Whether you plan to sell your entire greenhouse crop or only your extra plants and vegetables, they are easier to market than you might assume. The larger the greenhouse the more advance marketing you will need to do, but the healthy appearance of your plants and the freshness of your vegetables will attract interest from potential customers. Your crops will exceed the quality of most plants found in local nurseries and vegetables sold in grocery stores. If you have done your research in advance, you can include more varieties of interest to local gardeners and cooks.
Do not be shy about letting potential customers know they are getting a better product. Take time to answer customers’ questions, provide information about correct planting times for plants, and offer nutritional information about your vegetables. Sales personnel at large stores usually know very little about the quality, source, or growing conditions of the plants and vegetables they sell.
Tell customers your plants are grown without growth regulators, are still rapidly growing, and will produce abundantly in their flower and vegetable gardens. Point out heirloom varieties and proven performers for your local climate and soil type. Pull plant plugs out of their pots or cell pack to show customers their healthy root systems.
Let customers know your vegetables are fresh, picked recently, and that you use only certified organic methods of pest control. Provide bite-size samples of garden-variety tomatoes to create excitement about their homegrown flavor.
If your greenhouse is on or near a well-traveled road, you can sell directly from the greenhouse. For smaller greenhouse producers, just letting your friends and neighbors know you will have early vegetables or extra plants available for their gardens will generate business. Some vegetables can be picked on-demand, letting the customer select the lettuce, tomatoes, and other vegetables they want. For larger producers, the greenhouse can be opened to the public. Place an early sign, announcing the opening date and products available, where passing customers will see it. Neighbors, previous customers, vegetable and flower vendors, and landscapers are all potential customers. Some can be contacted in advance to negotiate retail contracts and their orders can be picked up at the greenhouse when they are ready.
Regardless of your greenhouse size, accurately label all plants and post prices for plants and vegetables. Before allowing customers into the greenhouse, make sure it meets commercial regulations for greenhouse sales, if there are any. Close all areas not open to the public and provide safe customer areas for adults and children. Provide adequate off-road parking. Research insurance requirements and prepared to collect sales tax, if necessary.
If you have a farmers’ market in your area, check it out the year before. What products could you grow that are not being sold there? Farmers’ market customers seek out early garden-variety tomatoes, lettuce, and beans. Since many customers assume that tomatoes raised early in a greenhouse have no flavor, cut up bite-size pieces for them to sample. Once they taste that great homegrown flavor, they will tell their friends about it and return week after week for more tomatoes and other vegetables.
There are private and public locations where plants and early vegetables can be sold. Local gas stations, mall parking lots, apartment building complexes, and small groceries/delis may let you sell for a small fee. A variety of plants and early vegetables can be sold from the front yard of a friend, who lives on a busy road, especially during 3–6 p.m. when people are picking up children from school and going home from work. A local church or community organization may let you sell from their parking lot following their meetings for free or a modest donation of plants and vegetables for their own use.
If you are raising specialty plants, not easily found locally, you can sell online and mail order. Three local plant businesses sell this way, offering a variety of herbs, exotic plants, and hard-to-find heirloom flower bulbs. It takes a little longer to establish a customer base but, with the right product, it can be done.
Never price your best–quality plants and vegetables below the prevailing retail price. Customers will gladly pay more than the local retail price because your plants are healthier and your vegetables are fresher and of higher quality. For naturally grown vegetables, available before the normal growing season for your area, a premium price can be charged. I always sell early tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, and green beans for more than prices charged in local grocery stores, sometimes charging up to twice the price. Prices may go up and down in the stores, but I select a price and continue at that price until local produce is available in large supply.
Misshapen vegetables can be sold for less. Some people who won’t pay higher prices for the well-shaped produce will discover the superior quality of your vegetables and eventually pay full price when “seconds” are not available. This is especially true for garden-variety tomatoes and fresh-picked greens and beans.
Because I begin selling vegetables early, my crops are usually gone by the end of July when local crops are available in large quantity and prices are lower. The greenhouse can then be cleaned out and vegetables replanted August through October for late fall and winter crops.
Keep packaging of vegetables to a minimum. Small vegetables, like cherry and salad tomatoes, can be prepackaged in small, open containers. Larger items can be sorted by type and price, arranged in large boxes, or placed on the table. Vegetables can be priced by the pound, by the container, or individually. People like to be able to touch, smell, and inspect vegetables. Provide sacks and allow customers to fill them with as much or as little of each type of vegetable as they want. Then you can weigh and price them.
When the quality of your naturally raised plants and vegetables becomes well known, you may receive wholesale orders from local nurseries, landscapers, restaurants, and specialty stores. If you want to expand, selling wholesale will be tempting but, before you accept wholesale contracts, determine a wholesale price that allows you to make a fair profit for your labor. Retailers are used to a wholesale price that may be lower than you can afford to meet. If they want your plants or vegetables because they recognize their superior quality, they will try to work with you and pay you the price you need. If not, don’t sell below a wholesale price that allows you a reasonable profit. Otherwise, you will find yourself working for less than minimum wage or will be out of business very soon.
To expand, keep looking for other retail contracts. Add new varieties to your retail plant and vegetable sales, so that each customer has more products to buy. Your sales will expand, and your profit margin will continue to be higher.
Gini Coover is the author of The Natural Greenhouse, Growing Plants and Food for Profit. She has grown greenhouse plants and vegetables for over thirty years.