Farming for profit, has there ever been a greater oxymoron? Okay, maybe humane slaughter is bigger but let us not split hairs. At least from the small farmer's stand point, when more than seventy-five percent of all small farms in the nation, bring in fewer than ten-thousand dollars a year, of farm income, is there true economic sustainability in small farming. Of course, these are USDA 2008 census numbers. We could have improved since then but it would be, marginally if at all.
This year we changed our business model in that we are concentrating our selling on farm only. The first three years growing, we sold at the bottom of the driveway and we made a modest profit. We abandon the farm for, what we thought were lucrative spots at farmer's markets. We stopped selling at farmer’s markets because we only sell what we grow. Because of our size, we cannot grow, as much so consequently we do not have a large variety. I want to be a successful grower, not a successful vendor. Selling only what we grow is hard because we do not have a bevy of different fruits and vegetables.
This year we decided to break our luck and go back to the farm. We set up signs pointing people up the drive to the house. We got six signs printed up and placed them throughout the neighborhood only to have two signs stolen, the first time we used them. Volume was not as great as hoped for, so we decided to move the veggies down to the street. We are taking the tractor and the wagon loaded with what we have and set up shop at the end of the driveway. It takes extra salesmanship and education but it feels right, lonely at times but at least not ALL day.
Knowing I can tell you the exact history of the fruit, vegetable, egg or chicken should be a valued commodity. The problem is we as consumers, do not ask the questions we should. Next time you are at a market, ask what the name of the fruit or vegetable is. The grower should be able to tell you the common name (lets face it, who can pronounce the Latin names?). Which type of basil or tomato? The point is the grower should be able to give you the characteristic or history of the plant. Another question to ask yourself is the fruit or vegetable in season where you are, in Maryland tomatoes are just starting to come in. Around here people selling sweet corn, before July 4th, are not selling what they grew.
As consumers, we sometimes fall short when sourcing our food, which is why the Maryland Department of Agriculture just came out with language and policies for selling “Local” produce at farmers markets. It goes to show you how widespread hucksterism has become, and how fed up consumers and real growers are becoming. This regulation would not have come about if there were not a large outcry from educated consumers and people that really sell what they grow. That is why it is called a “Farmer’s Market” not a Flea market
Being a small enterprise has great disadvantages, especially, when we go up against the bigger growers and grower associations. We did not take on this farm with star struck eyes but with the realization that failure was more likely then success. We are going back to the model that first made us money and that is by going down front.
That brings its own challenges. We are trying to figure out what is the least costly way to staff the cart. My suggestion bent towards the most logical and cost effective conclusion. The person that makes the least amount, on an hourly basis, should be the person to sit down at the end of the road and read his bug book.
So far, there has been some opposition to that plan from a member of the management team. I do not want to alienate anyone on the management team so I will leave my wife out of this. Seems even though I am not a paid employee (which makes me the lowest earner); I was informed, I have the most responsibility when it comes to overseeing safety, productivity and workforce harmony. The idea is still in debate.
I tried to unionize the workforce a couple of weeks ago but the vote was overwhelmingly defeated. Somebody made the stupid comment that management was good therefore no reason to unionize. I knew then, I was not working them as hard as I should. I have to juggle my roles. We will come up with a mix that allows some of our longest employees the ability to sit down at the stand and talk to customers, while I work in the blazing sun. Let us face it we are not a conventional business using conventional business models. Even though they are young and can work in the heat, it is important to us, to expose them to as many aspects of the operation as we can. in our minds we are molding future growers.
This past weekend we brought in more money then the previous weekend and I think this trend will just continue upward the longer we are down there. In the mean time:
BUY LOCAL: Do your family justice, find a local farm, ask questions and then support it if it feels right. If you do not get straight answers, it is probably because they are hucksters not growers.