Life and thoughts from a small-scale organic farm . . . and its farmers

This is a blog that explores ideas around the growing of food and community at Glen Valley Organic Farm.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Going to market

Going to market is almost always a highlight of the week for us. It's an opportunity to get off the farm, meet our customers and to do a little bit of shopping for the week ahead. There is something exciting about the energy and pace of the market which comes as a great contrast to the long days of often-solitary work on the farm throughout the week. I've heard some people even describe the market environment as addictive.

This year, Jeremy, Rob and I have shared the responsibilities of the Lonsdale Quay, White Rock and New Westminster markets, each taking a turn at one of the markets every three weeks. Our apprentices Adam and Cat have shared working at the Langley Market.

Here's a rundown of a market day along with my editorial comment. I took some photos from the last couple of markets I worked -- Lonsdale Quay and White Rock.

For the weekend markets, the day starts early with loading the truck -- at 5 or 6 a.m. When everything is loaded in the height of the season the market truck should look something like this:

While driving to the market we sometimes get a great view of the sunrise coming up over the mountains and valley.

And once we arrive at the market, it's time to transform an empty square, parking lot or park into a carnival-esque market scene. The White Rock market is held in a square between two condo towers. On this particular week someone threw old food from their window at market vendors during set-up. Maybe the set-up time is too early for some people on the weekend. We were lucky no one got hurt, though, given that the package fell about 15 stories.

At our Lonsdale Quay market on Saturday mornings we have the ever-able Storm who helps us. He's been part of the market scene for longer than we have and knows how to navigate piles of produce boxes and set up a market stand with his eyes closed.

Once everything is set up we occasionally get an opportunity to admire the presentation before starting to sell. If we finish setting up too early before the start of market, our customers begin to get a bit anxious for having to wait.

A major part of market set-up is presentation. Making the food look beautiful in large piles and orderly rows goes a long way to helping sell everything.

We try to be strict about only selling after the advertised opening time. At Lonsdale Quay there is no strict start time, although the market is advertised as starting at 10 a.m. Until two years ago, we started selling as soon as we were st up. But our customers started arriving earlier and earlier.

One week I pulled the truck in to begin setting up at 7:30 a.m. and there were two customers waiting who proceeded to take boxes off the truck and began rummaging through for produce. We were sold out before the market opened, much to the dismay of customers who arrived on time. That's bad market management.

The next week I arrived with a rope and a handful of coffee cards. I tied off the stand and told customers we would no longer sell before the advertised start time. I handed out coffee cards so people could get a complimentary coffee on the corner and wait. People complained fiercely, other vendors continued to sell early and the market society didn't care.

We still sell out and customers appreciate knowing when the market actually starts in order to plan their days. We've maintained strict start times since. Remember, the early bird only gets the worm. Everyone else gets some organic produce with their worm.

Every so often before the market starts a market manager comes by to talk to us. On this particular week in White Rock, Market Manager Helen came by to tell us that we should have a tent over our stall. I had forgotten the tent that morning. The health department gets upset when we don't have a tent because they're afraid birds will poop on our produce and cause mass pathogenic outbreaks. It's amazing what they can dream up in their offices.

It was a great day for working without a tent (no rain). Jeremy forgot the cash float the following week. In the past I've forgotten the tent, the scale and the float (not all on the same week). Any one of those instances could lead to a terrible day. But we managed to recover each time thanks to the generosity and ingenuity of other vendors and market volunteers.

Then we can finally get to work selling food. The weather has a major impact on how busy it will be (I understand that people don't eat on rainy days). Lonsdale Quay is the one exception to this rule. The north shore is always wetter than anywhere else in the Lower Mainland and its residents know that they have to brave the rain or spend much of their lives indoors.

If all goes according to plans, our stall is more-or-less empty within a few hours. By the way, we don't sell off produce at the end of the day for lower prices. We take it home and eat it.

When people try to get food for less than the marked price we respond in one of two ways. On a good day we simply explain that we won't undermine the price other customers have paid and that the posted price reflects the value of the food based on what it costs us to bring it to market. On a bad day we ask people to buzz off.

Our philosophy for farmers markets is to sell out rather than throw out. We could take a lot of produce to keep the stall fully stocked until the end of the day (and probably achieve some additional sales), but much more food would be wasted. Rather, we order up or down on a weekly basis depending on previous weeks' sales and the weather forecast.

Supermarkets have fully-stocked produce sections and it means that a high percentage of their produce gets thrown out. In fact, most supermarkets don't make money on produce. The real profit is made from packaged food that can sit on shelves for months and doesn't have to be thrown out. They sell produce cheap as a loss leader to get people into the store.

And before returning home to unload the market truck we stop off at the local Co-Op gas station to fill up for the next market trip. It's a good reminder that despite our attempts to sell local, we're still dependent on oil for the moment. There's still work to do.

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