farmer’s market economics: late August

Farmflash:

  • Farming still dangerous, years after Robert Frost wrote “Out, out–“…
  • Meet Rise & Shine’s CSA in Rome.  (That’s Georgia.  And not the one with the Russia problems.)

Foggy River:

Change is in the air at the farmer’s market; the customers and the marketers both feel it, but in different ways.

Walking down the farmer’s market aisles, customers are overwhelmed with the sights and smells of summer.  It’s a shock to the senses:  the orange brilliance of a squash blossom coupled with wafts of Genovese basil.  Tie-dyed tomatoes paired with the delicate scent of Italian parsley.  Summer squash — yellow crookneck, golden zucchini, pale green patty-pans still small and possessing that gorgeous acorn shape — and is that a bag of fresh dill?  (Yes, picked this morning.)  And then there are the peppers, long and skinny, fat and round — and the tomatoes that look like peppers, but aren’t.  (Gotcha.)  Green beans, yellow beans, purple beans, eggplant, chard, kale, onions, garlic:  ‘Tis the season of plenty, and there’s plenty to drink in — or bag up, as the case may be.  At this morning’s farmer’s market I watched many a customer fill up canvas bags to their tippy-top, then groan slightly when hefting the load to a shoulder.

The farmer enjoys this scene as much as the customer — except at the market’s end, when it comes time to tally up the day’s earnings, fill out the load list, and pay the stall fee.  Some of us have noticed our earnings stagnate or drop, and we have a theory:  Econ 101, lecture 1, Supply & Demand.

At the moment, everything’s ripe.  Supply has expanded hugely.  Demand — while it may have swelled a little at the sight of all those heirloom tomatoes — hasn’t.  So, first of all, prices have dropped, and second of all, people might be buying less at your particular stand — because new stands (selling only tomatoes, for instance) have opened up, making your tomatoes (commingled, as they are, with chard and salad and zuchs and cukes and such) less exciting.  Basically, while you have lots more to sell, everybody else has lots more to sell, too.  And in the midst of a production glut, the specialized businesses definitely have the edge.

It’s a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for Emmett and me, because we’re essentially doing a heck of a lot more work — harvesting all the time to try and keep our plants in production in addition to the usual maintenance — but not making any more money. (At least, we’re not making any more money at the Healdsburg market.  We had a record week at Windsor last Sunday, but we have a hunch that it was due to the fact that a major vendor was missing — hence, we were able to garner a greater share of the market.  Apparently this vendor’s truck got in an accident, and so he had no way of getting to market.)

Anyway, we came home today utterly exhausted.  I flopped onto the couch and kept thinking “Must… bring… cucumbers… to… fridge…”, falling asleep, waking up, remembering the cucumbers, and falling asleep again.  Emmett (normally the upbeat, optimistic one), pronounced:  “It’s not working.  It’s too much work and not enough money.”  Part of this was simply tired I-was-harvesting-before-dawn-again talk, but there’s some truth to his statement: it’s a strange world where one works harder, brings more to market, maybe even sells more, and yet comes home with less cash in hand.  It made us both seriously consider starting a CSA.  (We realized that we could make the same amount of money by supplying approximately 25 people with CSA boxes, a system which seems infinitely more sensible than attending two farmer’s markets in a row.  But more on that later.)

On the bright side, it’s an absolutely awesome time to be a buyer.  You can nab heirloom tomatoes for $2.50 a pound, fresh-picked organic corn or huge gorgeous squash blossoms for 50 cents apiece.  Basil’s flying off tables like hotcakes and zucchinis are practically free.  So I encourage all of you to go out and buy — for your sake, and for the farmers, too’!

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Filed under Farm Philosophy, Farm Tales

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