It’s 11 am and most of our harvest is sold. This is good, because the quantities of what we’ve been bringing have been fine. Still, with no early tomatoes, late green beans, not much summer squash, a wiped out first planting of cucumbers, and hail-killed first round of much of the peppers and eggplant, the pickings feel a little slim. It’s funny how variety seems to work at the market (and probably in the CSA shares as well): the greater the selection, the happier people seem to be, even though they don’t really buy more, or still buy mostly the same things. Maybe it’s because, as consumers (here in North America, at least), we’re so accustomed to being wooed by apparent choice, a regular parade of the “new” and the “improved” and cleverly repackaged, that having the same staple crops for a couple of weeks in a row makes the stand seem a bit stale. It’ll be…amusing to see outlooks change if (when) fresh food starts to get scarce. Well, all in all, a good day at the farmers’ market!
Tiny farming: sales
With the poor weather-driven slow growth and setbacks (like, hail), Friday harvests so far this year have been nothing like last year, much easier, less to do, relaxed. There are usually three to five people for all or part of the day, compared to six to eight last season. Comparisons don’t mean much on a practical level—the season you’re in is what you’ve got!—but it’s interesting, and human nature, I guess, to rank and rate and contemplate. Michelle has become this year’s mesclun cutting specialist, cruising in later in the afternoon and slicing up 60-70 lbs (approx. 30 kg) in no time. This year, depending on the veg, we’re doing about 20-40 units for sale, and around 30 for CSA shares for pick-up at the farmers’ market. Harvest on!
Finally, this year’s field-planted all-lettuce mesclun and spinach were ready for harvest, and that’s all I brought in to the farmers’ market, but in decent quantity. Unfortunately, I still underestimated and was sold out by 10:30 (the market runs 7:00am-1pm). It kinda looks good, being sold out, but really, if you’re doing things right at the market, you want to go home with a very little bit left over. That means you’ve brought enough for everyone who comes by, and have enough to display more than the last one or two of each veggie—it’s a pretty tried-and-true rule that selling the last of anything is harder, one of the few rules that seem useful to me. Overall, I don’t give much thought to sales tactics: with really fresh, high quality veggies, clean presentation, and a (genuinely) cheerful, helpful presence, word of mouth should do the rest. But making the food look attractive I think is a pretty basic part of food enjoyment and…celebration, and having enough for an inviting display right till the market ends is part of that. Of course, selling all you can is another part…the farm may be tiny, but there are still things to buy and normal-sized bills to pay! ;)
Last year, a little experiment with veggie sales in a town 12 miles (19km) away didn’t go so well. I guess you could sum it up as No Quality Control. This year, in line with the tiny farming trick of thinking SMALLER, I had the sudden idea to put some veggies in at the convenience store three minutes down the road in the village. This is now the only store for quite a ways around, and it has the post office where everyone in the village picks up their mail. Since I’m always meaning to get the farm stand fully open, putting veggies out a couple of minutes away hadn’t quite made sense, but the way it came to mind now was a little different. If I could get a single shelf in one of the coolers, this would be an interesting, easy way to learn about veggies and refrigeration, and even be able to watch a mini version of the supermarket, convenience-shopping experience, by seeing what sells, the effects of labels and pricing, and…whatnot. All on the most casual level. Refrigeration is, of course, yet another of those many worrisome topics that come up along with Peak Oil and the generally somewhat alarming state of the world, BUT, fridges will likely be around as long as any number of other taken-for-granted things, I figure, so whatever’s learned from a little, low-impact experiment like this should be worth it. It’s an extremely simple set-up, with a small sign taped to the inside of the cooler door, hand-labeled bags, and an honor-system account book for inventory. I also like the idea of super-fresh garden veggies popping up in this most unlikely place, just below the shelf where a few supermarket-purchased veggies are kept for resale. Outpost 2, the Shelf, has been open for around three weeks now, stocked with ones and twos of mesclun and spinach, a few radishes, some herbs. I’m by there every day anyway, so I check the veggie condition often…and things are selling… Interesting enough…!
The mildly ambitious veggie outpost experiment of earlier this year has returned in pieces. The stand came back today, courtesy of Conall, who took it apart and dropped it off (you can’t help but notice, he’s pretty thorough when it comes to taking things apart…). In any case, a nearby coffee shop wanted to sell a small, choice selection of organic veggies. They were buying upfront at normal prices and marking them up a bit. Our part was to harvest once or twice a week, and deliver (only 12 miles)â€”building the stand was basically a last-minute favor… Why it didn’t work came down to that simple consideration that supermarkets are built on: SHELF LIFE. The coffee shop couldn’t get a handle on how to keep the veggies perky and fresh. I heard about an attempt to revive baby eggplants, shriveling after a day in the sun, by misting them like salad greens. Yikes. I would’ve helped if I could’ve, but I have zero experience with storage in a store-type situation. I’d kinda assumed that, since they prepare and sell food, they were equipped to figure it out. Not so. At the farmers’ market, I start in the cool early morning, it’s only six hours, and the veggies move quickly, so it’s all fine, without refrigeration or cooling, even on the hottest summer days. But keeping displayed veggies perfectly presentable for even a couple of days is a whole other specialized thing. Anyhow, after six weeks or so, we stopped. There was no ill will or anything, and we continued to supply mesclun for their salads for the rest of the season. The bottom line is a lesson I learned long ago, but failed to act on in this case: when you’re involved in something NEW, if there’s no plan that clearly deals with the DETAILS, chances are there will be…TROUBLE. I look forward to tackling this particular puzzle—how to handle daily fresh veggie sales—next year, when we FINALLY open the farm stand. ;)
The veggie selection changes over the season, but it’s not necessarily reflected too dramatically on the stand at the farmers’ market this year. Compared to mid-August, the absence of snap beans and tomatoes is clear (with the mild weather, some vendors did have standard field tomatoes today). As for early June, well, more variety now is to be expected. Still, most of the cool-season crops for around here, like broccoli, cauliflower, and collards, also, winter squash, I have only enough of for CSA. On the stand, two types of radish (White Icicle, French Breakfast), three types of beet (Golden Detroit, Scarlet Supreme, Bull’s Blood, in smaller sizes here), two types of carrot (Nelson, Purple Haze), Red Russian kale, two types of bok choi (Mei Quing, Joi) and mesclun, plus Yukon Gold potatoes, Music garlic and Stuttgarter onions in baskets. The stand could be a lot bigger, offering more display space, and the harvest could be expanded (there are still herbs, summer squash, sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, Brussels sprouts,…) but the marginal sales for many “secondary” veggies at this slowing down time of year don’t make it worthwhile. I’m still working on the balance between production planning, labor, harvest selection, post-harvest prep, and presentation… Sounds complicated, but it’s just…work! ;)