Executive Q&A: 'Business is good' at Dane County Farmers' Market, manager says [The Wisconsin State Journal :: ]
(Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 09--Bill Lubing grew up on Lake Mendota Drive on the West Side, spent years in the newspaper and publishing industry and for six years created newsletters for the Dane County Farmers' Market.
In April, Lubing, a Memorial High School graduate, was named manager of the market, which consists of the Saturday market around the Capitol, the Wednesday market on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and indoor markets during the winter at Monona Terrace and the Madison Senior Center.
"I don't bring (an agricultural background) but I bring a business and promotion background to the market," Lubing said.
"I have an understanding of the ag (side of the business) and I love the variety of what this job is, from managing people to managing the books."
There are 288 members, with 50 vending on Saturdays and 50 to 120 during the winter.
Q: Is business good at the farmers' market?
A: Oh yeah, business is good. For some, it's excellent. For others, it's not so good. A lot of it depends on what they're selling, how many other people are selling it, what their pricing is and, probably most important, what the weather is. If you're selling something like produce where there's a lot of people selling the same thing, it's always a challenge. We're not a juried market (in which the types of vendors are limited by segment), so as long you meet the rules and guidelines, you can come in.
Q: Any idea what the average Saturday market generates in terms of revenue?
A: I don't think the market has ever tabulated it, but we would like to get an idea of that.
Q: How can a vendor increase sales?
A: I feel like the market should do what it can to help our members promote and market themselves, which has not always been the philosophy of the market. I think at this point, I believe, and I think the board does, too, that we need to do what we can to help the marketing of our individual members.
Q: What would that entail?
A: Maybe it's using a (commercial) kitchen to have it pickled. Turn it into a value-added product, something that nobody else has. Find other outlets, contact more restaurants.
The farmers' market, in a lot of ways, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot more transactions that are becoming important for our members, and I'm excited to help those along. We can and we will do more (marketing) than we do now.
I don't believe the role of the market is to simply say "There's your 16 feet. Put your table down and figure out how you're going to get people there." We need to do more outreach and see what other markets are doing and not be afraid or resistant to new ideas.
Q: You have a waiting list of about 100 people who would like to occupy space at the market. How many people leave the market each year?
A: Sometimes three leave, last year we had 11 leave. There are ways of handling waiting lists and we will be looking at some other options.
Q: What's the main challenge for the market?
A: A lot of people think we need to get more people there, but we don't. We have plenty of people there.
Our major challenge is converting people from walkers to buyers. They may have a cup of coffee and they may buy a bakery item, which is good for the bakery people, but our biggest challenge is getting people to think of this as a mainstream, legitimate way to buy a large portion of their groceries.
You've got the freshest produce in town and the most expert sellers in town. We're the largest producer market in the country. It's a different way of commerce. It's commerce with a very personal side to it. There's a relationship to it, you get to know the vendor or member and the member knows you.
Q: Is the market overpriced?
A: There are a lot of costs in what you might buy in a brick-and-mortar store that are not reflected in the product. The (produce from a store) is generally from extremely large producers, we're talking thousands of acres versus 10 acres. So if you're looking for something that was picked that morning and was generally raised more cleanly and didn't travel 2,000 miles to get here, no we're not overpriced.
Q: Is it overcrowded?
A: If everybody was carrying a recyclable or reusable bag full of groceries, I would say no. I don't think it's too crowded, but we need to get people thinking of it as a place to do their grocery shopping.
Q: Do you compete against the West Side Farmers' Market?
A: There are people that are going to the West Side market versus our market, and I know that, and there are people coming to our market versus theirs. We happen to have a lot of our members that sell at the West Side market as well. If they're doing well at the West Side market that means we're going to be doing well because it's people buying fresh. There are things you can get at our market that you can't get at theirs and vice versa. I don't really see them as competition.
Q: What type of impact would a year-round public market, proposed for East Washington Avenue, have on the Dane County Farmers' Market?
A: The dialogue, up to this point, has been fair between us the city on the public market. I would like it to be excellent. There's a whole lot of room for synergy. There's a lot that can be done as far as us and them working on projects together.
They're talking about putting in a processing kitchen, and there could be huge opportunities for us to have outings to the market and us coming over there teaching people how to process. Who knows, maybe the Dane County Farmers' Market will get space in (the public market) and we rotate vendors in there.
We've got a five-year waiting list of people that are wanting to vend at (our market) that we don't have room for on the Square. There's a lot of innovation and new products that are in the waiting list.
Q: Are members concerned?
A: I've gotten a lot of questions from members on what it might do to us, but I think it's going to be good. It's going to help bring people to the area and educate people as far as local foods.
It's like when CSAs (community-supported agriculture) started. That hasn't affected us. I think (the public market) is a natural progression for what has been happening in our area for the last 42 years.
Q: Wisconsin-grown lemon grass, ginger, peanuts and peaches are among the more unusual items that can be found at your market; what else would you would like to see?
A: Personally, I would love to see us being able to sell wine and beer. We've got a lot of small producers in this state. I don't think it's been explored.
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