PASA 2005 Workshop: Moie Crawford
City markets, a farmer's best friend
Moie Crawford (and her husband Jim) have been direct marketing in Washington, DC since the early '70s. In this article, adapted from her workshop on city marketing at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture conference (held earlier this month), Moie makes an impassioned case for the rewards of marketing in the city--most of which are NOT financial. (Though there IS that, too.)

Posted February 22, 2005

About Moie Crawford & New Morning Farm

Jim and Moie Kimball Crawford own and operate New Morning Farm, a 95-acre certified organic vegetable farm in south-central Pennsylvania. They have two children, Arlo, born in 1978, and Janie, born in 1982.

The Crawfords have farmed organically for over 30 years. Starting on rented West Virginia land in 1971, Jim began growing a wide variety of vegetable crops on small acreage, with practically no capital and little experience. From the start all produce was direct-marketed in Washington, D.C. Moie joined him in 1974.

In l976 Jim and Moie purchased their present farm, which had been a small, conventional dairy operation. With ambitious, innovative financing and much trial and error, they gradually built their soils organically, accumulated appropriate equipment, and designed and built various buildings for their specific purposes.

New Morning Farm now produces approximately 40 different crops, all certified organic. Annual sales have topped $220,000. Crops include berries and herbs in addition to most standard garden vegetables. The farm employs, besides the family, one or two year-round helpers and approximately 15 seasonal workers and apprentices. The farming apprenticeship program is well-developed and has helped a number of aspiring growers to get started in farming.

Over the years the Crawfords have built a many-faceted, successful direct-marketing system. They started and operated a roadside stand in years past. They have organized two now-well-established farmers’ markets and helped found a wholesale marketing cooperative with a group of growers (Tuscarora Organic Growers www.tog.coop). New Morning Farm markets various locally-produced foods year-round in addition to its own produce (both wholesale and retail).

The farm is equipped with a heated greenhouse, two high-tunnel cold frames, an extensive irrigation system, a packing shed with refrigeration and implements, tractors and trucks. There is also a house for a flock of 250 laying hens.

Having started “from scratch” and taking the attitude that “we’ll try anything once,” the Crawfords have had the opportunity to test a great many approaches, theories and techniques in their complex but integrated operation. They are willing and able to share their knowledge and experience with others. They hope to attract others to farming and to their geographical area, believing that sustainable agriculture is of benefit to us all.

The Crawfords have been active members from the planning stages of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (P.A.S.A.) and Jim was a member of the first Board of Directors. Both Jim and Moie were honored in 2002 with the annual Leadership Award from P.A.S.A. They have presented workshops a number of times at conferences over the years, and have conducted field days at their farm, attended by other local growers.

In 2003 the Crawfords were chosen for the first annual Harvest Farmer Award from the Glynwood Center, a nonprofit environmental education center in Cold Spring, New York. The award was given for “developing a sustainable farming operation and building effective relationships with their home community and other communities where food in consumed.” Jim has also been profiled in a USDA/SARE book entitled The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural Innovation (read a reprint of this profile on New Farm) and both of them have discussed family farming and organic agriculture on National Public Radio and in numerous publications including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

It might seem that the temptation of money to be made by marketing in the city would be emptying the countryside several days of the week. But I’ve spoken to scores of farmers who won’t even consider making the trip, despite the lure of financial reward. Their reasons? There are lots of them, ranging from the city being dirty and noisy if not downright dangerous to an aversion to spending any time traveling or fighting traffic. And some people are reluctant to venture into a place they don’t know, fearing they will get lost or that city folks will be hostile. I am here to try and calm some fears.

For the past 30 years, my husband Jim and I have spent most months doing business in the city of Washington, D.C. And, in the process of making a living, our world has expanded financially and culturally. There is little doubt that going to the city can raise your salary. That is what drove us to go there. But the increased profits are not all that kept us there. In pondering the city as a “friend,” I moved from thinking in financial terms to emotional ones. The spirit of the city keeps us coming back. We have met people from all over the world and all over town and have added them to our lives. We have also gotten to tour great museums and monuments, and eat in scores of restaurants. And, over time, our markets themselves have become a part of the city. A part most city people like.

Country Mouse, City Mouse

I didn’t grow up in a city. I was a small-town New Hampshire girl and, after leaving home, I moved around a lot, but never to a city. I lived in sparsely populated New England villages and in West Virginia’s hills and then I moved to what seemed to me very rural Pennsylvania. It indeed was, and still is, very rural Pennsylvania.

But beginning in 1973, after my move to West Virginia, every week I went to the busiest of metropolises, Washington, D.C., and set up in its neighborhoods. And, in time, our markets became a positive part of the city, which gave me a great deal of pleasure and a strong sense of satisfaction.

My years of going from country to city have truly taught me how much our two communities can gain by dealing with each other face-to-face. By doing business with people in their neighborhoods, selling them something they want, you really begin to understand them. And customers like ot talk to you about what you do.

I can’t count how many times people have recounted memories to me. “My grandmother always made rhubarb pie from a big plant she had for years in the backyard,“ I have heard a thousand times. More often than not, the memory sparks a happy sale.

The city contains huge numbers of people from all countries and races who have direct experience with country living and who think of it with fondness (at least the eating, food, sustenance part of it). I can’t count how many times people have recounted memories to me. “My grandmother always made rhubarb pie from a big plant she had for years in the backyard,“ I have heard a thousand times. More often than not, the memory sparks a happy sale.

The former North and South Carolinians buying pounds and pounds of green beans and the Salvadorans stuffing sacks with corn to take home and use right away are only some of the people who appreciate us because they know what the production of our crops involves. Appreciation is not something received easily or often in most professions, but the occupation of farming gives you an edge. There are few people who don’t consider farming easy work and you gain respect just by attempting it. I’m not suggesting that you milk the “farmer image” for all its worth, that you become a caricature of a rural soul, but simply that you use that good will people feel toward you to help establish your business. Farmers are welcomed in every corner of the city.

Entering the city market strikes lots of people as too much hassle, too frightening or both. Finding a way in is daunting. But there are lots of ways to go about finding your spot in the city. If you are within 150 miles of Washington, check with freshfarmmarkets.org and get information about their five or six different markets you might consider joining. If you’re not close to D.C., choose the closest urban area and then check with the city government to see if it runs any markets. Check the Chamber of Commerce or Visitors Bureau to locate private or non-profit markets, call the food section of the newspaper for a listing of markets with their months and hours of operation. Another listing is usually available from the local WIC Program, which compiles the market list for its clients in the farmers market buying program (“Get Fresh” in D.C.). States administer this national program.

Government regulations can make it very hard to operate a market on public property and if bucking these rules is out of the question for you, try going to private schools or churches and ask if you can join with them in offering a farmer’s market on their private property.

Or try to make a good spot for yourself. Government regulations can make it very hard to operate a market on public property and if bucking these rules is out of the question for you, try going to private schools or churches and ask if you can join with them in offering a farmer’s market on their private property. Try to remember every connection you ever had with the city in question and use those connections. Maybe your cousin sang in a special program at one of the city’s churches in a busy part of town and still corresponds with the minister, or your sister has an old boyfriend who went to college with someone who went to a private school which has a particularly attractive setting for a market. Private institutions, such as banks, can make their parking lots open to you on Sundays. Many cities have neighborhood associations with whom you can discuss possible selling arrangements. And if you’re interested in the CSA model, consider delivering to one or several office buildings in a big city. There are lots of alternatives for urban sales and while I’m not implying that making these contacts is easy or always smooth, I am urging you: don't let fear stop you from trying.

Finding (and keeping) your own piece of concrete

Since my mid-20’s the city has been helping me grow up. Washington is the only big city I have ever known. I started going there on trips to sell our homegrown produce in the early l970’s; a turbulent time in D.C. and everywhere in this country. I have memories of sitting on the back of the blue Ford pickup on a sweltering hot delivery run to Stone Soup and Fields of Plenty, two workers cooperatives on 18th Street. that we sold to regularly. We sold to Bethesda Coop in Maryland as well, the only one of those three businesses still in operation today and one that weighed in early on the superiority of local, organic produce.

We also sold from our own stand at 18th Street and Columbia Road for 25 years. The diverse and lively Adams-Morgan neighborhood gave me my first city life experiences. Since we were located on a very visible and busy corner, troupes of actors would periodically descend on the area and conduct political happenings. Political and religious groups passed out literature and buttonholed passers-by for their names on petitions. To me, it was an exciting place and time.

We originally sold in a dirt parking lot. When the lot was sold to a local bank, it was scheduled to change from dirt to concrete and it was then that I first understood the loyalty of our city customers.

When the lot was sold to a local bank, I began to understand the loyalty of our city customers . . . They forced the bank to carve out space for us in its plaza and to solidify with a yearly contract our right to be there.

The bank's original plan had been to permanently remove any produce vendors from its property, but the community objected and organized, flooding the bank with phone calls and complaints. They forced the bank to carve out space for us in its plaza and to solidify with a yearly contract our right to be there.

A few years after this original concession, the bank again decided it was time to clear its front yard of vendors and announced we would no longer be welcome after a certain date. Behind the scenes negotiations ensued during which a savvy public relations person at the bank came to realize the action could cause her institution some real damage. By the time we arrived at the market on our “last” day, the bank had done a complete about-face and the plaza was festooned with banners welcoming us. Bank representatives spent the day passing our souvenir calendars and mirrors proclaiming the company’s fondness for the farmers and its pride in being our sponsor in the city. The bank made sure there were local newspapers present on the corner to take pictures of us all together--a happy family. Which was, by that time, the truth. They were treating us as equals. They were giving us what mattered to us--a place for our business-- and we appreciated that. We each learned to appreciate the other.

Loyal customers make more miracles

We have also sold for years in upper Northwest Washington, first in Cleveland Park, behind the National Cathedral, and then at the Sheridan School. We ended up at the school with the help of customers who responded to our problems with overzealous vending police and found us private land on which to operate.

For years, vending police enforcement was inconsistent and often unfathomable. The height of crisis was reached one busy fall Saturday when four of my husband’s workers were arrested at the market, put in a police wagon and driven downtown. My husband, Jim, had a vendor’s license, but they did not. During the arrests, loyal customers taunted the police for trying to take away their market. After the wagons and the police left, Jim kept on selling, handling the sales to a long line of customers by himself.

Four of my husband’s workers were arrested at the market . . . Jim, had a vendor’s license, but they did not.

One of the helpers arrested was a polite, pleasant 16-year-old girl from the National Cathedral School. It was difficult to imagine in the role of a criminal, but in the week following the incident, she was visited at home by a social worker. The social worker wanted to know if she had reformed. “From what,” her mother responded, “Walking the streets selling broccoli?” Her mother sarcastically assured the social worker she would keep an eye on her daughter.

This incident, combined with others and the unpredictability of our sales situation, made it imperative we find a new spot. Our friends and customers found one for us at the Sheridan School, a private elementary school in a residential community. The school agreed to let us use the grounds and we, in turn, made three or four presentations a year to different community groups about farming and marketing. Sheridan got the good will of the neighborhood’s residents by offering its property for a community market and we got the obvious benefit of a safe, beautiful place to sell. This past summer these same supporters found us another spot in a nearby churchyard to use for several months while construction work was being completed at the school.

Battling burn-out

In 1997, we moved from Adams-Morgan to Dupont Circle for the opening of the first Fresh Farm market in the Riggs Bank parking lot off Massachusetts Avenue. The experience at that location has been community-oriented as well. The market gives the neighborhood a lively focus every Sunday from 9:00am to 1:00pm and draws people from all over the city who can get there easily, thanks to the Metro stop immediately outside the market gates. This market serves 30 farmers, so there’s lots of city-country interaction. We’ve made friends with lawyers, artists and farmers, among others, all in one spot. It’s enriching.

I know many people dread the trucking that urban marketing inevitably involves, and they mind the traffic and the noise. After 30 years of making the 2-1/4 hour trip to D.C, I've learned that while the trip may be irritating in some ways on some days, the key to continuing with it week after week is to limit the number of trips you make. Make it a small part of your workweek, not all that you do. When success comes with one city market, some farmers are tempted to increase their number of marketing trips and find themselves on the road more than off. Don’t burn yourself out or your won't even feel up to making that once-weekly trip.

Go to the city, and enjoy it. Financial benefits are undeniable, but they are not the sole rewards of making the trip. Don’t be afraid.

Make the travel itself as easy as possible. Have a good truck (with cab air conditioning a must) so that you don’t break down, worry constantly or melt; pick days with less traffic (Sunday is perfect); and go at non-peak times. Prepare ahead for market to keep stress down. There will always be some days at market that make you want to quit and after which you don’t think you can drive home. But for me there have been more positives than negatives in the arrangement and I don’t think I’m so unique as to be the only farmer able to say that.

The reason I wanted to tell the story I’ve chosen today is to try to convince some of you to open your minds, go to the city, and enjoy it. Financial benefits are undeniable, but they are not the sole rewards of making the trip. Don’t be afraid.

And if you do get caught in traffic, try to remember soon you'll be back in the country with time for yourself, beautiful surroundings, a little more money in your pocket and lots of new things to think about in your head.