It used to be that your roadside stand was simply an efficient way to get available products directly to customers. Whether on the farm or in a higher traffic area nearby, stands typically were no frills, often unmanned and allowed the product to sell itself. If people wanted picked produce, they stopped at the local roadside stand to purchase it.

Some farm stands evolved into more elaborate, commercial operations with refrigeration and lighting, cash registers and parking areas. This infrastructure often allowed for extended season sales, expanded hours for customer convenience and the potential for products such as milk, bread, meat or out-of-season produce to readily be made available. Whether seasonal or year-round, these retail farm stands combined local food and convenience.

To remain profitable, farmers today are faced with revamping their farm stands to better meet changing customer demands. With so many venues for shopping for food — online, convenience stores, fast casual “healthy” restaurants, grocery stores with delivery and a proliferation of farmers markets — heading to the local farm stand may require more than just the produce to attract today’s customers.

Fundamentals

No matter the consumer trends, the basics of running any type of direct market retail operation for your farm remain the same. Numerous resources address business planning that must go into any farm operation, including farm stands. One comprehensive guide comes from the University of Vermont Extension.

“This goes back to doing a thorough market analysis and is something any farmer should do before moving forward,”

Mary Peabody, community economic development specialist, director of Women’s Ag Network, (WAgN) University of Vermont Extension, said. “Success in farm stands varies across farm type, geographic location and attractiveness of the facility.”

Whether beginning anew or seeking to expand or change your farm stand, there are practical considerations:

  • Location: Know the regulations for on-farm sales, inquire about local ordinances, and find out whether you’ll need permits from the health department. Familiarize yourself with any building codes and environmental regulations that might be relevant, before you begin planning. These rules and restrictions vary from location to location.

If your property is not in a commercial zone, or is preserved farmland, there may be restrictions on what you can sell. For example, land in farmland preservation programs often carries regulations regarding percentage of sales that must come from products directly produced on the farm, limiting outside product. Farms not located in commercial zones may need to address lighting, parking, noise, setbacks and other concerns in residential areas.

Deciding whether to invite customers to the farm, or to place your farm stand off-farm, not only  involves the regulatory concerns, but also the likelihood of customers traveling to your farm, and the privacy concerns of your family. Logistics, too, can play a role, Peabody said. If other farm operations involve a lot of trucking or equipment, or require biosecurity, how will you address those safety concerns?

  • Vision: What are you trying to accomplish with the farm stand? How much space will you need? What products will you sell? What will your hours be? How many customers do you anticipate and where will you find them? How many employees will you have? What type of insurance do you need? Why do you want to do this? Does your personality fit the vision, and if not, who will be running the operation?

Peabody recommends asking a few preparatory questions. The answers can help focus your plans, and prepare you for the business realities of the farm stand operation.

“Is my farm set up for direct sales? Is there parking, bathroom facilities, signage? Who will staff the sales floor and what customer service training will they need? Have I researched the sales tax requirements for what I’m planning to sell? How well do I manage inventory? Do I want to sell only what is produced on my farm, or do I want to feature other producers?” she asked.

  • Budget: Do you have access to the capital you will need for the project? Is a positive return on your investment likely and, if so, how far into the future? What are the variable and fixed expenses associated with your farm stand operation?
  • Market Analysis: Is there a need for this service, or is the market saturated? Am I unique, or simply duplicating services found nearby? Who is my target customer and how will I appeal to their needs? How will I reach these customers initially, and will I keep them as repeat customers?

“People are generally willing to drive for something local and unique” within 35 to 40 miles of home, Peabody said.

Farmers should consider direct competition within this range, but also ask if there are any cooperative marketing partners, such as artists or complementary farm businesses that “could help build market appeal for my potential customers,” she said.

It all comes down to where you live and what you have to offer,” she said. “What else can I offer besides product — tours, children’s activities, etc.,” to provide customers a more customized experience.

A SWOT (strength, weakness, opportunities and threats) analysis is a common tool used in business planning, and can help organize pros and cons associated with opening, expanding or changing the scope of your farm stand.

Product and presentation

The Food Safety Modernization Act has put this issue front and center. No matter what you are growing or selling, there are regulations to follow. Knowing the proper handling requirements, and having protocols in place to ensure that they happen consistently is an important part of any business involving food. Training is available, typically through your local extension office or via various nonprofits involved in local food and farming.

Having a clean, sanitary farm stand — whether a wagon on the roadside or an intensive destination farm market — is mandatory. Not only should you be concerned about this for safety’s sake, but no customer wants to see dust, dirt and debris near their food products. Dark, dingy and damp sales areas are not going to pass muster, even if they are clean. Light, bright and fresh sales spaces aren’t an option, but a necessity.

Think of the farm stand as an extension of yourself, and of your farm. What is your mission, and what goals do you have for the farm? These should be reflected through your market. If you want to help harried families enjoy the simple pleasures of healthy fruit, a chaotic market with loud music, inattentive employees and clutter isn’t the way. Neither is a crowded, cluttered sales area or thrown-together displays.

Products need to be accessible, fresh, undamaged and arranged in a pleasant manner. If it doesn’t look like you cared enough to show it off, why would anyone want to purchase it? Aside from not bruising or damaging produce, displays should be colorful and creative. Make people want to purchase that product, even if it isn’t on their shopping list.

How you package your product can make a difference, too. If all your carrots are bagged in 5-pound packages, but your customers are single, or have small families, they need a smaller quantity. If your apples are only sold by the basket, parents who want to purchase a quick snack for a hungry child might just pass. Being flexible with packaging options can go a long way. Supply baskets, carts or bags that make it easy for customers to carry multiple items.

Customer service can make or break your farm market. Knowledgeable employees should greet customers, and remain available, attentive and unobtrusive. It’s good practice to pleasantly point out new items, or mention specials, and then allow customers to browse. Staff should be focused and attentive, not involved in texting, email or other distractions. Customers come first, and making those sales means projecting the image that your customers, and your products, are worth your effort.

“No. 1: be nice! Customers want to have a pleasant, knowledgeable person greet them and make them feel welcome,” Peabody said. “Offer money back guarantees and loyalty cards — it makes customers feel good when they know their loyalty is important to you.”

Having a pleasant transaction extends to checkout. Payment methods are changing, too. Although there are some farm stands that only except cash, today’s customers are seeking to pay not only with actual credit or debit cards, but now are swiping their mobile phones to make those payments. There are mobile payment processing apps, too, with innovative payment processing methods evolving. Keeping current with changing payment options might open the doors to new customers, particularly millennials.

Read more: 4 Tips for Marketing Your Farmstand

Consumer trends

Like it or not, changing demographics impact the farm stand. Although no one should plan their business on trends alone, all farmers should be aware of them, consider their impact, and make small changes to keep the business current, Peabody said, speaking during a webinar presentation. Peabody outlined trends impacting consumer food purchasing decisions on Youtube.

“Changing demographics and consumer preferences always should be somewhere in your marketing plan,” she said. “Trends are the solid building blocks for further marketing and product development. We live in a world where marketing messages are relentless. It does impact us.”

Hyper-local food, artisan butchery, house-made ice cream, pop-up restaurants and fermented foods are some trends that are working to change the face of farm stands. Custom tailored food is trending, too. Peabody noted that the emergence and success of personal chefs, fresh food boxes ordered online and delivered to your door with step-by-step cooking instructions and perfect portions, and even grocery store delivery services point to convenience, as well as connection.

“As the millennials grow in force within the marketplace, they are very interested in authenticity and relationships,” Peabody said.

And millennials aren’t the only ones seeking value-added food-related experiences. In today’s world, food is so much more than something to eat. It’s healthy, it’s real, it’s nourishing, it’s comforting and it’s diverse. It is readily individualized to meet specific needs or desires. It builds community.

Farm stands are no longer simply selling fresh food. They are becoming places to have a food experience. From cooking classes, gardening workshops, nutrition seminars and tasting events, the local farm stand is providing not only a product, but also an experience. Adding a café or ice cream parlor, inviting a chef or food truck to prepare cuisine from your products, or forming a CSA, where customers pick up a weekly prepaid allotment of food from the farm stand, can all be profitable ways to meet the demands of today’s trends, and appeal to those seeking more than just food. Innovations such as these serve to attract repeat customers, and to lure new customers, to the farm stand.

But the relationship with customers no longer starts and stops at the door.

“Millennials are also expecting to engage with you online and be a part of your story,” Peabody said.

Social media sites and blogs, where customers can interact with the farm stand, add comments, see photos and get daily updates, are great marketing tools. Keeping in touch in real time and inserting the farm stand into customers’ daily lives builds relationships.

Online sales of farm stand products are also opening up new markets. If your product can be shipped — and most can be, as long as the cost of expediently and safely doing so can be passed on to willing customers or absorbed as a business expense — you may want to open an online store. Following up with online sales is also important for farm stands in locations which attract a lot of tourists, Peabody said.

Consumers today are asking a lot of the humble farm stand. Discovering today’s trends, and finding a way to fit them into your farm stand, is a good way to remain relevant in a world where merely having produce for sale — even if it is local, organic, natural, fresh, family-farmed, heirloom, non-GMO, filled with antioxidants, healthy, convenient, or has any other desired trait — simply isn’t enough. Profitably selling your product today may mean reconsidering the scoop of the farm stand.