Return to Frequently Asked Questions.

Q. Can anyone just open up a market selling food products and call it a “farmers market”?
The answer depends on what state you are in.  In most states the use of the term “farmers market” is unregulated and can be used by anyone as a marketing device.  For example, it is not uncommon in some states to see grocery stores with the term “farmers market” in their name.  However, there are a few states which control use of the term by law.  Perhaps the best example of such a law is in Maine.  Under Maine law [Maine Stat. Ann. 7 ] a farmers market is defined as “a building, structure or place used by 2 or more farmers for the direct sale of farm and food products to consumers, at which all sellers meet the requirements of subsection 2, paragraph B.”  Subsection 2 of the law provides:
”Maine
2. Prohibitions.  The following acts are prohibited.

A.  A person may not use the term “farmers market” to describe a market or other sales location that does not meet the terms of the definition set forth in subsection 1.

B. A person may not sell farm and food products at a market labeled a “farmers market” unless at least 75% of the product offered by that person was grown or processed by that person or under that person’s direction.  A product not grown or processed by that person must have been purchased directly from another farmer.

The law provides that it is a civil violation, subject to a fine of $100 to $200, to violate the prohibitions.  The law also provides that these provisions do not “prohibit a market from imposing more stringent requirements on its sellers than those imposed” by the law.
Q. Are there restrictions on where you can hold a farmers market?
The fact the term “farmers market” is generally unregulated can present opportunities for vendors.  In most states the process of creating a farmers market is relatively unregulated – meaning you don’t have to get a license or permission from any government agency.  This means local officials, church leaders, governments, or anyone interested in doing so, can decide to try and open a farmers market.  All that is needed is a place to hold the market and some farmers to sell their produce.  As to the customers, the belief (and experience) is farmers markets are like the famous baseball field built in an Iowa cornfield – if you build it they will come.  This means the most important ingredients in forming a farmers market are finding someone to sponsor it, finding somewhere to hold it, and finding farmers to sell at it.

One possible location for a farmers market is on federal property.  The government owns land in most cities and towns in America, whether it is the USDA office, the federal court house, or the post office. The USDA’s web site contains a great deal of valuable information about farmers markets, including a bibliography of publications, many by the state extension programs, on issues such as how to organize and manage a farmers market.

The USDA led by example creating a farmers market in the parking lot of the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. This experience led the USDA to promote the idea of using federal property throughout the country as possible locations for new markets.

Q. Do I need a license to sell my products at a farmers markets?
The best answer to this question is that in most states and at most farmers markets – probably not.  In most states farmers do not need a license to sell what they raise.  And even in those states or towns where such sales may be regulated, the operators of the farmers market will typically have acquired any required permits.

However, there are exceptions to this general rule.  For example, if you are selling a product which is considered a processed food rather than an agricultural product – for example, a jar of jam rather than a pint of berries – then in many states you will need some form of food processor license.  The rules on licensing for food processing are discussed in more detail in Chapter Eleven.  It is your responsibility to know when you need a license.  Many of the regulations used by farmers markets – and typically – the vendor agreement you sign to participate in the market – will specify it is your responsibility to obtain any necessary licenses and permits.

Q. Are there any states where farmers need a license to sell products at a farmers market?
There are exceptions to the general rule that you do not need a license to sell your own produce at a farmers market.  Perhaps the most significant is the California system of certified farmers markets, noted in Chapter Three.  In California the state and county agricultural commissioners administer a system created by state law which certifies both farmers markets and the farmers who are eligible to sell commodities in them.
The following discussion attempts to explain how the California system operates.

The idea is to create a system of farmers markets at which only real farmers – people who produce the food – can participate.  This gives consumers who are interested in buying farm-raised food directly from farmers an opportunity to do so.  In order to implement the system, the state uses a process whereby county officials inspect and certify both farms and farmers markets to insure they comply with state regulations.  In order to participate in a “certified farmers market” a farmer must have in his or her possession a “certified producer certificate” (CPC).  The CPC will list which products a farmer is certified to raise and sell.  Under the law certain types of farm products are treated as “certified” meaning only certified farmers can sell the products at farmers markets.  Other commodities are treated as uncertified meaning other people – as well as farmers can sell them.

Under the California system, the market managers at certified farmers markets (CFM) are responsible for helping enforce the regulations determining who can sell what at the market.  The regulations deal with issues such as “carrying” – which determines whether one producer can sell products raised by another certified producer.  Under the California rules a certified producer can only “carry” products raised by one other certified producer during the year.  The certificates for farmers and markets are required to be renewed annually.

Q. Are there examples of farmers market regulations which restrict what you can sell at a market or who can participate?
While California is the only state where the government regulates this process, most farmers markets in the U.S. have specific rules about what type of products can be sold and by who.  The most common restriction is to create what are known as “producer only” markets.  These markets require that all of the goods being sold are raised by the farmers selling them.  Different markets use varying approaches to enforce such requirements.  Some may just make it one of the market rules and use an informal system to enforce the guideline.  But other markets use a much more detailed procedure to implement “producer only” requirements.

A good example of a farmers market with a very strict system of private regulations and enforcement is the famous New York Greenmarket – “producer only” markets held at locations throughout New York City.  The Greenmarket uses a system of rules and vendor agreements to enforce what is essentially a set of private regulations.  The Greenmarket requires farmer vendors to submit a farm plan explaining what they plan to raise and sell – including quantities – before the market year begins.  Staff from the Greenmarket conduct on-farm inspections to verify the production plan is feasible and being implemented.  If producers are found to have violated their plan – or other rules of the market – they are subject to disciplinary action which can range from fines to eventual expulsion from the market.