Market & farm stories, 8/21

This was a great market for us; two tents and five tables of produce, the first good tomato harvest of the year, and other things doing well. Lots of customers, best income of the year. Thanks, all. Wanted to share some interesting stories and observations from a tiring but excellent couple days.

Friday’s harvest day was memorable. Started with storms at daybreak, which passed just in time for our morning employee to arrive. Took us most of the day to get everything in, all the while watching for expected strong weather to develop. Finished with the field work just in time as more storms rolled in, and spent the late afternoon planning for the larger display we’d need to hold all this stuff, and figuring out whether it would all fit in the truck or whether Joanna would have to drive in separately with more restock.
By evening, we were back out in the barn selecting strings of garlic, when the real storms hit. Seeing the darkness suddenly accelerate, I had just enough time to run (literally) around doing all the evening animal chores as winds gusted around me and lightning marched closer. Back in the barn, we finished preparing the garlic while winds, rain, and VERY close lightning swirled around us. Didn’t go back to the house until the storms moved on enough for comfort’s sake. Storms continued overnight, and I only got a few hours of sleep as I can never sleep through thunder (not afraid, just a very slight sleeper). We received 2.92″ of rain, thankfully stopping early enough for the stream to go back down before market departure. Some vendors reported over 5″.

We had a problem with the edamame; somewhere in the harvest process, the 1sts and 2nds got mixed up such that much of the bulk we brought to market contained lower grade beans than we normally sell (we consider any pod that isn’t fully fleshed out into beans an unsellable 2nd, and normally cull these in the field as we pick). So we chose to sell most of the day’s stock at 25% off, about the percentage of 2nds, and apologize to people who bought it that they’d find some deformed and unfinished pods. I doubt most people would have noticed anyway, but we feel strongly about maintaining our high standards. That was a pretty significant loss, right there, but a good lesson in paying close attention to harvest procedures. As it turned out, we missed our ambitious income goal for the day by $10, far less than the loss on the edamame discount. %@#!

Market itself felt really busy, a steady flow of people all day through noon. I could measure the effect of the latest massive egg recalls myself, as we’re normally set up next to Stanton Brothers Eggs, who at times had lines down the market like you normally only see for first-of-season peaches or sweet corn. It was their first sell-out of the season, empty well before close of market. I overheard the word “salmonella” a lot. A good thing short-term, but it’s going to take a lot more steady customer demand to support the continued growth of small farms that is needed to really make a dent in the current food system.

Demand for garlic continues to be strong, and we’ve been getting many requests for seed garlic as well. I hope everyone enjoys the tomatoes. We decided to pick some slightly more green than usual; given the expected strong weather, I didn’t want to lose all these to winds and heavy rains, so I hope the greener ones get to sit for a few days before use. The green ones do travel a bit better than the really ripe ones, though; ripe heirloom tomatoes are very fragile indeed.

Stopped by a grocery store on the way home and were shocked, as usual, by the prices and quality of produce. Shrink-wrapped, battered organic zucchini at $6 for two (approx. a pound). We charge about a third of that (& the highest at market) for squash that are at most a few days old. Old-looking, bruised, conventional heirloom tomatoes from New Jersey were marked down from $4.99/lb to $3.99/lb (pre-sales tax). We charge $3/lb (sales tax included), actually not the highest at market. We’ve taken a lot of grief on our okra prices, but the grocery store didn’t even have fresh okra, much less good, tender okra, much less organic okra. And this was one of the higher-end stores. Why do people complain about prices at farmers markets? Do they not go to grocery stores? Maybe I’m biased now, with years of nothing but on-farm produce, but much of what I see in stores these days is of the grade we feed to chickens, much less to employees, ourselves, or customers.

Even with good sales, we had a lot left, as did most vendors. Right now, supply is outstripping demand. We left 34 lb of squash with the Food Bank truck, and brought home more than that in tomatoes that we’ll spend much of the rest of the weekend canning and freezing. My insider understanding is that market attendance has plateaued over the last couple years, in the low 4,000s. The site just can’t handle many more people than that on a regular basis without driving customers away due to congestion. In fact, one customer noted that the parking lot was completely packed this morning. Too bad, because it’s costing vendors money in the produce they can’t sell. All any of us can hope for is more customers who shop for the week, not just the weekend. I’m grateful for our restaurant contacts, which take a lot of fresh early-week produce I don’t want to save for market and which I couldn’t sell there anyway.

The market celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, and at noon we all adjourned for a low-key potluck and ceremonies to mark the occasional. It was the right touch; nothing fancy, nothing expensive, just a grill and a long line of tables and people from past and present milling around. I appreciated the simplicity; sometimes you just let things speak for themselves instead of dressing them up too much. We weren’t terribly social; both dead-tired and thinking of the leftover produce in the truck (only partially protected by coolers), we mostly sat on the grass and observed. But it was good to be there and show our appreciation for the organization that, so far, is the foundation of our farm’s success. I’m glad I gave two years of service to the Board already, to feel that I’ve earned the right to be there.

This got pretty long, but a lot happens in that Friday-Saturday window where everything else on the farm stops while we make our main income. Now it’s hopefully an early bedtime and start up the cycle again tomorrow, beginning the harvest of restaurant produce Sunday morning along with maintenance, fall planting, and so on.

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