Marketing The Market

By Pat Brockway
Photos Courtesy of Oakland County Parks and Recreation

What amazed Market Manager Jeremy Brown when Oakland County Parks and Recreation (OCPR) in Michigan assumed management of the county’s Farmers Market 2 years ago was how many people in the area didn’t know the market existed, even though it had been in the same spot since 1953!

“I would talk to people who would say to me, ‘Oakland County has a farmers market?’ I knew there was work to do.”

Today, more than 300,000 people visit the market annually. The 140 producer-direct vendors represent 17 counties across the state.

When Oakland County—just north of Detroit—turned over management of the market, a survey of the facility showed it was underutilized. “The mentality of the market had been ‘get the people in and out,’” OCPR Executive Officer Dan Stencil explains. “We wanted to make it a destination. We added benches, picnic tables, and food vendors.  Donated plants and floral arrangements from our vendors were placed around the market to create a cheery ambiance.”

Brown worked with the vendors as the market underwent the transformation. Stalls were standardized, new signs were created, large color photos of fruit, vegetables, and flowers were hung, wagons were provided on-site for the convenience of customers, the facility was painted, new lighting was installed, and a better traffic flow was established. “Some of the vendors were hesitant about the changes, but I told them the longer the guests stay, the more they will spend,” he says.

Expanding Diversity
The market had operated Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays with a flea market on Sundays. The flea market was not doing well, so OCPR decided to discontinue it. Instead, Sunday became the day for special events such as Flower Day in the spring, which drew 6,000 to 7,000 people, Mom-to-Mom sales, Fall Family Day, a Community Garage Sale, and an arts-and-crafts show.

As a way to expand diversity at the market and to promote good health among the lower-income population, the market in 2013 began accepting Electronic Benefits Transfer/Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (EBT/SNAP) benefits and also Project Fresh (low-income) and Market Fresh (seniors) coupons. These programs allow more than 1.9-million people on food-assistance benefits in Michigan access to healthy, locally grown produce. The addition of these programs brought in more than $6,000 in food sales.

New this year, the market began the Double Up Food Bucks Program, which draws on a pool of funds raised from foundations to “match” purchases at participating locations. When recipients use their SNAP/EBT card to shop, they receive Double Up Food Bucks to match the amount they spend—but only on Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables. “Families have more purchasing power to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, and Michigan growers have more sales opportunities for their produce,” Brown says.

Adding Up The Costs
To publicize these new programs, a marketing plan was implemented: “Follow the Sunflower.” The county parks and recreation department partnered with Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation (SMART) to place signs with a sunflower icon at the 73 stops along the bus routes throughout the city of Pontiac, indicating transportation to the market. In addition, colorful ads were placed in the 85 buses traveling throughout the county. According to the 2010 census, 22.1 percent of Pontiac’s population lives below the poverty line. The cost of the new bus signage and EBT/SNAP reader was offset by a $50,000 Michigan Economic Development Corporation grant.

OCPR added another $75,000 to the grant funds, allowing additional programs through the market. One such program was the Small Business Development training. Scholarships were awarded to 20 market vendors to participate in a business-development and mentoring program with the Oakland County Business Center. “We felt this was important,” Stencil says. “Oakland County has a vested interest in the success of its farmers and vendors.”

Vendors are encouraged to partner up to promote the Farmer's Market and 'like' and 'share' each other's posts on social media.

The money also provided health and nutrition programs for the public with Michigan State University Extension educators and the Oakland County Health Department. Nurses from the department provide blood pressure and body mass-index screenings. Master gardeners hold a class with participants planting seedlings that attract garden pollinators. Instructors from Michigan State University Extension—Health & Nutrition teach participants how to cook with herbs in an effort to promote healthier eating with less salt.

As a cost-saving measure, the market uses community-service workers. “For example, the windows need to be washed twice a year. That’s $1,500 I save by having the community-service workers do it,” Stencil says.

Special Programming
Now that the market has been renovated, it is also available for rental for special events. For example, the Waterford Chamber of Commerce will host its second-annual ”Oakland Uncorked” wine-tasting event. Last year, the market was the site for a Cinco de Mayo celebration, and it has also hosted the Leadership Oakland Octoberfest.

Besides bringing in business to the market, the vendors are also helped by staff in providing special programming. For example, the market offers food-safety and food-licensing training. Topics include safe sampling, cottage-industry food laws, and requirements for labeling and licensing.

Airing Grievances
A new grievance procedure has also been instituted. “We take our ‘producer only’ policy very seriously,” Brown says. At least two staff members visit each vendor at their farm to confirm they are growing what they sell.

“But we were getting a lot of complaints from other vendors when they suspected that another vendor was selling something they did not produce,” he says. “To check out the grievance, it meant two staff members with a county car had to make a special trip to a farm. It could get costly and time-consuming. So under the new system, the vendor will fill out a form challenging another vendor’s produce, stating why they believe the other vendor is selling something they did not produce. Then they must give us a check for $100. If the complaint proves to be true, they are given the money back. It has cut down the number of complaints significantly.”

Partnering In Promotion
The market has also trained vendors on the use of social media. “I tell them to create a Facebook page then go in and ‘like’ and ‘share’ each other’s posts. It encourages partnering in promotion,” he says.

Brown believes the new changes at the market are making a difference. “We had one vendor who was thinking of building a greenhouse but wasn’t sure about making the investment,” he says. “Now he is building it. I think that is a compliment to the market.”

Brown’s next project is to work with area restaurants in a “farm-to-fork” program that encourages restaurants to use local vendors to provide fresh produce.

Brown says he wants to expand on the children’s offerings at the market. “We have classes come in and talk to a farmer. Then when they eat an apple, they make the connection of where it came from and they’ll say, ‘Those are Chuck’s apples.’”

Current programs for children include a walking salad class where children discover how great tasting fresh veggies can be; the construction of an ecosystem in a cup; teaching children that soil, food (compost), air, and moisture are required for a plant to live; and a class in which kids use cardboard paper rolls, honey, and birdseed to make a birdfeeder which they can take home.

“People have told me that they have been coming to the market for years. I would like the children today to someday say the same thing in the future,” Brown says.

Pat Brockway is a technical assistant with Oakland County Parks and Recreation. She can be reached at .