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Farmers markets are testing grounds for growing a small business

Locations in Southern California offer growers and craftspeople a low-cost way to see whether they have a viable concept. But the job of getting into one of these events can be challenging.

May 10, 2010|Cyndia Zwahlen

Spring is here, and people around the Southland are flocking once again to newly bountiful farmers markets where hopeful vendors offer everything from peas to paintings.

For shoppers eager for everything fresh, local and often pesticide-free, the idea seems simple enough. But for potential merchants, the job can be surprisingly challenging.

Many markets are filled and not accepting newcomers. Others limit what kinds of products can be sold. And there can be paperwork to contend with. Still, the lure is strong. These small businesses get a chance to deal directly with shoppers, and the relatively modest operating costs and flexible time commitments can be appealing.

For many start-up food or craft businesses, landing a spot at a farmers market can be a way to test the waters for their products and try out their business skills without committing the resources needed to open a traditional store or sell to a distributor.

A major downside is that it can be surprisingly difficult to get into a market. "Waiting lists can be a year or more, depending on the market," said Lee Ostendorf, market manager for the Long Beach Local Harvest farmers market and half a dozen others.

As for arts, crafts and food vendors, state law requires them to be in a separate area, and some markets don't allow them at all. Beverly Hills, for example, has only one, a local soap maker. Others ban nonfarmers from selling food. Market managers, who are hired by the nonprofit organizations and cities that operate the estimated 550 state-certified farmers markets in California, differ in what mix of products they want.

Like the farmers themselves, who have a better shot if they offer unusual varieties, vendors are more likely to be accepted if they offer a unique item that is a fit for the neighborhood, market managers said.

Chocolatier Paola Cresti, 40, of North Hollywood hopes to sell her ganache-filled goodies at a local farmers market.

"It seemed like a good place to have a location before having to get a store — the first thing people ask you is, 'Do you have a location?'" said Cresti, who is launching theChocolatery.com after being laid off last year.

She tried the Echo Park farmers market, but the manager there thought the chocolates were too high-end for the area. Cresti was accepted at a new sister market in Canoga Park and is now dealing with health department red tape before she can open.

In addition to start-up challenges, expenses and taxes, vendors typically pay the markets a flat fee or a percentage of their receipts.

 At the popular Hollywood farmers market on Ivar Avenue, officials say many of the 100 produce stands take in about $400 on Sundays, while a few make as much as $2,500. Farmers pay 6.5% of their sales to the market. Twenty artisans bring in up to $500 each, spend $20 for a market stall and pay a 5% market fee. Sales for 30 food vendors range from $100 to $1,100, with 10% going to the market.  

Farmers markets in California were formally launched in 1977 when state regulations were changed to allow farmers to sell directly to consumers at state-certified farmers markets. Farmers must be certified by the state, which is supposed to verify that they sell only their own local products. California is one of the few states with these requirements.

The Times has an online map of farmers markets in Southern California, searchable by ZIP Code and day of the week. It can be found online at

Over time, more nonfarm food vendors and arts and craftspeople have been added to the market mix, but not all succeed. Those who do their research and treat their ventures as businesses have more luck, managers said.

Cynthia Bronte, 74, of Vista, Calif., started selling basil she had grown in her backyard greenhouses at the Encinitas farmers market 15 years ago. Customers told her they wanted pesto, and today, Basiltops, which is being turned over to her nephew, sells an array of award-winning pestos in a dozen farmers markets and specialty grocery stores.

"A farmers market," Bronte said, "is a good place to grow your business."

smallbiz@latimes.com

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