Farmers Consider Keys to Attracting New Customers

6/1/2013 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — Vendors at the venerable — founded in 1783 — City Farmers Market in Hagerstown think not just about bringing their best products, but about how to attract the consumer — after all, the booth a few feet away has good, fresh asparagus that looks a like everyone else’s.

“Always greet them with a smile,” said Beverly Bingaman, who’s been setting up at this market for 26 years come July. “Try to learn their names, first at least.”

Bingaman admitted she doesn’t always remember their names, but she knows faces and they know hers. Customers will see her in another setting and say, “That’s the lady from the farmers market.”

One of her shoppers, Betty Mastrounni, has been coming to the market and the Bingaman booth since she read about it last year. She describes herself as a “freak for fresh fruit and vegetables. I don’t like processed food at all. I know if it comes from the ground about here it’s nutritious and safe.”

Equally important, Bingaman added, is to have every item priced. She doesn’t want to pick something up and find a clerk to learn the price, and she won’t ask her customers to.

The Bingamans raise vegetable and flower seedlings (grown in their own greenhouses), greens, tomatoes and more on 20 acres in Greencastle, Pa., just up the highway from Hagerstown. “We also raise some beef, and when the local fruits and vegetables come in, we grow some of our own, but also buy locally. There’s a farmer not far from here who likes to grow but doesn’t want to do markets,” Beverly Bingaman said.

Strawberries in mid-May at the Bingaman table were clearly marked as North Carolina natives.

Her booth is always clean, Bingaman said, and she offers a good variety. And it’s always packed full. “Years ago someone told me, If you sell everything you didn’t bring enough,’” she said.

Market manager Gaela Shoop said the city has supported the market for its entire 230-year history. She has added a Facebook page and a Twitter account to reach out to the next generation of tech-savvy consumers and her office takes care of advertising and special events.

For Amber Hodday of Blue Mountain Farm, the key is variety, variety, variety. “Customers like it when you have a numerous amount of different things to sell them. When we sell tomatoes, we’ll have eight different kinds, three different kinds of cucumbers, probably six different peppers,” Hodday said.

Blue Mountain Farm in Hedgesville, W.Va., offers kale, pea shoots, broccoli “picked last night,” spinach, kale, lettuce, a salad mix and a selection of local honey from Martinsburg, W.Va.

“We just try to do a good job,” said Rachel Charlton of Hickory Haven Farm. She’s been selling at the City Market for a little more than a year, she said, and tries “to have our own local food, just try to do a good job. And be friendly to customers.”

Her mid-May offerings, fresh from the farm in Stateline, Pa., included an array of lettuce — head, butter head, romaine, Grand Rapids — and bags of mixed greens and lettuces and spinach. Like most booths, Hickory Haven offers fresh harvested asparagus, spring onions and rhubarb, and throws in a rack of enormous sweet potatoes.

Charlton fills her shelves and tables with baking supplies, macaroni, brown or white rice, raw or processed sugar, quick oats, honey, jams and jellies.

Donna Litton’s tables will fill when Litton’s Produce and Berries, in nearby Fairplay, Md., ripen in the next few weeks, but she had a full supply of asparagus, rhubarb and spring onions, all picked within hours of coming to the market, and a selection of her hand-made jams.

Part of success, she said — she’s been selling at the market for seven years — “is just how it looks. If it looks good, people are apt to buy it and hopefully if they like the way it tastes, they will come back.”

A few weeks later in the season, Litton said, her tables will be overflowing with tomatoes and peppers, all kinds of summer squash, zucchini and yellow beans, watermelons and cantaloupes, and in the fall, pumpkins and squash.

“My husband does staggered planting, so the produce keeps arriving through the season,” Donna Litton said.

The Littons, Donna and Charles, with help from their seven children, sell to pick-your-own consumers at their roadside stand and they wholesale the excess to the Cronise Farm Market in Boonsboro.

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