Serving Minnesota and Northern Iowa.

EBT project at farmers markets a success

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 11/22/2012 7:03 PM

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ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The Grand Rapids Farmers Market faced a challenge a year ago: Due to the economy, attendance had dropped.

Using $400, the farmers market promoted itself and its participation in Blue Cross Blue Shield's Market Bucks pilot project.

farmers market manager Kent Lorentzen described their promotions at the Minnesota Farmers Market Association's fall conference in St. Cloud last week. He was one of five managers who discussed their markets and market sales.

Blue Cross Blue Shield, through a Minnesota Department of Agriculture specialty crops grant, placed point of sales terminals at markets taking part in the pilot project. People in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program purchased fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmers market using their EBT cards. Farmers Market managers also used the terminals for other customers' debit card sales.

Grand Rapids had more than $7,000 in EBT sales.

"We weren't really sure how it was going to go," Lorentzen said. "But we worked well to make sure it would go."

Lorentzen started advertising early in the market season through radio ads and by flyers placed in businesses and the food shelf.

Other farmers markets in the pilot project reported similar success.

Part of the project's funds were used to cover staffing of the EBT machine on market days. Vendors were then paid for goods sold through the day's receipts.

The Grand Rapids Farmers Market was established in 1996 and has a total of 40 vendors with 24 to 28 attending most markets.

They don't have a restriction on how many vendors can sell a particular product, he said. Their bylaws encourage sellers of products raised on their own farm to be members.

Joe Domeier began managing the Mankato Farmers Market last year and was involved with the Mankato market's Market Bucks participation. They garnered around $7,000 in EBT sales.

The market has existed for 36 years with vendors who live in a 40-mile radius of the market site.

Mills City's farmers Market wrapped up its seventh season this fall. On a nice day, they may get around 5,000 customers, said market representative Maggie Mountain.

They plan to go a winter market the second Saturday of every month, she said.

About 30 percent of the market's budget comes form vendor fees with the rest obtained through sponsorships, she said.

Several of the market managers taking part in a market panel mentioned social media as part of their advertising efforts. The Mills City market uses facebook and twitter plus a weekly e-newsletter.

"That's where we promote a lot of our non-produce products," she said. "One of our biggest challenges right now is the reputation we've built up that we are the expensive farmers market," she said. "We are trying to figure out how to relate to people what they are paying for their food."

Domeier told the group he'd compared the grocery store price of fruits and vegetables to the farmers market's prices. The farmers market produce cost less.

Chisago City Farmers Market manager Cecelia Coulter talked about the city's newest market.

She wanted to see a farmers market in the city and considered what she thought customers would want —location and convenience.

The market started in June with 27 vendors.

"All of a sudden people saw all these tents go up and we had them hooked," she said.

The key to the young market's success is found in the work Coulter and other volunteers did last fall. They contacted growers, encouraging them to take part in the market. Their first events focused on a spring plant sale set for three weeks before the market opened.

"That was great because people were in a planting mood," she said. "And we got people thinking about the market. "

The Chisago City Farmers market has EBT sales that garnered around $3,000 to $4,000, she said.

They've promoted the market at local parades and through their signage and market location, she said.

The market established a youth gardener scholarship to get young people interested in gardening and farming. Local hardware stores provided materials and master gardeners the expertise. The students got a spot at the farmers market to sell their goods.