Local farmers fear too many vendors at markets

Jessica White

Matt Herbruck started selling produce at farmers markets in the early 1990s and saw his profits increase for years. But just as markets have become mainstream, Herbruck said competition has boomed.

Farmers in cities throughout northeast Ohio say more once-loyal customers are becoming vendors each year.

“(Haymaker Farmers Market) in particular seems to have a lot of what we sometimes call in the business ‘weekenders’ — people that have big gardens that just kind of want to come to the market and sell their extra produce,” said Herbruck, who owns Birdsong Farm in Garrettsville. “In principle, that is a little bit of a problem for someone like me.”

Many new vendors are people like Leonard and Karen McLain, who saw farmers markets as an opportunity in the downhill economy.

Karen, who had always loved baking, decided to start selling her goods when her husband Leonard lost his job several years ago. Now, Karen bakes from her home in Kent nearly every day and sells the week’s goods at markets on Fridays and Saturdays.

Cary James, owner of Stahl’s Bakery in Kent, said the increased number of vendors who bake from home has hurt her table at Haymaker Farmers Market.

“It’s a little aggravating that someone can come and be just as competitive but doesn’t have the overhead and the extra expense that we do,” she said. “Our equipment is more expensive; running a business is more expensive.”

James said she left a different market for similar reasons.

“By the second week, some of my customers had turned around to bring stuff out of their kitchens in competition,” she said.

Danielle Waskowski, who sells homemade soaps and lotions at markets in Stow and Cuyahoga Falls, said her profits have more than halved due to increased competition.

“Two or three years ago, I was making $200 or $300 a Friday night,” Waskowski said. “Now I’m down to $50 to $100.”

She said her loss is a combination of more vendors and more markets. But Waskowski, who is a market manager herself, said most managers do what they can to control the competition.

Haymaker market manager Kelly Ferry said she will only accept vendors whose products are 100 percent homegrown or homemade. She also limits the number of vendors due to space on a first come, first serve basis.

“I get between two and ten phone calls or email inquiries every week since this market opened this season — new people wanting to join,” Ferry said. “I doubt there will be room left next year because everybody wants to come back.”

Herbruck, who said he moved from a saturated market in Maine, said the numbers are something to keep an eye on, but that northeast Ohio markets are far from outstripping demand.

“The customer-base is so huge here that I don’t find (more vendors) to be a problem,” he said. “There’s a lot of demand for local produce.”

Baron Hottensmith, who sells produce and homemade scones, said it’s all about finding your niche.

“Even though some vendors that do similar things to us have seen problems due to the growth, we’ve only seen success,” he said. “I think it’s getting to know your customers and having a consistent product that people sometimes crave.”