Tag Archives: economics

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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farmer’s market etiquette

Farmflash:

  • Sonoma County‘s Press-Democrat dives gradually into Slow Food.
  • In California, farmworkers continue to die of heat; OSHA law not helping workers due to lack of enforcement.
  • American man forced to sell Canadian farm that has been in the family for 99 years.

Foggy River Philosophy:

A word of warning: for a while, I’ve been debating whether or not to publish this particular post. I’m a bit afraid I’ll alienate some of my readers here. Some of you, I imagine, will feel the way I do. Others might actually be farmer’s market “offenders.”

But heck, the internet is so blissfully anonymous, I figured why not? Even if you’re one of these people who, in my mind, infringes upon common-sense farmer’s market etiquette, I’ll never know who you are! And maybe it’ll be refreshing for you to hear a farmer’s perspective, even if you dismiss me as easily offended and somewhat huffy. Regardless, I hope you’ll pardon my attempt to lay down the law.

(Translation: My inner sass won the to-post-or-not-to-post battle.)

And now, a few farmer’s market rules of the road:

1. Don’t steal. This should be obvious, but on Sunday I watched people sneak cherry tomatoes out of our selling basket — and then slink away guiltily when they noticed I noticed. We do have samples of cucumbers and apples out for customers to try, bristling with health-code-required toothpicks in an obvious sample bowl. If you ask to try a tomato, I’ll absolutely respond with an emphatic yes. But don’t take them without asking. You wouldn’t bite into an unpaid-for apple in a grocery store, would you?

2. Control your kids. We love children, and I think it’s awesome that parents take kids to the farmer’s market — what a great way to get them excited about eating healthy foods! (I bet you didn’t know this, but I was on a pretty strict picky-eater diet of meat and potatoes until I went to college. When I became a vegetarian as a sophomore, my mom asked pointedly “What are you going to eat?” Anyway, the point being: it’s taken me a long time to learn to eat a healthy variety of vegetables, and if your kids are eating them now, I applaud your parenting skills.) Still, it isn’t okay when one kid eats the entire sample bowl’s worth of apples…. or starts popping cherry tomatoes into his mouth like it’s candy, when we said feel free to take one. So: keep an eye on your kids, encourage them to use ‘please’ and ‘thank-you,’ and we promise to shower these healthy-appetited children with attention and free samples.

3. Don’t treat us like Costco. In my family, “Costco” (or Sam’s Club) basically translates to: free lunch. We hit up all the samples, sometimes a couple of times. But Costco operates on a slightly different scale than we do; it should come as no surprise that the farmer’s market ain’t a bulk warehouse store. Obviously, samples are still free. There’s no requirement to purchase a cucumber once you’ve tried the sample. But it’s not entirely friendly — or in the farmer’s market spirit — to beeline for all of the market’s samples in a slap-dash taste-and-run. Think of farmer’s market sampling as an event along the lines of a fine wine tasting. Hold the Armenian cucumber morsel up to the light, examining the color and consistency. Take a deep whiff, looking for notes of caramel and bouquets of citrus. Swish it around in your mouth five times before swallowing. OK, so you don’t have to take the cucumber that seriously, but a little “mmm, that’s tasty!” or “huh, interesting” goes a long way to making your farmer feel good. And a farmer who feels good is more likely to put out more free samples!

4. Don’t roll your eyes. Ever. Even if my radishes cost more than radishes cost in New York City, it’s not okay to roll your eyes as though you are way too good to buy my ridiculously overpriced, exceptionally unworthy radishes. Remember, I’m not a used car salesman who happens to be hawking roots at the farmer’s market. I grew these things, and growing (e.g., sowing, sprouting, weeding, watering, and harvesting) is hard work!

4a. Don’t mention that grocery stores may be selling Vegetable X cheaper. Safeway’s Vegetable X probably traveled hundreds or even thousands of miles to the store, is probably a week old, and was definitely grown by some highly mechanized corporate behemoth. Yes, my vegetables may cost slightly more than Vegetable X, but you get what you pay for: freshness, organic growing procedures, and environmental sustainability. I’ve got photos of the farm on display, and you’re also welcome to visit Foggy River Farm at any time to see where and how your veggies are grown… can you say the same for Vegetable X?

5. Don’t pee on buildings. Walk the extra five minutes to the nearest public toilet. I’ll admit: the person I think I caught doing this was a fellow seller. I won’t repeat who it was — but still, come on, people.

6. OK, time to tone down my sass. How about introducing yourself? I love knowing your name, and I love repeat faces at the farmer’s market. In fact, Emmett and I get ridiculously silly about repeat customers — we’ll save extra beet greens for a regular we know who really likes them, we’ll throw in an extra cucumber destined for the salad of a regular lettuce-buyer, and if we know you have kids, we’ll inquire after them. Be friendly to us, and I guarantee we’ll be friendly in return.

–Lynda.

P.S. I had a great “weekend,” mostly spent grocery shopping, writing, and catching up on errands. We still haven’t unpacked our luggage from the trip, a load of laundry still sprawls across the living room floor… but there are Cheerios in the cupboard, and O.J. and beer in the fridge, and that’s pretty much all a twenty-something needs in life, right? I did enjoy a delightful swim in the Russian River this afternoon, and most excitingly of all, the brooder is ready to go for the arrival of 30 chicks tomorrow morning! (Expect a deluge of cute baby chicken photos in the near future.)

P.P.S. — Gosh, I wish the color quality of uploaded photos weren’t so awful. In RAW format, or even in iPhoto’s exported JPG, these Sungella tomatoes are a brilliant deep orange — picked at the pinnacle of ripeness, I swear!

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why farmers don’t vacation…

…at least in the summertime.

Coming back to the field this morning was, erm, ahem, <choke>, a bit of a shock. There was good news, and there was bad news.

I’m a realist. Let’s start with the bad.

First of all, in two weeks, dawn has changed noticeably. Emmett and I arrived on the field at 5 a.m. in the pitch black, figuring we were just a bit before the blue stage of the morning — and that, at any moment, dawn would grab hold of the horizon with her rosy fingers and illuminate the greens for our timely harvest.

Newsflash: in San Francisco on August 16, the sun doesn’t rise until 6:25 a.m. Which means that civil twilight (when the sun is within six degrees of the horizon, aka “bright twilight”) doesn’t get going until 6. Which means we were yanking, washing, and sorting beets, not to mention harvesting chard, when it was utterly, absolutely, one hundred percent dark. Also: truck headlights do not work very well as a light source. They tend to blind you, and cast all sorts of horrible shadows which make it exceptionally difficult to actually distinguish the vegetables you’re picking from one another. We only had one headlamp between the two of us. The going was slow.

The next bad news came with the dawn (aka, when we could actually see things). The salad we’d sown three weeks earlier has barely germinated. Where we had expected to see densely-packed, decently-sized leaves ready for next weekend’s harvest, there were only tiny, itsy-bitsy lettucelets sparsely strewn across the damp earth. And the only harvestable salad (one that had been in seedling stage before we left) was bolting.

Crouching down to the overgrown lettuce, Emmett announced, “I’m going to cut like there’s no tomorrow.”

I interrupted. “…because there isn’t one for the salad?”

Emmett grimaced. “Because it’s really big, and it needs to be cut back.”

I mentally estimated the cost of our lack of harvestable lettuce. For this weekend’s markets, we’ll have lettuce (salvaged from the patch that was partly bolting), but next weekend we won’t. We make, conservatively, $200 a week off our lettuce and baby brassica mixes. So by the time we get our salad rotation back up and going — it’ll take another three weeks minimum — that’s a $600 loss to tack on to the cost of our “vacation.” (We did some non-farm work on our vacation, and family reunions aren’t exactly “vacations” anyway…)

That loss was a lot to swallow that early in the morning. Still, the worst news came from the corn patch, when we tried to determine whether or not the corn was ripe.

Emmett wrested an ear of corn from its stalk, and gently pulled back the silk. The kernels were still slightly transparent and watery-looking, suggesting the ear wasn’t quite ready yet. Emmett shucked the rest of it anyway just to try a taste — revealing two fat green bastard worms chowing down on our pre-natal, organic, well-watered, well-tended, well-fertilized corn.

We went to a different plant, a different ear, and pulled back a bit of its silk — revealing another fat bug.

“Well, I guess this is all chicken feed,” Emmett said. He shrugged. “Crop failure.” Matter-of-fact destruction: It was just that kind of morning. (Our chicks, by the way, will arrive Wednesday. Perfect timing, right?)

Emmett flicked off the green bastards off the first ear, and we each gingerly took a bite far away from where the grubs had been dining. Not even Emmett — a true king of eating disgusting things — would eat the rest of the damaged ear. I don’t have a problem with buying spotted apples, cracked tomatoes, or funky three-legged carrots. But there’s no way I would buy wormy corn, so there’s no way I’m selling it.

Was there good news? Right, I’ll get to that part tomorrow.

-Lynda

p.s. — OK, this morning I mentioned I was going to snazz up the blog. Here’s the plan: I’ll comb through the daily online media onslaught and try to find relevant articles about local food, organic agriculture, pastured poultry, integrated pest management — whatever seems relevant. Then I’ll post links for you guys to peruse, so this blog won’t just be about Foggy River Farm, it’ll also be a portal for all kinds of interesting farm news.

I’m also going to (once I plant some salad, stake tomatoes, and generally catch up on the farmwork) try to offer more complete, detailed instructions for planting and maintaining some of my favorite, most successful crops. Which, as of now, does not include corn!

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the price of a radish

How much would you charge — or pay — for a bunch of freshly picked French breakfast radishes?

Pricing produce at the farmer’s market is always a tricky endeavor.  The case of the radish, I think, exemplifies farmers’ and shoppers’ competing cost value systems. I’ve parsed out the following cost value systems below:

1.  The Economist.  According to economic theory, the value of a radish bunch is simply whatever people are willing to pay for it.  Looking back on Econ 101, the price is a graphable element that can be found at the intersection of the cost-benefit curves.  In this case, a radish does not have any intrinsic value.  If the world’s radish crop fails and a desperate consumer is willing to pay $20 per bulb, so be it; if radishes suddenly develop a strange social stigma — oh, don’t sit next to her, she’s a radish eater — and nobody wants to buy them, your perfect little bulb might be worth a fraction of a penny.  C’est la vie.

2.  The Farmer.  A farmer (or at least this farmer) tends to look at things from the growing point of view.  Am I giving you an entire plant, or simply a renewable portion of the plant?  I’m willing to charge you less for a large bunch of Swiss Chard because the plant will grow back by the next harvest time.  (While people complain about the cost of our radishes, we’ve been told that our Swiss Chard is too cheap.)  When I sell a bunch of six or seven radishes, that’s six or seven plants — plants that won’t bear me seed.  You can also look at it from the space-time continuum:  it takes a radish 3-4 weeks to come in, and a decent amount of soft-soiled space.  They also require a bit of weeding.

3.  The Concerned Consumer.  A radish could be valued based upon things like calorie count, nutritional value, freshness, taste, or growing conditions (i.e., organic).  Radishes contain as much potassium as bananas, not to mention a healthy dose of vitamin C and magnesium.  Plus, if you buy at a farmer’s market, you’re supporting a local food economy — good for your ‘food security’ in the long run.

So, what do I charge for radishes?  I started out at $1.75 for a nice-sized bunch (six big radishes, or 7-8 smaller ones).  Some customers, a few of whom clutched $4 Starbucks coffees, literally turned up their noses and rolled their eyes — a couple even picked up a bunch and then put it down, saying loudly “Oh, I thought it was bigger!” before high-tailing it away from the stand.  (Since I lie somewhere between the Concerned Consumer and the Farmer’s point of view, I was particularly aggrieved by the fact that some of these folks would unquestioningly pay $4 for a cup of coffee — which has zero nutrional value to speak of — but outwardly express disdain at my nutritious radishes.)  After a couple of weeks, we lowered our price to $1.50 per bunch, which is what they were charging at the store for considerably less fresh radishes.  Still, eyes rolled.

The last time we went to market, we dipped to $1.25, our pride considerably wounded.  I doubt you can buy a pack of gum for $1.25.

Does anyone stand up for radishes?  What’s the right pricing system for veggies?  It’s back to the drawing board for this greenhorn…

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is slow food expensive food?

The end of August is going to turn San Francisco into a foodie haven (more so than it already is). Even the New York Times, which was a little slow to pick up on the CSA trend, is taking notice.

They‘re turning the front of City Hall into a Victory Garden full of food. They’re taking citydwellers on local food trips throughout the Bay Area. And while some of the events are free — including a concert that appropriately (for SF) features a Grateful Dead band member — others are a tad on the pricey side. $160 for a “slow dinner” in Walnut Creek, $140 for the “bounty of the Russian River,” a “slow journey” in our area. That sort of thing.

On one hand it’s a little annoying that as a local farmer growing heirloom varieties of produce, I can’t afford to fully participate in the “largest celebration of American food in history.” Slow Food Nation trips and dinners, at those prices, aren’t in my budget. On the other hand, I charge my customers at the farmer’s market more than Safeway does because I’m trying to earn a living. So am I really allowed to complain? (Please note: it would not cost you $160 to cook yourself a lovely slow dinner from my farm stand. I’m just pointing out that I do benefit from higher prices for local, farm-fresh, organic produce.)

This little conundrum begs a bigger question: Must slow food necessarily be expensive food? What about the expanding grow-your-own movement? I wholeheartedly support it, especially for people who can’t afford to throw down $30 at the farmer’s market every week. (Not to mention, it’s a great thing for people to be outside in their gardens, and a great form of exercise.) But what if the grow-your-own movement grows such that it drives down farmer’s market prices — can small farmers survive on lower prices for fresh organic produce? At the same time, this might be a far-fetched idea (it would require a lot of Americans to change the way they live and how they allocate their time), especially with costs of conventionally-grown food rising thanks to higher fuel prices. At some point in the future, there might come a time when the local food economy expands even further because it’s actually more cost-effective than transporting produce from Argentina and trucking it in from the nearest American port.

Also, when it comes to farmer’s market prices: if you’re really shopping on a whole food (not Whole Foods) basis — no processed, added-value stuff — I find that you can eat pretty cheaply… and even spring for organic, most of the time. Emmett and I pretty much live off a few basics that we buy in bulk: beans (various types), lentils, quinoa, rice, flour, sugar, salt, oil. We make our own bread (and bagels!), except when we trade for it at the farmer’s market, but we do buy pasta. One of these days I’m going to have to add up the cost of weekly groceries at my house (including the value of the food we grow ourselves) and try to compare it to a more processed diet. (OK, so we’re not perfect: we don’t make our own soy ice cream.)

But back to the big themes. Is it possible to have a Cheap Slow Food movement? How much do farmers need to be paid for it to be worth their time?

(I don’t have the answers, I just ask the questions.)

(The picture above is a mix of our beans, with some of the garlic we grew tossed in, and a bit of olive oil. The yellow ones aren’t quite ripe yet, but the purple ones are beautiful! They’re kind of like the turkey that comes with the little pop-up button: when the purple beans turn green, you know they’re done.)

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farmer’s market recession

For the past 6 weeks — since we first started attending the Windsor farmer’s market — we’ve made more money each subsequent weekend, because we’ve brought more (and a greater variety of) produce each time. Every weekend, we sold out of our pre-bagged baby red-and-green leaf lettuce mix before the market closed. We kept telling ourselves, Gosh, we really need to bring more!

This weekend, things changed.

It started yesterday, Saturday, at the Healdsburg market. Now last weekend we brought several harvest-tubs full of Bright Lights rainbow Swiss chard to the Healdsburg market, and sold every bunch but one. This weekend, we brought the exact same amount of the exact same quality produce, and we sold maybe 1/3 of what we brought.

We were pretty shocked, not to mention distraught over the thought of all of this highly perishable food–well, perishing I guess, and in particular perishing without doing anybody any good. Emmett ran the excess chard over to the local food bank, only to learn that it’s open just 2 days a week: Mondays and Fridays. Then he did a “drive-by charding,” leaving his office refrigerator full of chard. (His boss, an environmental writer and publisher for whom he works part-time, has pigs & chickens, so anything not eaten by humans will still find a belly-home.)

But one refrigerator can only fit so much. A pile of sad, sad chard still sits on our kitchen floor. (See above picture, taken last night. It’s still there, only it looks even worse. We’ve been too busy to pick it up.)

Then came today. For the first time, we were prepared for our red-and-green salad onslaught. We brought 49 bags of the lettuce mix….

…And sold considerably less than we’d sold in previous weeks. At the end of the day, we had a bit under thirty bags left.

We drive-by lettuced fellow sellers at the farmer’s market, giving away $3 bags of salad mix to neighbors, volunteers, and people we’d never met before. Still, it was depressing: all that lettuce bed weeding and early-morning-snipping-and-bagging and hoped-for income just disappearing into thin air.

To make matters worse, it was just one of those days. Over the course of my 14-hour workday, I stubbed my toe twice. I slammed my finger between a car door and a support beam. I whacked my head getting into the pickup truck. Even caffeine couldn’t seem to rouse me from my stupor.

And the insult on top of the injury: I’m pretty sure that today I made the same amount of money as the young girl with the lemonade stand at yesterday’s farmer’s market. How do I know this? Having sold out of her lemonade, the little girl walked by our stand to bring 10% of her day’s earnings to the manager for her stall fee. (It was an adorable sight, and even without knowing her, I felt proud of her.) Clutched tightly in her little hand I could make out a $10 bill and several ones — less than I paid to the market manager yesterday, but about what I paid to the market manager today.

(Let’s not even go into how many more hours it takes to grow organic vegetables than to boil lemon juice, water, and sugar to make lemonade. Clearly, I’m in the wrong business for working a sane amount of hours while still earning money, and this depresses me. Ah, if only I were cute and young, maybe with freckles, I’d totally jump ship and get into the lemonade business while the gettin’s good!)

One more sad story, and then I promise I’ll draw this tragic tale to a close: at the end of the day, when we were pretty beaten down at the thought of all our un-purchased bags of lettuce, Emmett was told by someone what he would be paid for our produce. This person, a well-dressed older woman with coiffed hair and pretty necklaces, said, “I’m only paying $1 a pound for zucchini. That’s what they’re selling them for at…” [At this point, her voice trailed off; neither Emmett nor I could figure out what she said. Whole Foods? Safeway? Wal-Mart? Who knows.] Then, a command: “Here, weigh these.”

This, despite the fact that we don’t have a scale and do have a sign posted with fixed prices for “small” and “large” zucchinis. We price the really small zucchinis higher than $1/pound, because they’re more tender, are tasty eaten raw, and are harvested as a special item, sometimes with blossoms attached. There’s an opportunity cost associated with these guys: we could let them grow into ginormous one-pounders and get our money’s worth out of each female blossom, but we like to offer customers a variety.

It seemed a little absurd to watch the woman walk away with 6 beautiful, perfect baby zucchinis (a couple with still-fresh, edible blossoms!) for a dollar. At that price, it isn’t really worth my effort to harvest them, let alone grow them. But honestly, we were too tired to fight it. And $1 is better than nothing… although I’m not so sure about that, actually.  Sometimes dignity is better than $1.

Sigh. We got home after 7 p.m., having left the house in the 5 a.m. range. We cooked our classic Sunday dinner, which is (if it isn’t burritos from the local Mexican joint because we’re too pooped to cook)… drumroll… whatever’s left over from the market!

Over our dinner of market leftovers (lots of salad!) we discussed ways of genuinely making money as a farmer. I’ll keep you updated if any actually work.

Now, it’s time for bed. As always, tomorrow’s a new day.

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