Are you open? Also fall is coming – did you know?

Look, the truth is, I’ve been a grumpy old man since I was about, mmm…twelve.  But really, when you look around, are people leaving me much choice?  Picture this.

Friday afternoon, a nearly empty parking lot.  A lone pick-up truck, laden down with display boxes, coolers, buckets and crates of vegetables.  Behind the truck is a white tent, erect and tied in the back to the truck itself, in the front to a pair of cinder blocks.  Under the tent are two empty tables and another that has yet to be unfolded and set-up leaning against a tent leg.  A midst all this is a man, in his thirties, shirtless, sweating and running around like the proverbial headless poultry.

Babies and vegetables

Crates of vegetables begin to come out of the truck as the man jumps up and down from the tailgate, darting this way and that, stacking crates here, setting empty display boxes there.  Now…does this sound like the description of a farm stand that is open for business?

Of course not.  This sounds like a farm stand that is getting ready to open for business.  Picture it in your mind’s eye.  Can you see it clearly?  The farmer is literally running from place to place with vegetables flying everywhere, no shirt on.  Obviously this is not a person who is ready to make a transaction.

And yet, every week, every week mind, at least two people (at least two!) come up to my stand when it, and I am in this state and ask if I’m open or if they can buy this or that.  It’s slowly driving me crazy.

At first I thought it was just the principle of the thing.  I mean, if you think about it it’s pretty rude.  What you really mean is, ‘can you drop everything you’re clearly doing so I can have what I want right this minute?’  Thinking it was just the principle of the thing I tried, I really, really tried, to get over it and sell whatever item said person wanted at that moment.  But after you’ve done that enough times you start to notice a pattern.  When market actually starts, a clear sign being that all the other vendors are there, fully set-up and interacting with customers, I’m not yet set-up because I stopped to help every person who interrupted set-up.

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This is an incredibly stressful way to run a market stand.  Once the market officially opens and all of the early regulars (the people who come every week at the start of market) are there and ready, it is terrible to be half set-up, balancing the stupid scale, looking for that roll of quarters, the price tag signs still in their bucket and half the items still in coolers.  That last part is the worst.  If things aren’t yet out and my regular customers don’t see something, it doesn’t get sold.  That costs money.  Let’s remember that despite the lofty, environmental and/or social goals that many of us farmers have we are ultimately at the farmer’s market to make a living.

All that said, I’ve finally decided to change tactics.  Recently, I’ve been putting up obvious barriers to persuade people to wait.  You know, more obvious than the empty tables and the shirtless vegetable tossing marathon.  Last week I put up a rope across the front of my tent and put out a sign saying the stand was closed until I took down the sign.  It worked!  People waited patiently, making pleasant conversation on the other side of the rope.  Then, when I had everything in place and all set the way I like it, displayed to my standards, organized, scale balanced and ready, change purse set to go, etc. I took down the rope and went to it.

Then, this week I tried the same thing but instead of a black tie down strap I switched to bright orange.  I had no less than three people come up and ask me if I was open, or if they could buy x, y or z.  One guy actually walked up to the stand, started asking me questions and reached over the rope to get a bag and start picking through my carrots (one hand over the rope holding the bag open, the other straining under the rope to reach what he wanted)!  Seriously.  It happened.  Luckily, by that time there were a couple of the other vendors there and they were all entertained by my seething fury.

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So this morning I modified the approach again and I think I’ve nailed it.  My EZ-UP tent came with sides.  I can close the entire thing off and make it like a room.  So I did.  It was blissful.  I was able to completely set-up my stand in peace.  I got to market an hour and ten minutes early, took my time, set everything just so and even had time to rearrange some of the display with which I wasn’t happy.  Then, I left the stand, went to the bathroom, came back, visited with some of the other vendors and still opened fifteen minutes early.

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And all day long I had people commenting about how nice the display looked.  The point here is that a farmer’s market display doesn’t just happen magically.  There is thought and effort and creativity involved and each week it has to be tweaked as new items ripen and others go by.  There is serious consideration of marketing and artistic principles.  To be sure, not every farmer follows these principles.  Some simply show up with so much stuff they can overwhelm customer’s with shear volume (Pile it high and watch it fly [this is literally a marketing strategy...look it up]).  But the rest of us that aren’t that big or don’t have (and refuse to use) free, child labor want to make sure our display is excellent.  And that takes time and concentration.

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So if you’re the person who asks if a farmer is open during the scene described above…please don’t.  Just be patient.  I know we live in a society where the vast majority of us get pretty much what we want, from food to information, when we want it.  But real food is worth waiting for.  And if you don’t think it is the reality  of the situation is, I don’t really need your money.  I’d rather take my time (let’s face it that’s why I get to market so early when I can) and miss out on a couple bucks before market even opens and then spend four hours enjoying myself and the company of my customers and fellow vendors.

All on the garden cart waiting to be hung up to dry.

All on the garden cart waiting to be hung up to dry.

On a different note, I harvested our garlic on Monday and it’s now hanging in the barn drying.  This is a building year for me with garlic.  Here again, I’m changing tactics.  Two years ago I planted over 8000 cloves of garlic.  I tried to get big.  It was an abysmal failure.  Going for quantity in place of quality cost me a lot of hours of labor, mine and that of the people who work for me.  So I finally decided to veer off that course.  Last fall I planted just over 100 cloves in different varieties after selecting only the very best bulbs for planting.  As a result, this year’s garlic harvest is brilliant.

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Unfortunately, I don’t really have any to sell.  I’ll be saving most of it for replanting and expanding my stock again.  I’ll never get back up to anything close to 8000 cloves but I need to expand and garlic, like so many other things is not a cake you can eat and have.

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But many of my fellow farmers will be selling it this year and you should start keeping your eye out at market for it (once the farmer’s stand is open of course).  It’s that time of year and there isn’t anyway to avoid it.  The garlic harvest is annually my first hint of fall.  Soon the squashes and pumpkins will start appearing out of nowhere in the field, the apples will change the rainbow in the orchards and the potatoes will need to be dug.

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But a change in the season doesn’t mean you need to refrain from eating locally produced, extremely fresh, healthier food.  It just means you put on a sweater when you head out to market.  Local food.  Eat well – be well.

Ryan Parker

About Ryan Parker

Ryan Parker is a farmer, writer, artist and musician. He currently lives in Central Maine with his wife, two children, a golden retriever, some pigs and chickens. He raises pastured and forested animals and grows a diverse range of vegetables without synthetic chemicals, pesticides, herbicides or taxpayer subsidies.