There are many, amazing farmer’s markets in our little neck of the woods and now that it’s June, all are in full swing. It will be another month or more until we see the first tomatoes and sweet corn—the “stars” of the summer farmer’s market—but the die-hard farmer’s market shoppers are excited to see spinach, asparagus and radishes after what has seemed like an interminable winter. I’m thrilled to see customers I haven’t seen since last fall; those first few markets are like a family reunion, with everyone excited to catch up with one another. It’s not uncommon to see farmers, customers and other vendors exchanging hugs after the long hiatus.
I must confess, however, that I never used to shop at farmer’s markets. I’d drive right by the colorful groups of pop-up tents with vegetables and baked goods stacked a mile high, on my way to the big, brightly lit grocery store. I didn’t know who these people were… probably hippies selling rhubarb from their gardens. They had a “lovely hobby”. And they certainly were not serious—or “real”—farmers, right? I had a shopping list, a limited budget, and NO time to waste looking at someone’s dirty potatoes.
If you had asked me ten years ago if I planned to farm and sell our goods at farmer’s markets, I would have laughed out loud. How could someone possibly make a living selling at farmer’s markets, much less support a family on such a meager income? If there even was an income. I had driven by on many rainy, washed out days and spotted the vendors crouched under their tents, boots filling with water, chills settling into their bones, without one paying customer in sight. They looked miserable. And their efforts looked to be fruitless. What a colossal waste of time!
But as our small farming operation got its footing, I timidly put up my tent alongside a few of those “hippie” farmers. I found I had a lot to learn from these seasoned vendors—most of them real, hardworking farmers with arthritic fingers and honest dirt under their fingernails. You can’t just plop a dozen eggs on your table and hope for sales. You have to finesse your display. You have to engage your customers and answer their questions. These customers cared deeply about how my eggs (and chickens) were raised. They grilled me with their questions about feed, breeds, housing, and access to the outdoors. It has been a humbling and thoroughly engaging education.
Of course, few farmers sell their product this way. The vast majority of farmers—there’s just over 2 million of us—sells via commodity channels: Milk gets picked up by a bulk tank, grain leaves via truck or rail, and animals are shipped to be processed and sold. Selling a commodity means the farmer can concentrate on what she is good at: farming—which is hard enough in itself. The farmer doesn’t have to worry about a marketing budget, delivery schedules, packaging, shelf life, establishing a brand, customer service, negotiating prices or maintaining relationships with restaurateurs—all of which take up precious time and energy and require a unique skill set. But there is a downside. Farmers are poorly compensated, despite their hard work and foods in our grocery stores have no connection to the person who grew it. As a result, Americans have never been so far removed from how our food is grown.
That is why I sell at farmer’s markets. For an increasing number of people, the desire to reconnect to their food is driving them to the farmer’s market in droves. Over the years, our efforts in direct-to-consumer sales have been well rewarded. I get invaluable, immediate feedback from our customers. I hear the words “thank you” on a daily basis, usually several times a day. I get full mark-up on our product, at the price I set. And I have a direct relationship with the people that eat the food I raise; no middleman is needed. Yes, I sell at farmer’s markets. It is rewarding and fulfilling on every level.