sure that you know what you’re doing and that this is really what you get into,” Philbrick said. “It does take a lot of time, and there will be weeks that we’re at market and we have no customers.”
Follow all membership guidelines about presentation and timeliness. If not, it could hurt your chances for applying to other markets in Maine as well.
“If they have a guideline that you have to be set up by a certain time, you need to abide by that,” Philbrick said. “All of the markets have vendors that attend multiple markets. If I am at a market with said vendor and there are issues at the market, those issues can be passed on at other markets.”
Philbrick also said that when you start selling at the farmers market, you should not expect immediate returns
“The first year is the slowest year because the customers are just meeting you and getting to know you,” Philbrick said. “You have to develop that customer base. You just have to hang in there.”
It also may be the case that the market is not right for your product. Philbrick, who sells mostly meat, spent a year at the United Farmers Market of Maine in Belfast before realizing that her customer base was not there.
“That was more of a tourist market,” Philbrick said. “Most customers don’t have stoves because they’re at a hotel. It wasn’t a right fit for us.”