In this week’s Field Report, food and agriculture in the IPCC’s summary report, new drinking water limits for PFAS, and policy debates over food insecurity.
August 8, 2013
Editor’s note: In honor of National Farmers Market Week, we bring you a view from the other side of the market stand.
I’ve spent over 1,000 Saturdays and Sundays selling at farmers markets, and even after all this time I still love to answer questions. Farmers markets are one of the few places where customers can directly connect with their food, meeting face-to-face with the people who grew it. Questions are expected at market, and even encouraged. From livestock breeds to production practices, organic certification to chemical usage, I’ve been asked just about every food-related question under the sun.
Though most farmers will happily answer all inquiries, there are a handful of questions that make even the friendliest farmers want to choke a carrot. If you don’t want your farmer to turn three shades of beet red, here’s the reasoning behind four questions every customer should avoid.
1) Was this picked fresh this morning?
So what’s wrong with this question … you just want to know if it’s fresh, right? That’s totally understandable. But let’s take a moment to think about how a farm really works.
Imagine market has just opened, and it’s 8 a.m. For the last hour and a half, the farmer has been setting up his booth. Before that, he drove two hours to get to market. Sometime earlier he brushed his teeth, made a pot of coffee, and—with any luck at all—put on his pants. At what point this morning would he have had time to pick 20 bushels of tomatoes, 100 pints of blueberries, or gather 50 dozen eggs?
Truckloads of fresh food don’t magically load themselves in fifteen minutes. It takes many hands many hours to pick basketfuls of green beans or apples. This doesn’t even count moving the harvest from the field to the packing shed, or loading it onto the truck itself.
So when should the harvesting happen? At 2 a.m.? I’m picturing a bleary-eyed farmer with a headlamp, picking corn with one hand and drinking coffee with the other. As Rachel Bynum of Waterpenny Vegetable Farm explained to me, most market produce is picked a day or so before (depending on the fruit or vegetable), then loaded onto the truck in the cool of the evening before market day.
If you want it any fresher than that, you’re probably going have to grow it yourself. In the meantime, let those farmers get a good night’s sleep! Which leads me to my next question…
2) What time do you get up?
This one’s a classic, something I’ve been asked hundreds of times. Farmers are famous for being early risers, so it’s understandable if people are curious about a specific hour. So why add this question to my list? Because—as I’ve learned from years of experience—there’s never a satisfactory answer.
For instance, if I say, “Oh, about 6 o’clock,” the questioner’s face turns thoughtful for a moment. “That seems kind of late, doesn’t it? I mean, I get up at 5:45 myself.” If I say “A little before 3,” their eyes go suddenly wide. “Why do you have to get up so early? To milk the cows or something?”
One day, I realized there’s only one correct answer for this question: 4:30 on the dot. Not too late, and not too early. Not too lazy, and not too crazy. 4:30 a.m. is the Goldilocks of responses.
So in case you were wondering, all farmers—everywhere—get up at precisely 4:30 (although I sometimes hit the snooze button on my rooster). Any more questions?
3) I know you’re not open yet, but I’m in a hurry … could you sell me something before the bell?
Hello, Starbucks? Sorry to call so early, but your door is locked and I really need a latte. Could you open up early just for me? I’m in such a rush, and it’ll only take a second!
Where else in the world could someone get away with this question? Despite how it might appear at first glance, it takes farmers a long time to set up their booth each morning. Trucks must be unloaded, tents erected and produce arranged. If farmers opened early for even one person (and I’m talking to you, Latte Lady), they’d never be ready for the opening bell of market. Which is a perfect segue to my last question…
4) Since it’s the end of market, can I get a special deal on what you’ve got left?
This one’s a little trickier. I once asked my friend John Hyde, a baker for 25 years, what he thought about discounting leftovers at the end of market. His face lost all expression as he gave me this advice: “Forrest, that path leads to madness.”
He elaborated. “If we gave discounts at the end, then people would simply wait till the last ten minutes of market to shop. And what about the loyal customers who paid the normal price? They’d be insulted to learn they got charged more for showing up on time. It’s always better to donate it to a food bank than to discount things at the closing bell.”
Markets must never become Priceline.com or GroupOn, where last-minute deals and discounts are the norm. In order to stay in business year after year, farmers must get the price they ask for. Discounting at the end of market might seem harmless and even logical, but it’s an unsustainable practice for the farmers themselves.
Farmers markets are a place where customers should expect to have all of their food questions answered. But just like anyone else, we farmers get a little grouchy from time to time (it’s probably because we get up at 4:30). So bring your shopping list, your cloth bag and your farming questions, but leave these four at home. You’ll be a ‘market insider,’ and your local producer will love you for it.
This post originally appeared on SmithMeadows.com, along with other posts by Forrest Pritchard. Pritchard has a new book out this summer called Gaining Ground: A Story of Farmers’ Markets, Local Food, and Saving the Family Farm.
Photo courtesy of Bead for the World.
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1. Limited choice - obviously these are left overs and they are not getting top of the line.
2. Not so fresh - Fish especially are not good and strawberries that sat out for whole day are not very good.
3. I would rather let product go at a reduced price or donate to food bank rather than waste. Fish cannot be donated so I have to trash it or sell.
Also, while LocalFisherman does have a point with some products (like seafood, which has a very limited shelf life), we don't drop our prices at the end of the market either. It devalues our products, and does a disservice to our loyal customers who show up earlier in the day.
I have to say Erin is fairly correct about the amount of change.
Every morning we start the day with a certain amount in the till, and often, because many people get their money out of an ATM, they pay in $50 notes.
That depletes our change quite quickly if we get a heap of $50's in a row.
Then we have to swap for change with the stalls next door, who are also in a similar position...
I reckon the same note/coin can go around the market from stall holder to customer, and back again! ;)
Even $20's are easier to give change :)
Is this homegrown?
I only bring $20 to the market, and I've spent most of it. So I only have $1.98 left. Can't you sell me that ($8) jar of jam for that? It didn't really cost YOU anything to make, did it?
We've taken Joel Salatin's advice and redirected the 10 - 12 hours a week we'd spend on farmers markets into developing buyers' clubs. That gives us all the benefits of both markets and CSA without any of the headaches. We'll occasionally do a farmers market to introduce ourselves to a new area where we don't have any clubs, but that's it.
The only other question: "will you take a check (on a local bank)? That's because I stopped on impulse and don't have enough cash to pay for everything I want. If they say "yes" I make it worth their while. If they say "no" I spend what cash I have with them and then move to someone who will take a check. We don't have a large market so it's easy to patronize all of the sellers. I'm a farmer too so I KNOW how hard they work and I want them to stay in business. NEVER QUIBBLE about the price, folks! Either be willing to pay what it costs (like you HAVE TO DO) at a grocery store or walk away.
Oh, and customers should stop asking if we "grew it". Heck most of it we did and the rest of it someone "grew" so what's the diff? These are the same customers who fork over retail price if they buy anything and we wouldn't dicker price with them anyway after suggesting we have to grow everything we sell. What nonsense.
#1. Vendors don't have the time to give you a lesson in basic retailing economics.
#2. The quality and care is what costs money.
#3 So does gas, labor and non-Monsanto seeds.
Also, discounting at the end of the day because it is 'left over' is silly. The produce and products at a farmer's market might be sitting there for a day, versus being a week old (or more) in a grocery. If the farmer is going to discount at the end, they will do so without you having to ask.
My farmer's market sells Dole bananas. In the northeastern US. "Is this homegrown?" is a GOOD question at some markets!
And when people ask me where the fruits/veggies for my jams come from, I proudly point to the farm stands at the market and say most of what I make comes from farms like them!
I have a good relationship with the other folks at the market. We help each other, and we mock the people who come to market to gripe about prices or conditions or whatever. We are selling at the market because we are proud of what we do, we are proud of what we grow, and we are proud to support small LOCAL farmers/business/families.
Please, do NOT assume that haggling is the way to go. If the farmer wants to give you a deal, fine. But would you be happy if your customer (or boss) haggled with you over the work that you had done. These are usually NOT factory farmers. They do not have economy of scale (which, as near as I can tell, does NOT mean better product, but worse and cheaper).
My eggs are more expensive than our (somewhat local) big producer. They are also WAY better. I do not have 15,000 birds in a barn, but 150 on a farm. It takes more time for me to find the eggs (they sometimes hide them) and sort and pack them. If you do not want to pay for quality, go away.
My usual answer to 'when do you get up?" was "When the cat makes me"
Also, I don't think it's unreasonable to ask if the food is grown at a local farm - far too many farmers markets allow retailers to attend. I want to know who made it and what their practices are. I really don't care if the are 'certified" organic, just that the aren't certifiable.
I love my farmers!
Never once thought about asking for a discount, except when inquiring about ordering two dozen (24) pies in advance of the market next week, for a company event. In this case, I never had the chance to ask for the discount because the baker immediately offered a twenty percent (20%) discount for the quantity, and I wrote a check for the full payment in advance.
Long-live farmer's markets, CSAs and Co-ops..
Here are 3 added items for consideration: (1) some workers may be personally compensated by the farmer/owner based on barter and/or selling so that perishable items are not wasted or tossed. This is not first-hand experience, this is what we've been told by a few workers (not many) so they are motivated to bargain. (2) for us selling our frozen meat, the price is the price. Whether it's in our freezer or someone else's is not an issue. We explain that the only "deal" we have is that the bison are here at all in any form since they were nearly made extinct 100 years ago. Also, we give no discounts for volume requests. It is not in our best interest to try to replicate commercial stores or volume/commodity type behavior and thinking among those seeking us. That may be what helped create farmers markets in the first place; those distribution chains were closed to small volume farmers. (3) For those customers who are buying on price alone, at least for us, we respectfully explain they will be happier buying at Safeway or Ralphs. If they leave and don't come back, we are better off since they won't support us beyond a price point If they stay, they understand that by supporting us and helping to keep us in business, they are better off too.
The farmers we know who have great products we deeply value and respect. We show our respect by paying full price and never asking or expecting any bargains or deals. They are growing food for my family for goodness sakes. They deserve every bit of financial payment, esteem, regard and respect often expressed to doctors, engineers, - perhaps even moreso today than ever before.
Those looking for "deals" or those who may want to manipulate a time sensitive situation so they can financially benefit may have just insulted the value of a farmer's honest and heart felt labor. That labor and how it contributes toward good health and nutrition of my family is priceless!
Thanks again - great article!
Also I ask and will always ask about farming practices used by a seller. I'm willing to pay the price but want locally grown and truly organic.
My 4 questions to farmers at our market are always (in this order):
1) Do you grow/raise all of this? (Selling another local farmer's stuff is fine, but there are a couple of vendors who resell from our wholesale market. I'm looking to put more than the average 8 cents of my food dollar into the pocket of a local farmer, not a middleman)
2) Where is your farm? (I want local, and I might want to visit :D )
3) Do you use pesticides/herbicides/chemical fertilizers/GMOs? (Organic certification is expensive, and I'm interested in supporting my farmer, not the certification agency, I will gladly pay more for functionally organic produce that isn't certified) Or in the case of buying animal products: What do you feed your animals? Do your meats contain nitrates/MSG/etc? (I can get conventionally raised meat products full of nasties I don't want for well under half your price at the supermarket, I will gladly pay a premium for a superior product)
4) When was this picked? (Sweet corn picked last week is not awesome, and if that's what I wanted I'd be at the supermarket. Sweet corn picked yesterday is awesome, and I'm willing to pay a premium for awesome)
I understand why LocalFisherman would need to reduce prices or else have fish leftover. I do not understand why "limited choice" is even on there as a reason behind dropping prices. If you feel that you are not getting something that was lovingly hand-picked and fresh, then you can come earlier when there is more of the same exact product or go somewhere else to shop. I suggest a grocery store.
Farmers pick how much they have to because the product either has to be picked or else rot or because they've planned ahead to how much can be sold. So, you should congratulate the farmer who only has a couple melons/bunches of kale/fish/etc. at the end of market because that means that they sold what they thought they could and didn't bring too little. It does not mean that the quality is any less.
I know that there are some crops that don't do very well. Last year was a hard year for potatoes, and I know a bunch of farmers who had "Charlie Brown" potatoes for a reduced price. These were a completely separate product and price than the regulars. That is a completely different idea. If we, as farmers, don't value our products at the end of the market, then why should our customers? It is also a different story when someone calls me to ask for a specific quantity of a product, places an order, and I bring that to the market, set aside for them at a slightly lower price. That is called a wholesale order.
Thanks for hearing me out. I think this is a very important topic for farmers to discuss in their families and farming communities.
Around here, it is a common practice to label certain crops, such as "South Carolina peaches" or Bogue Banks watermelons" or "Pamlico County corn/potatoes/cabbage" etc. I've never had anyone refuse to tell me if chemical fertilizers or pesticides were used, although some people do seem to think it's their agricultural philosophy that's being questioned rather than the status of their produce as a possible trigger for an allergic reaction.
For what it is worth, in my personal opinion, if the seller wants to sell those wilted collard greens and limp strawberries at the end of the day when they are no longer fresh, he or she should offer a discount. Otherwise, load 'em up and take 'em to one of the shelters. Nobody is forcing anyone to sell them at any price. If a potential customer wants to make a counteroffer to the posted asking price offer of sale, the producer can just say "no."
Farmer owned Co-ops and buying clubs are where it's going for us. It's still direct marketing, but it's organized and can be scaled. We see it as the most efficient way to not only move our products, but the best way to contribute to organizing our local food distribution infrastructure. We're working with our farm community rather than being in competition with them, and we're feeding way more people in the process. Plus, we can stay home with our families on weekends rather than being stuck in traffic on a freeway coming back from the city, dead tired from the 3am loadup from earlier that day.
I expect to see higher prices when I go to Farmer's Market, but sometimes, even that is hard to swallow. I have to work hard to keep my body and soul together, just like everyone else.
I even believe that farming can be seen as a higher calling, but for farmers, just like anyone else, to take themselves seriously enough to not realize they are at a MARKET, not a church, then the self-righteousness is a bit out-of-hand, and in my opinion, in it for the wrong reasons, only because they will not survive.
These are probably all growing pains: I recall a lone farmer with a meager crop grumbling that the CSA was a doomed concept, just a scam meant to pull the wool over the customer's eyes. My guess is that his endeavor was the one that was doomed, not the businessperson/farmer who found an equitably valued way to finance his/her operations for the greater good. Not the same as "you should unquestionably pay me what I ask, because I'm making enormous sacrifices for YOU." So, maybe humor me when I ask (from your enlightened perspective) stupid questions.