Our "home market" (and favorite, candidly), Western Wake Farmers' Market
Yesterday marked the end of our fourth regular farmers’ market season. Over the years, we’ve sold at many regional markets, and we’ve learned a thing or two about the ins and outs of selling at markets and festivals. Here are my observations on the good, the bad, and the ugly of having farmers’ markets as part of your livelihood.
1. The customers. I was interviewed recently, and asked what I liked best about our small business. It only took me a second to realize it’s the customers. You meet some of the nicest people at farmers’ markets. Really.
2. It creates a healthy, pleasant habit. Before we started our business, we were market shoppers. But it’s fair to say we weren’t market regulars. Working in farmers’ markets forces you to shop there, if for no other reason than you don’t have time to go elsewhere. After four years of eating exclusively farmers’ market foods, we feel better. Period. And it’s one of the few places anymore where you can linger for hours (as a customer, too), have pleasant conversation, and not spend a fortune.
3. It puts you in synch with time and place as it relates to your food, and makes you a more discerning consumer. We are now exquisitely sensitive to locale, seasonality, producer, and quality. Having foods out of context (wrong place, wrong time) now seems odd.
4. It’s less expensive. I realize this statement is not viewed universally as an immutable truth. But I’ve analyzed it extensively for our family, and even started a separate blog (http://foodwhisperer.wordpress.com) dedicated to helping people get the same results we get.
5. You experience a sense of community. Honestly, this is our version of church. Getting together once a week with people who believe the same things you believe, forming friendships, and working toward a greater good are common to both organized religion and farmers’ market communities.
Being a farmers’ market aficionado is not without drawbacks, but it’s fair to say I would put most of those negatives in the same category as “overused strengths”.
1. It becomes difficult to eat away from home. Seriously. The extraordinarily poor quality of the average American diet becomes a bigger issue to overlook once you’ve experienced the profound difference of eating seasonally and locally. I know this sounds like a bizarre concern, but after a few years of eating well it becomes a real issue. And if you have young children, it’s a challenge to keep them from blurting out the obvious in public or with friends. My daughters have on a few occasions done things like call supermarket mozzarella on a friend’s caprese salad “plastic cheese” , and asked my mother in January “where did you get asparagus this time of year?”. From the mouths of babes…
2. It’s a tough way to make a living. Selling at farmers’ markets is seriously hard work, and the pay is pretty paltry. The expenses are not insignificant, either. Market fees alone are about $1000 a season (per market). Then there’s equipment, especially trucks, since you need one for each market that is happening simultaneously (and they all want seem to want to be on Saturday mornings). Even the “minor” expenses aren’t minor – $50 tables last a few seasons, a $250 tent might be good for 2 or maybe 3 seasons, we need lots of $100 coffee urns that get banged up pretty good in a season, totes to carry things in are $30-50 each… the list goes on. Then there’s labor, insurance, and more.
3. Not all customers are nice. Even though I said (and meant) above that the customers are the best part of farmers’ markets, there are a few bad eggs. All I’ll says is it’s amazing what some people expect for for a few bucks.
State Market, raleigh, NC. This is the WalMart of farmers' markets.
1. The way some markets are run is stupid and/or corrupt. I’m speaking primarily about markets where government has a hand in them somehow. I understand it’s the prerogative of private operators to create any rules or fees they desire, or even act on whims when they want to, especially as it relates to the admission of vendors (or not) to a market. But once a government invests in a market, my opinion is that they have an obligation to provide a good return on investment to their constituents, and to allow reasonable access to vendors who are part of the tax base that pays for the market. In my opinion, most government-involved markets do neither. The NC state market is, in my opinion, one of the most poorly managed public resources in the state, to the point I would call the management at best incompetent, and more likely corrupt, based on my own experiences with them, and the experiences of friends I trust. And complaints to the Commissioner of Agriculture evoke exactly the response you would expect: cricket chirping.
2. Save the world mentalities. I suppose this is the other side of the “farmers’ markets are like churches” coin. Bright, passionate, opinionated people tend to have a missionary zeal to share their opinions with everyone, and if possible, force everyone to have behave in the ways they think are right. The problem is, when the do so, inevitably the Law of Unintended Consequences kicks in. The recently enacted S-510 food safety legislation is a good example. In response to food safety problems (which were the result of things that were already illegal), people (including farmers’ market people) pushed legislators into enacting tougher food safety laws. The result for most producers is simply higher costs without improved safety. Now they’re at it again with GMO labeling. The sad (pathetic?) part of it is that nothing currently prevents them from seeking out the producers who do things the way they favor, from creating the food communities they want, educating people, and eating the foods they think are safe. Instead, it’s all about imposing their world view on mainstream shoppers. And they talk about it like there is only upside, while failing to acknowledge the likely, nay, inevitable downside consequences of their proposed mandates.
3. Farmers growing real food are struggling more than ever. When I say real food, I mean vegetables you can actually eat, which the USDA ironically calls “specialty crops”. We’ve watched our CSA partners over 4 years lose about 30% of their customer base. We personally know farmers on the verge of bankruptcy, and others who need food stamps to make ends meet. Farming has always been tough, but I think the past few years have taken tough to a new level.
So how does all this relate to you?
Well, potentially in a few ways:
1. If you’re thinking about becoming a market vendor, inquire informally with other vendors and the market management about your chances of being admitted. For a good, established market, your odds are a little better than hitting the lottery, but for sure it’s not a slam dunk.
2. If you’re looking for a positive life change, become a regular market shopper. It’s pretty much all upside as a consumer.
Hope to see you at a farmers’ market soon!