August 21, 2003: “How do you DO everything?”
an acquaintance remarked last week, looking at the array of
fresh produce on our farmers’ market stand.
“It’s the Superman and Wonder Woman capes,”
Mel quipped, smiling.
What our friend didn’t see was the stacks of laundry
on the dresser in the bedroom waiting to be put away, the
piles of garden-grimy clothes on the floor waiting to be washed,
the ironing board that has been sitting in the corner for
two months piled high with clothes waiting to be ironed --
or the cluttered basement office. No, we won’t even
Nor will we mention the weeds that are taking over some of
the crops, or the six truckloads of aged sawdust that still
need to be put around the blueberries if the ground ever dries
out enough to haul the mulch.
We ask the same question when we look at a farmer friend
who does pastured poultry, and somehow manages to take care
of cows and sheep and goats, play bass in a rock band and
serve on the boards of two farming groups. How do you do everything?
You don’t. Lots of things don’t get done around
the house during the farmers’ market season. Lots of
weeds don’t get pulled. (They get weed-whacked, mowed
or hit with the flame-thrower just before they set seed.)
But the farm market stand is full and the farmers are smiling
for customers because this is the time to bring in the cash,
and, well, nobody wants to see a grumpy farmer.
So here are some of our experiences with, and tips for successfully
marketing that beautiful produce. (Son, Don, gave you his
tips in the last column for cleaning up greens and root crops
to get them ready to sell, which is a must for your success.)
1. Sell at a producer-only market.
No way can you compete with pseudo-farmers -- hucksters --
who buy cheap stuff at the nearest produce auction or terminal
market and try to pass it off as homegrown. We grow everything
we sell. Make sure that is clearly spelled out in your market’s
by-laws (your market does have by-laws, doesn’t it?),
and make sure your market manager enforces the rules. There
is no room for cheaters, because they will quickly ruin any
market with poor quality and prices below the cost of production.
2. Be clean.
clean: Wash those carrots well and you'll
draw many more customers than if you just yank them
out of the ground and toss them in a basket caked
with mud. Plus, your veggies fair better in the
sun when they're clean.
The produce and the farmers have to be squeaky clean. Two
farmers at a recent farmers’ market we visited presented
beets, leeks and carrots caked with mud, set in baskets in
the sun. The dirt-splattered greens were wilting more by the
minute. Some people were actually buying them. (Mel was cringing
and George was pulling her away so she would keep her mouth
shut.) But imagine how many more people would take a second
look if those veggies were CLEAN! At another farmers’
market, the farmers produce was clean. But the farmers themselves
were keeping customers away. We won’t go there either
-- but showering regularly helps, honest. Don’t be afraid
of deodorant, a fingernail brush or a razor.
3. Have a good selection.
Some crops are a real pain to grow and don’t make you
much money at all. Customers want them. Like green beans,
scallions and carrots. It takes so much time to pick beans,
to clean up scallions and, let’s face it, carrots are
dirt cheap (and still have to be dug and that dirt cleaned
off, which still leaves them cheap). But when a customer comes
to your stand to buy the carrots they want, and sees the baby
salad greens with cute little edible flowers, or sugar snap
peas or edamame or artichokes nearby, many times they will
go away with one or more of your crops that actually make
4. Educate your customer.
So when a customer is standing there with her carrots and
eyes the edamame -- explain how neat and nutritious the edible
soybeans are. How they serve them in bars in Japan, how kids
can have fun shelling them. Bingo! And the salad greens were
picked fresh this morning. (Another customer will chime in
here that she’s never seen anything last so long! And
they are so fresh and tasty. Why the greens she buys in the
store just don’t compare!) Soon, the bunch of carrots
rings up a bill of $20.50 instead of $2.
5. Share cooking tips and recipes.
Offer cooking tips if the customer seems interested. (Face
it, some people just don’t want to talk to you, and
they’ll let you know really fast. They just want really
cheap stuff. Smile and let them move on to your neighbor.)
Along with the education, telling people a favorite way to
cook the baby beans, or fennel, or talking about the great
stir-fry or oven-roasted vegetables you made a couple days
ago really peak their interest. Other customers will soon
be talking about their favorite way to cook something. Pretty
soon you have a crowd listening and saying, “I’ll
take one of those, too...” (The farmers are probably
drooling at this point because they’ve been so busy
getting ready for market, they haven’t eaten.) Offer
recipes for unique items. Magazines are filled with them.
There are scores of cookbooks on vegetables and individual
vegetables, from edamame to squash. There is no end of good
ideas and recipes free for the taking on the internet!
6. Offer free samples.
Customers aren’t sure? Try it, you’ll like it!
Offer them a taste (abiding by market and health department
guidelines, of course). Sun Gold cherry tomatoes come to mind.
We had boxes of red and orange cherry tomatoes, and no one
was buying the Sun Gold. They are honestly our favorite, as
sweet as sugar. The color was keeping people away! They weren’t
what people were used to. So we picked out some of the ripest,
set out a box and urged people to try one. Free! Sweet as
candy, we told them. Nearly everyone who tried one, bought
a box. They were back the next week for two! When the variety
was “all” as they say around here in PA Dutch
country, people said they couldn’t wait till next year.
7. Mark prices clearly.
Some of our customers don’t care what they pay for
things. They want fresh, local and good. They know we are
fair. Not everyone knows us, however, and most people want
to know how much something costs. They want a clear sign.
They don’t want to have to look on a board at the side
of the market and figure out what is what.
We’ve found some great sign and price holders in the
Hubert catalog (www.hubert.com).
A black metal stand (13.5 inches high) with a shovel base
costs $5.99. A plastic frame (3.5- by 5.5-inch) for drop-in
price signs costs $2.29. Together, they make a great -- weatherproof
-- price sign. We have about a dozen of them now. Hubert even
has pre-printed organic price inserts as stock items now.
“Organic produce,” reads one. “Organic ...
A Growing Choice,” says the other. “ “Ideal
for identifying and featuring organic food items,” proclaims
the catalog. A package of 100 cards is just $7.59.
Don’t want to spend the money? Go to your office supply
store and buy some index cards and have them laminated. Buy
a good dry erase marker. It will cost you just a few dollars.
You can then write the price on the card and have it right
there in front of the customer’s nose. Wipe off and
reuse them each week. Attach them with a clothespin, or tape.
Index cards and permanent markers work, too, if it’s
not raining and people don’t drip water on them. You
can tell the customer something special about the crop on
the card -- maybe instead of just a sweet pepper, it’s
a sweet Italian frying pepper good in stir-fry. Or the cherry
tomatoes are an old-time variety. Anything to make them special
and stand out from the ordinary.
Whatever you use, also mark the price on the back of the
sign. That way, you won’t have to be constantly glancing
at a price board or sheet. You can simply add up the total
as you fill the customer’s bag.
8. Price fairly.
Go to the grocery store and see what they are getting for
produce. Check the price lists on this website (OPX
or Grassroots OPX).
If you grow organic produce, check the organic guidelines.
Check the quality of the grocery store produce.
Yours is fresher, right? So yours should bring a better price,
for you, not the storekeeper. Pricing fairly, so you can make
a decent living, and so that the fellow market vendor is not
adversely affected, is important to your and their livelihood!
One veteran grower we know routinely charges 5 percent more
than supermarket prices because his produce is so much fresher.
9. Don’t discount.
Most customers will pay for quality. If they won’t,
they can (and will) go to the discount store. Let them go.
You don’t need those people. You shouldn’t drop
your price and sell at a loss just to pocket a couple of bucks.
Case in point: The market is almost over for the day. A few
customers are hanging around. Four half pints of raspberries
are left on your table. A woman eyes them for a long time,
then finally speaks up.
“If I buy all four will you give me a better price?”
she makes the mistake of asking George.
“No,” he says politely, but firmly. “If
you go to the grocery and buy four of one item, will they
lower their price? It took the same amount of time -- and
scratches on our forearms -- to pick each of those boxes.
The berries are all perfect. I’m sorry, but I can’t
lower the price because they’re really worth more than
the $3 we’re charging.”
The woman bought two. And another woman who witnessed the
whole exchange immediately bought the remaining raspberries
-- after giving lady #1 a disgusted look.
Educating consumers is a never-ending job. For example, one
of the New York City-based lifestyle magazines just published
this advice on how to find a bargain at a farmers’ market:
“Wait Until The End -- You’ll miss the most coveted
items, which sell out early, but few farmers want to cart
produce back home. Many make discount packages, putting peppers
or peaches into one-, two-, or three-dollar bags in the hour
before leaving. If they don’t, linger and ask (nicely)
for a closing-time deal.”
Farmers who do offer closing time deals are hurting themselves.
Worse, they’re hurting their fellow vendors and dragging
down the whole market by not sticking to their prices.
We make more money selling at a fair price and bringing some
produce home than if we give it all away. That doesn’t
seem to be such a difficult concept to grasp, yet a lot of
growers just don’t get it.
When someone balks at a price, simply ask “And how
do you make your living?” They’ll get the idea.
After all, farmers have to make a living, too.