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Farmers Markets

Here are two things that happened to me last week.

First: I sent a message on my old condo’s listserv letting the residents know that I’ve set up a farm hub there, and that they can order fresh/local/etc. produce and meat directly from a farmer who’s not only local, but one that literally owns a unit in the building. A few days later, a non-profit CSA aggregator (a 501c3 non-profit) who apparently has a rep in the building, sent a nearly identical email out on the same listserv advertising a 10% early bird special on their CSA shares.

Second: I’m driving around Charlottesville delivering food and running errands, and everywhere I go, I see the delivery truck for an increasingly popular online grocery store whose name rhymes with “we lay crudes.” They weren’t following me of course; it was just sheer coincidence. But seeing that gigantic shiny green truck in the rearview of my 100,000-mile, farm-dusted F-150 for two hours was quite the visual metaphor for what local farmers determined to remain independent are up against.

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

Independent farmers committed to sustainable agriculture turned their backs on the ConAgras and Cargills of the world, determined to free themselves from poverty, debt, commodity pricing, and a litany of other unhealthy farming realities. Using farmers markets and door-to-door sales, they blazed a trail leading back to independence – they determined to take as close to100% of the food dollar as possible to secure the financial stability that’s necessary to steward the land properly without relying on government grants and other forms of ecological charity.

The rest of the world is understanding that this is a good thing. Dollars are quickly flowing into local/organic/sustainable and, just as quickly, well-intentioned organizations are springing up that threaten to erode the foundations of the Local movement. Here are three good reasons why you, as a consumer, should take the time to cultivate relationships with farmers and buy directly from them… and here’s why we, as farmers, need to do a much better job of direct marketing our products:

1. Centralization in agriculture is bad.

Modern agriculture is a hot mess. Giant corporations pay next to nothing for agricultural commodities produced by farmers whose financial incentive is to produce as much as possible at all costs. The corporations consolidate the commodities, process them, and then distribute them across the country and around the world. This system leaves the environment degraded, the farmer in poverty, and the consumer with an outrageously unhealthy diet and the manifold consequences thereof. Why are things this way?

Consolidators have investors to consider, so they must grow profits. To grow profits, they must reduce their costs. Consolidators – whether it’s Walmart or ConAgra – reduce their costs, and thus their prices, by squeezing their suppliers. The ability to do this comes, ironically enough, by enlisting more and more suppliers to service more and more customers. As these customers pile into the consolidators’ stores, they create an ever-strengthening vise that the consolidators use to squeeze their suppliers.

Sometimes.

Sometimes.

Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the consolidators have enough customers and suppliers to offer prices so low that suppliers can’t survive on their own. At this point, the consolidator owns the supplier, and the supplier begins making tradeoffs to meet the price set by the consolidator. For Walmart’s suppliers, this might mean closing American factories and sourcing the work to Asia to reduce labor costs. For ConAgra’s suppliers, this might mean using genetically modified seed and contracting to feedlots to reduce unit costs.

Online grocery stores, even the Local-oriented ones with the big green truck, are consolidators with investors to consider (that’s how they got the big green truck). Right now they’re fairly small and don’t have enough customers to force farmers to take their prices, but one day and with enough customers, they will. Perhaps they won’t apply the squeeze when they’re able, but capitalism’s record of self-restraint is not encouraging.

2. Government subsidies in agriculture are bad

Some CSA consolidators, like the one that’s more or less competing with me in my condo, are non-profits that operate with government grants, tax-deductible donations (another kind of government grant), and self-generated revenue.  On its face, that may seem like a good thing: people like to think of sustainable agriculture as an enterprise too pure to be stained by the pursuit of profit, so going the non-profit route presents a pleasing image of donation-funded hippie farmers sitting above the earthly fray of markets. So what’s the problem?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Here are two things that the giant 1,000-acre GMO corn farmer and the 501c3 non-profit local CSA have in common: they are utterly dependent on government largesse. The corn farmer would be out of business tomorrow without the commodity payment and insurance programs in the Farm Bill, and the non-profit CSA would be out of business tomorrow without the tax-deductions allowed its donors and the ability to receive municipal/state/federal grants. This dependence has consequences.

The first consequence is volatility. Remember all the talk of milk prices doubling if the latest Farm BIll remained stalled in Congress? And if that non-profit CSA loses 50% of its government funding, they’re going to have to either fold the business or make up the difference at the register, either option promising to spike the prices of your CSA shares.

The second consequence is the artificial lowering of the price of food. Many non-profits use their donations and grants to reduce food costs at the register, usually to service low-income customers. While I absolutely agree that low-income individuals should have affordable access to food that’s fit to eat, I also believe that artificially lowering the price through subsidies is not the way to do it. If SNAP, WIC, or CSA grants get cut, low income folks are back to poisoning themselves with ramen noodles and Hot Pockets. Farmers should instead be working to lower the real price of food with things like multistory and closed-loop agriculture, perennial and locally-adapted systems, and a refusal to take on debt. That way, good food remains affordable no matter who’s in Congress. Government subsidies, however, remove the financial incentive to pursue these innovations, which leads to the third consequence, which is…

Opportunity cost. It’s very difficult for market-oriented, innovative, socially/economically/ecologically-sustainable, independent farms to get off the ground when their competitors are “juicing” on government funding. We know these utopian farms are possible – Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm being prime examples – but we’re going to see a lot fewer of them if we continue to believe that government money belongs in agriculture.

3. The solution is so much better

Consolidators, whether they’re government funded CSAs or investor funded online grocery stores, are not evil. They simply exist because they’re filling a niche that farmers have failed to fill ourselves. Local food is not as accessible as it should be, the farms producing the food are few and far between, and many of them aren’t oriented toward direct marketing off the farm itself. Any farmer knows that a bare patch of earth, left alone, will sprout a giant tap-rooted weed that will become almost impossible to deal with if it’s ignored for too long. Likewise, the need for convenience and accessibility in Local food is much like that patch of exposed earth; instead of nature filling it with pokeweed, capitalism is filling it with consolidators.

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck...

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck…

Changing this would require a massive proliferation of small farms, and the creation of farmer-owned cooperatives that could handle distribution beyond the farm – especially into cities. The reasoning is simple: if there are lots of farms everywhere then they are more accessible; farmers don’t have to take commodity prices and become slaves to the distributors if the farmers are the distributors.

Getting more farmers into the field and organizing cooperatives is going to take some work, and will become a focus of Sylvanaqua once our production is established, we’ve turned a small profit, and we’ve thuys demonstrated that this model of ours can, in fact, work. Stay tuned, stay positive, and buy direct from your local farmer!

Chris Newman
Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms

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Our farm is dedicated not just to responsible, healthy, accessible food, but also to changing the very model that our country uses to produce and consume food. We’ve said before that being certified organic doesn’t go far enough to affect this change; in this article we take a look at a few more reasons that eating local beats both organic and conventional. And at the end, we give you a sneak preview of what our “dream” food model looks like.

1. Local really is more nutritious

An organic controversy exploded in 2012 when a Stanford University study asserted that there’s no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventionally raised foods. Stanford, along with many other food scientists and supporting institutions, make the claim that the only substantial drivers of nutritional content in food are genetics and freshness. If you take two seeds from an identical heirloom plant, raise one on a conventional farm, the other on an organic farm, and harvest and eat them at the same time, there will be virtually no difference between the two.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Supporters of organics naturally (hehe) fired back, citing everything from the university’s relationship with agro-giant Cargill to alleged technical flaws in the study itself. Importantly, however, critics of the study did not attack its underlying premise: that genetics and freshness are what really matters when it comes to nutritional content.

When you make the decision to ignore the labels, buy local, and source all your food from a nearby ecological farm, this controversy immediately loses meaning for you. If you’re buying heirloom produce from a farm less than an hour away, you’re pretty much guaranteed two things: 1.) you’re getting plant genetics at least as good as what you’d find in an organic market, and 2.) you’re getting your produce at the peak of freshness, especially if you visit the type of farm that lets you pick produce yourself. The only way to get fresher food would be to disguise yourself as a cow during the day, graze the fields with the rest of the herd, and hope the farmer doesn’t notice.

Soon.

Soon.

2. Local really does taste better

It’s not hard to find people – especially those who patronize expensive restaurants – that will insist that organic food tastes hands-down better than conventionally raised food. Unfortunately, those people would be proven wrong by a slew of blind taste tests in which people truly can’t tell the difference between stuff that’s grown in a chemical-bound psedo-soil and compost-pampered supersoil.

Much like nutrition, taste is largely the effect of freshness and genetics. For eggs, meat, and dairy, the inputs that create them are also a very significant factor… but one whose positive effect on the taste of the food is correlated with freshness.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

As great as organic farming is compared to its conventional counterpart regarding environmental impact, it gleefully shares conventional ag’s most glaring structural problem: centralized distribution. This model of distribution underlies the efficiency that some would argue is modern agriculture’s biggest strength, but it also underlies its biggest weaknesses: the ecological compromises demanded by farming for economies of scale, and products whose nutrition and taste suffer from shipping (to distribution facilities and markets) and waiting (in markets to be bought).

Do you find it strange that you can buy organic sweet corn and vine tomatoes at health food markets in January? If you don’t, then you should. That sweet corn and that big red ‘mater, being more than six months out of season, are both going to taste like hot-house garbage. If you buy from an ecological farm, however, this isn’t going to be a problem because an eco-farmer worth her salt will not grow things out of season, even in a greenhouse. Shopping for groceries at such a farm ensures that you’re buying food in season and at the peak of freshness, which is the ONLY way to guarantee your food is at the height of its nutritional content and taste.

3. Local really is best for the environment

Conventional and organic farming have something else in common besides centralized distribution: they’re founded on the idea that you have to fight nature to produce enough food for civilized society. The only difference between the two is that organic farmers are following the rules of gentlemanly warfare, while the conventional farmers are whipping out the nukes and mustard gas.

To be sure, organic farming is much gentler on the environment than conventional farming. The “Three Cs” of organic farming are compost, cover crops, and crop rotation; together, these are intended to minimize the effects of farming on the environment and reduce risks to public health. The first “C”, compost, provides natural soil fertility without frying soil life the way synthetic fertilizers do. The second, cover crops, prevents soil erosion and runoff pollution while improving soil structure and nutrient content after cash crops are harvested. The third, crop rotation, interrupts cycles of pests and diseases by taking away their food sources.

So... what do they eat?

So… what do they eat?

The Three C’s, unfortunately, do not address organic agriculture’s reliance on monocultures. A monoculture is what you get when you have a whole bunch of the same plant (or animal) covering a large area. This is something you almost never see in nature because, in nature, such a state can’t persist for very long. If a 50 acre field were to spontaneously sprout nothing but corn, then the beetles and armyworms would soon follow. With a gigantic food source and no habitat for their predators, these pests would reproduce explosively until all the corn was gone, at which point the they would starve to death. Their decaying bodies and rotting corn husks would cover the soil with new organic matter while the occasional breeze or four-legged creature would deposit various seeds from elsewhere. Over time, a new and balanced ecosystem would develop – one that would invariably be a polyculture rather than a monoculture. I won’t say that monocultures aren’t “natural” since “natural” is such a slippery term. But I will say that we’re swimming against nature’s current when we use monocultures, and that’s a dangerous proposition when we’re relying on them to stay alive.

If there’s one thing your small, local family farm probably doesn’t have, it’s a 50 acre cornfield. These little farms generally use hoophouses and/or raised garden beds to produce plants in polycultures that are much more environmentally sound. And while these fruits and veggies don’t provide the staples we rely on from corn and soy, there are permaculture farms coming online using tree guilds to replace them both affordably and with ecological soundness. Most of these operations are small family farms that need your patronage in order to succeed.

4. It’s the only way to make responsible food affordable

America’s food model is broken because it demands an interface between the consumer and the producer in the name of efficiency and centralized profit.* Proponents of this model will argue that such ruthless efficiency is necessary in order to meet demand; a dubious claim considering that America trashes nearly half it’s food.

"Smashes" rhymes with "trashes."

“Smashes” rhymes with “trashes.”

The organic movement, God bless it, does not address the structural flaw in this model. It instead funnels food into the same broken system as its conventional adversary (or parent company) using a production method that’s much less efficient. With its misguided focus on markets and monocultures, organic farms fight a relentlessly uphill battle against the efficiency of conventional farming’s chemical marvels and the inertia of mother nature’s ecological inclinations. The result? The most difficult, expensive food on planet Earth.

But in spite of the cost, farmers markets and agritourism are booming at the same time unprecedented public outrage is being directed at GMO, feedlots, and big agribusiness. The enormous demand for organic, relative to its supply, is one of the drivers of its high price. If we could only lower the price of responsible food to make it accessible to the average person, the sustainable food movement would be on its way to fulfilling its mission of saving the world by feeding it. This is where your local permaculture farm comes in.

Permaculture farms are those that intensively mimic natural systems to produce food that’s both ecologically sound and affordable. The affordability stems from a number of things: reliance on perennials that only need to be planted once; emphasis on forage rather than feed for livestock; selection of locally-adapted plants and animals that require minimum human intervention; focus on a hyperlocal customer base that does most of the harvesting; adoption of multistory agriculture (fungi, ground covers, tall annuals, bushes, and trees occupying the same space) to improve efficiency; providing the diversity of products that allows the farm to replace the supermarket.

Taking central Virginia as an example, the new agricultural model here would have 1,400 small (20 – 30 acres) plantations set up near population centers, each providing food for the 160 or so people living with the immediate vicinity of that farm. People would go to these farms to do most of their food shopping; the Whole Foodses and Harris Teeters would be for the things you can’t get locally – coffee, spices, citrus, etc. The time a farmer would ordinarily spend every year planting, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, shipping, etc. would instead be spent on value adding (e.g. milling wheat into flour, grinding corn into hominy, smoking bacon, baking bread) and surveying the neighborhood to see what products her customers want more or less of.

"Coming right up!"

“Coming right up!”

This model doesn’t exist yet, but it can in your lifetime. All you have to do is make a commitment to cultivate a relationship with a local farmer, make a commitment to buy from her as often as you can, and of course stay tuned to our website as we work to make this model a reality for everyone.

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

*Before my more conservative readers accuse me of Marxism, please know that I’m not a proponent of socializing or nationalizing food production (notwithstanding charity). Farmers and those who own farms should enjoy comfortable lives financially to the extent their talents will allow them to steward the land responsibly. It is another matter entirely for Monsanto to advocate for market-divorced commodity subsidies, soil-killing chemicals, seed patents, and a factory farm system that brutalizes both farmer and animal… all in the name of its stock price and at the expense of literally everyone in the world.

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 second 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 I: Five Reasons Sylvanaqua doesn’t do Farmers Markets
Part III: Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome 

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A few months ago, before we started the farm, we were looking into ways to direct market our products to consumers. It wasn’t long before we came across Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA is wonderful in theory: consumers and producers share risk and a more intimate relationship, people eat locally and seasonally, and it gets folks out of the supermarket.

But coming from a consulting background (I know. Sorry.), I couldn’t help but notice that the actual implementation of CSA is rather awkward. And after attending a seminar at Polyface Farms and having by concerns with CSA seconded by perhaps the world’s most famous farmer, we decided to forego CSA altogether in favor of buyers’ clubs. Here’s why:

1. Inconsistency in Units

The central unit of measure in CSA is the share. It’s a pretty simple concept: you sign up for shares of meat, eggs, produce, dairy, etc., and every week a box of said product is either delivered to your home or picked up by you at a central location like a farmers’ market. Shares may involve X pounds of meat, Y pounds of fruits and veggies, etc.

The problem with shares is two-fold. First, figuring out what constitutes a share for a particular farm can be fairly confusing, and gets more confusing when you’re dealing with things like quarter shares, half shares, our double shares. Second, once you’ve finally figured out what a share is for a given farm… that definition almost never translates to another farm. For Farm A, a meat share might be 5 lbs of pork. For Farm B it’s 3 lbs of lamb and 6 lbs of ground beef. For Farm C it’s the same as Farm B, but it includes eggs and the price is twice as high.

None of these things are a problem for people who are truly committed to eating fresh, local, beyond-organic food. But they are a problem for people who are on the fence about where they get their food; the ooey-gooey middle of culinary swing voters who comprise the biggest opportunity of market share capture for natural farmers. These are people who would like to buy naturally raised/grown food, but aren’t fanatical about it, and will head to the supermarket at the drop of a hat if the alternative is too difficult. These are folks who don’t want to spend 10 minutes per farm figuring out exactly what a share is, and then another hour or two (or more) comparing apples and oranges of shares of different farms to figure out what constitutes a fair price.

In short, if we want to appeal to the largest potential market, we have to make it as easy as possible for them to buy directly from us. CSA can’t do that with its ambiguous definition of a share, and it certainly can’t do that when..

2. It’s surprisingly difficult to get into a CSA

Before we started the farm, my wife and I wanted to sign up for a CSA so that we’d have an incentive to go to the farmers market each and every week (sometimes, you want to do something else with your Saturday morning). That’s when I came across something disturbing: getting into a CSA can be more difficult than getting into an exclusive nightclub dressed in a burlap sack.

I’d assumed that signing up for a CSA would be a simple matter of filling out an online form. Put in your name, address, phone number, email, select your shares, pick a drop off location, put in a payment method, agree to some T.O.S. regarding seasonal availability and risk, and done. Right?

No.

There were rarely any online forms; you usually have to make a phone call or write prose to an email address. And once you do, you’re often told that there’s a waiting list. Again, the true-believers in the natural food movement will happily sign up for a waiting list or head to the next farm in the list on EatWild. But the swing voter is putting down her computer and going to the supermarket. Every time we natural farmers allow a swing voter to go to the supermarket, God produces another season of Jersey Shore to torment us all.

But say you finally get past the bouncer and into the CSA. Things actually manage to go downhill from there.

3. It forces consumers to roll the dice

Part of the reason CSA exists is to introduce the consumer to the seasonal, risk-based, unpredictable nature of food production. I get that, and I appreciate that. So do the true believers. But again, this feature of the CSA models casts the swing voter out to sea.

With CSA, there are a couple of important things you agree to. First, you agree to share the farmer’s risk of crop or livestock failure. If weather, bugs, or blight wipes out a percentage of the farmer’s production, then you take that hit in what you get with your shares, with no change in the price.

Second, you agree to take what the farmer gives you. This generally means that you have no idea what you’re going to be getting in your box from week to week. While that’s probably fun for a young single person with lots of free time to try a new recipe every single day of the week, it creates nightmares for everyone else, especially people with families who like to be able to plan meals for the next week or two with mostly familiar recipes.

While the idea of sharing risk sounds nice, it sticks in the craw when you occasionally get half or none of what you paid for. And people tend not to enjoy surprises when it comes to food. What if you hate pork chops? Or you’re allergic to the peanuts? Or the stilton in your dairy share makes you gag?

4. Too much change

I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about culinary swing voters because I truly believe they represent the future of the natural food movement. Our model is predicated on an increasing share of all food being produced naturally rather than industrially, and it’s not going to be long before the market of true believers is saturated. Once it’s saturated, the swing voters are where the action is, and getting those people to adjust their attitudes and habits is going to be critical to keeping the movement going.

When it comes to changing attitudes and habits, there’s only so much change a person can handle all at once. If we’re going to lead the swing voter from the industrial food space to the natural food space, it has to be done with as few deviations from that person’s routine as possible. So put yourself in the shoes of that swing voter for a moment. The swing voter that’s accustomed to driving to a supermarket with ample parking, being surrounded by infinite choice, and having year-long availability of absolutely everything at nearly rock bottom prices.

Now think of yourself as the swing voter who wants to give Natural a try, and comes across CSA. You’re bombarded with inconvenient changes: the units don’t make any sense, you have to make a phone call or write an email to sign up, there’s a waiting list, you don’t get to pick what you want, you might get food items you hate, you can’t plan for what you’re going to receive, there’s a chance you won’t get anything at all, the prices are higher, and picking up your share at the farmers market usually means finding street parking in a downtown area on a Saturday.

Too. Much. Change.

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Want more? See the final article in the series, Four Reasons We Think Buyers Clubs are Awesome, where we talk about buyers clubs and why we believe they’re the best mix of convenience, seasonality, local production, and farm-to-consumer connection. Or see the first article in the series, 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 

————————————–

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.