Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers’ Markets

Sylvanaqua has adopted an unusual marketing model in which we forego the traditional avenues of Farmers Markets and CSA, instead focusing consumer sales almost exclusively on buyers clubs. This is the first part of a three-part series explaining the pitfalls of Farmers Markets and CSA, and the benefits of Buyers Clubs.

Links to the other articles in the series:
Part II: Four Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do CSA
Part III: Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome 

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The farmers’ market has become the primary interface between the sustainable farmer and the buying public. Once a week, farmers and conscientious consumers come together to celebrate all things local, sustainable, and organic amid dozens of storefronts bristling with fresh produce, baked goods, meats, cheeses, and other delights. It’s a truly beautiful thing… that Sylvanaqua Farms rarely ever participates in. Here’s why.

1. Weather

Nearly every farmers’ market in existence is an outdoor market, which means that after you’ve spent months barely managing the weather to get your product raised/grown and ready for sale, you have to roll the dice against the weather again just to sell it.

Rain is the worst weapon in nature’s arsenal. If it rains (or if it looks like it’s going to rain, or if it rained recently), absolutely no one is going to show up at the market. Having a low turnout at a market is a disaster, especially if there’s a lot of overlap in what the farmers are selling.

Then there’s the weather when it’s not raining. Winter markets are freezing, so no one shows up. Summer markets can be atrociously hot and bug-infested, so no one shows up. Spring and Fall have good temperatures, but Spring and Fall are often rainy. A farmer depending on farmers markets can go the entire year without a single weekend where it isn’t raining, sweltering, freezing, windy, or swarming with mosquitoes.

In short, the weather is constantly conspiring to keep people away from the market. And it really stinks when no one shows up to buy your product when…

2. Participating in a farmers market is outrageously time consuming

For the average producer at a farmers’ market, the ordeal begins the day before with hours of picking, washing (or processing), sorting, and storing produce for transport. Then the farmer wakes up at 4:30am the day of the market, takes an hour to load (now 5:30am), drives two hours to the market (now 7:30am), takes another two hours to set up tents/unload/display (now 9:30am, when the market opens). Then the market is only open for about four or five hours. When the market ends at 2:00pm, it takes an hour to take the stand down (now 3:00pm), drive home for two hours (now 5:00pm), unload (now 6:00pm), account and tally (now 8:00pm).

So that’s 15.5 hours spent the day of the market, plus about 4 hours the day before the market, so that’s 19.5 hours for one person. If you have two people helping you (and you will, if not more), you’re closing in on 60+ man-hours total. Considering that most producers are lucky to net a few hundred dollars at the end of the day, it’s not a particularly effective use of time. And speaking of wasting farmers’ time…

3. Farmers markets are more social than commercial

There are people to come to the farmers market for the same reason others show up at a supermarket: to buy groceries for a week or two. They come armed with multiple totes or their own cart, a spouse to increase the amount the can carry, and fully intend on filling up their minivan with fresh, local, organic food.

Unfortunately, those people are exceptionally rare.

Most people at markets show up without bags. That’s because they’re there to buy part of the food for a single meal, or to buy a jar of local honey, or to try a cheese wedge they can’t find at Whole Foods. Or they’re just there to look around and take in the atmosphere.

But in the worst case, they’re there to argue with the farmers about absolutely everything. This last group of people comprises perhaps less than 10% of the customers at a market, yet they occupy 90% of the farmers’ time while accounting for 0.1% of sales. This is the person that will ask you to recite the entire Virginia organic code and explain how your chickens meet each and every one of the criteria. The person that will demand you “prove” you raised your own honey and didn’t import it from China. The person that, for some reason, doesn’t want to believe there aren’t nitrates in your bacon. The person that will buy one dozen eggs, and spend 15 minutes at your register creating a line behind him as he tells you why the three hens his aunt raises on her front porch lay better eggs than yours.

Bottom line is, people aren’t really at the farmers market to shop. They’re there because they’re entertaining that night and want to be able to tell their friends what farm the food came from. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, that kind of shopping can’t keep a direct-market farmer solvent.

4. The logistics and planning will make you hate absolutely everything

It’s hard to know what to bring to the market. You don’t know what the other producers are going to bring, and you don’t know what’s going to be popular that day. If you show up with pastured chicken on a day when everyone wants Applewood-smoked bacon, or a day when you’re one of five vendors selling chicken, you’re going to have a rough day.

If you know what to bring, how much do you bring? If you don’t bring enough you’re leaving money on the table. If you bring too much, you risk losses from spoilage and increased transportation costs. Getting the inventory wrong can cost you as much as a low turnout from a rainy day.

And for the eight or so hours you’re spending at the market, you’re not on the farm. If you have pens that need moving, cattle that need rotating, animals that need watering, plants that need tending, etc., you’ve got to figure out how this is going to get done in your absence… because it has to be done. And you can’t just get up at 3:00am instead of 4:30am; moving animals too early or off routine will affect performance, and nighttime horticulture work is prohibitively difficult.

Even if you stumble across a crystal ball and know what to bring, and exactly how much, there’s still the issue of…

5. Market rules

There’s a fee to get on the waiting list to sell at the market. Then there’s a fee to set up at the market. After that, the market may charge a commission on all your sales. Be ready to contend with the fact that most markets are producer-only markets, meaning that you can’t sell your neighbor’s pumpkins because you didn’t grow them, even though its Halloween. Next there’s the seasonality aspect – if the markets aren’t closed in winter, they’re so poorly attended that you can’t possibly make a profit. Then there are other little things that markets sometimes do: surprise inspections at the farm, certification requirements, and sales audits among them.

None of these things are bad. Markets have overhead they need to cover, and they need to make sure that people aren’t just buying food on the cheap from Costco and reselling it for a quick buck. But the rules, fees, time commitment, and headaches can add up to farmers’ markets ultimately being a losing proposition for the actual farmer.

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See the next article in this series, Four Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do CSA, or skip right to the end and see the Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome.

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