From Market Vendor to Entrepreneur

posted in: Breaking Beans | 0

Written by Sister Kathy Curtis, Edited by Maggie Smith

My first experience with a farmers’ market was in 2011 in Floyd County, Kentucky where I volunteered to help the farmers get set up, run errands, and put out about a million signs. I decided I wanted to help them because I am interested in anything that can bring income into our region and who doesn’t like fresh food. In my six years working with the market vendors I came to realize that farmers’ markets are not just a place to buy fresh food straight from the farmer but also an incubator for small businesses.

Over the years, I have had the privilege to make friends with several women who started out at a farmers’ market and have expanded their business beyond summer afternoons.

Before I tell you their stories, I wanted to share that Community Farm Alliance was a driving force behind the passing of Kentucky House Bill 391 (which was signed into law November 1, 2003) It opened a lot of doors for farmers like Benette who grow a product and then “add value” to it by canning, preserving or baking it into something that can be sold for a higher price. Limits for home processors, like Benette, is that their products can only be sold at farmers’ markets, certified Farm Bureau roadside stands or from the farmer’s home. Commercial licenses don’t have those limitations. And two local women have used their local farmers market as an entry into retail sales with their commercially processed products.

Here are their stories, and the on the ground results of how CFA has supported the farmer:

Benette Howard is definitely a farmer. She and her husband own one farm in Johnson County and she inherited two others. For her, farming was a way of life, raising everything, even beef, pork, and chickens. “You didn’t go to the store every time you wanted something. If you didn’t have it, you did without” said Bennette. She also told me working in the garden was instilled in her as a kid. She remembered when she first started helping her uncle, he set her to pulling weeds in the onions. “I guess they were easy to tell from the weeds.”

Benette first set up at the Floyd County Farmers’ Market towards the end of 2012 market season bringing pumpkins, gourds and colored corn. She did well enough to plan on setting up the entire 2013 season. However, the cool wet spring of 2013 put her behind and that’s when she heard about home based processing. Home based processors may produce and sell low risk products such as fruit jams, jellies and syrups, fruit butters, baked goods, prepackaged mixed greens or herbs, and dried fruits, vegetables, nuts or herbs. She started making Bea’s Jams & Jellies and they went over so well she added baked goods. “When I wouldn’t sell all my fresh stuff, I brought it home and canned it to resell at market” this was Benette’s strategy.

Benette now sells her canned goods during season at both the Floyd County and Pikeville farmers markets. And once the markets close down she still has “a lot of people that call wanting canned stuff and baked goods”.

What goes better with baked goods than jams, jellies, and syrups? The Pikeville Market has helped other young entrepreneurs become thriving businesses.  Such as Whitney Whaley, of Whaley Canning Co., started her business just this year after a whirlwind tour of classes and certifications. Whitney was looking for a cottage industry she could do soon after moving to Pikeville and hit upon canning and selling fruit sauces and syrups using old family recipes, like Grandma Strick’s Apple Sauce.

After attending UK’s Food Innovation Center’s Better Process Control School, offered this past spring at the Eastern Kentucky Farmer Conference, Whitney was able to commercially process her products using the commercial kitchen at the Floyd County Extension Office. She met up with Joyce Pinson of the Pikeville Farmers Market who convinced her to sell her products at the market. Business was so good that now, less than one year from starting, Whitney has her products in several local retail stores as well as on her own online store.

A little closer to I-75, in Hazard, you will find Emily Whitaker who like most of us, loves coffee. She loves it so much that when offered a coffee roaster with all the trimmings, she remodeled half of her basement to install a manufacturing kitchen so she could sell locally roasted coffee. Windy Hills Coffee, roasted in Viper, Kentucky made its debut at events in and around Hazard including creating a special blend for an event in Hazard called A Seat at The Table-India where community members can come together and share a meal from a different culture. The reception was so good that Windy Hills coffee can now be found in retail outlets in Hazard and soon to be found in Prestonsburg and Whitesburg too. As market manager for the Perry County Farmers’ Market, Emily’s connection with farmers opened another avenue when farmer friends started adding Windy Hills coffee as a specialty item to their CSA shares.

As noted earlier, farmers’ markets have been entry level opportunities for farmers to sell their products. Most market vendors expand their businesses, like Benette, by having customers come to the farm or like Whitney and Emily through retail markets. But, a few vendors make the scary leap to brick and mortar establishments.

Kristin Smith raises heritage beef and pastured pork in Whitley County on Falkner Bent Farm. She started selling her premium meat products at the Whitley County Farmers Market but sales were slow. “I couldn’t drop my prices so I decided to make tacos so people could taste the difference in my product and buy it. Pork belly tacos. Brisket tacos. Whatever cut wasn’t moving. And it worked. I sold out every week”, she told me in an interview earlier this year.

The Whitley County market vendors became a really tight group and it wasn’t long before they decided they had all they needed, bread, produce and meat, to open a brick and mortar restaurant. And soon the popular Wrigley Taproom and Eatery, a farm to table restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky, was established.

 

 

The newest entrepreneurs to using a farmers’ markets as a springboard into business are Lisa and Amy Bourque of Acres of Grace Farm and Bakery in Clay County. Lisa and Amy have been farming on Acres of Grace for about eight years. They believe in being as self-sustaining as possible, so gardening was an easy choice for them

They started selling at the Clay County Community Market about four years ago but what’s interesting is that they did not start by selling produce but instead entered the market to sell Lisa’s artwork, “with a small tray of baked apple hand pies” Lisa told me. Once she saw how much the community loved homegrown and homemade food, she decided to pursue her passion for baking.

The Acres of Grace Bakery, located on Big Creek in Clay County opened this past November. When asked why open a restaurant in such a rural area? Lisa replied “because we really wanted to be a part of the community on a larger scale than what we could produce for farmers’ market. People were asking for our food during the market off season as well so we felt like it was time to take the plunge and fulfill my dreams of opening a small place and do some farm to table for our small area.”

Like Kristin Smith at the Wrigley Taproom and Eatery, the Bourques’ use as much locally sourced food as possible in their meals. When asked why they would open a restaurant on a two-lane road in the middle of one of the poorest counties in the United States, Lisa replied, “Feeding people makes us happy and working side by side makes us even happier. Providing a healthier alternative to our small community is a bonus.”

“Putting your money, where your zip code is” has really been a game changer for folks interested in doing farm to table. Most of the farmers that I worked with at the Floyd County Farmers’ Market, six years ago, grew produce, brought it to the market to sell and went home to get ready for their off-farm job because there wasn’t enough interest in purchasing locally grown food, to make a living.

But farmers’ markets have increased in number and size in the last several years across the Commonwealth. And thanks to the agriculture departments at the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University, their extension agents, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Kentucky Proud program, and the Farmers Market Support Program of Community Farm Alliance, more and more vendors are becoming entrepreneurs.

Are you a vendor at a Kentucky farmers market? Are you interested in growing your market and your business? Why not check out the Farmers Market Support Program page on our website. Or look into attending the 2018 Eastern Kentucky Farmer Conference February 23rd and 24th. We are Community Farm Alliance where Farm is Foundation.