NUTS & BOLTS & DREAMS: A beginner's guide to farming

Veggie Farmers’ Marketing 101
Be clean. Price fairly. Don’t discount. And use every opportunity to educate, educate, educate.

By Melanie & George DeVault


Editor's NOTE:

In the last installment, Don showed you how to prep your veggies for market. Check it out:
Putting your face on.

Miss the two artcles on growing greens like a pro? Visit The A to Z Greenhouse Growing Guide Part I and Part 2.

View a complete listing of all articles in the NUTS, BOLTS & DREAMS series.




"'How do you DO everything?' an acquaintance remarked ...

'It’s the Superman and Wonder Woman capes,' Mel quipped, smiling."






















"Offer cooking tips ...Pretty soon you have a crowd listening and saying, 'I’ll take one of those, too...'"






































"Go to the grocery store and see what they are getting...Yours is fresher, right? So yours should bring a better price"













"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."

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 go there.

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.

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 you money!

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.