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
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
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
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
We’ve found some great sign and price holders in the Hubert
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
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
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
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.