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, June 13, 2011

It's better to sell out than throw out

The months of May and much of June can be odd times at the farmers markets, particularly for small farms. It often happens that by the end of the first hour we are sold out of our most prized veggies of the day. It often leaves people to ask, "Why don't you bring more?"

In fact, a few people have taken the time to explain to me the following impacts of us selling out:
  • It reflects poorly on the market when customers arrive and can't find produce;
  • We're only thinking about ourselves and not the people we need to feed (who consequently can't get our produce); and
  • People who have never been to the market before will arrive, find no selection, and never shop at a farmers market again.
Admittedly, most of these comments are offered in the spirit of direction, not of discussion. As a result, I very rarely get a chance to explain the marketing strategy of a small farm at the farmers market. While most of those offering me instruction likely don't read my blog, I will nonetheless take a moment to explain our objectives at the market.

First and foremost, we want to sell out. One of the first things my farmer mentors taught me was that it's better to sell out than to throw out. Some extra produce at the end of the day gets donated to local charities who pick up leftovers at the market. Some goes back to the farm for us to eat. Some ends up on the compost pile. None of it earns us an income. We never like to short customers on orders, but we also have to be realistic about what we can grow considering all factors such as weather and past sales history.

Second, we often don't have more product. As a small farm, we often take what we have. And the market is busy. Yes, we sell out of 144 pints of strawberries in an hour and we couldn't pick more before the market. Of course, if I could bring enough produce to sell everyone exactly what they wanted, I would. But the beauty of the farmers market (for the farmer) is that sometimes I only have a half-case of spinach and I can sell it along with everything else I have that week. The beauty (for the customer) is that the creative chef will be surprised by what arrives on a given week.

Third, produce doesn't keep. When we don't have refrigeration and automated misting machines at the market (a la grocery stores), it makes it difficult to hold produce through a four hour market, especially on a sunny day. Strawberries or raspberries picked ripe won't last. For heat-sensitive produce, we bring what we know we will sell in the cool, early hours of the market. The best farmers markets start early in the day and don't last more than four hours.

Fourth, we plan based on sales of the previous week. When we sell out of chard after the first hour of the market, we increase what we harvest for the following week. We also watch weather forecasts for each market day and have to decide whether sales will increase or decrease because a market falls on a long weekend. If sales of a product were rotten one week and then the same product sells out the following week, we're something left baffled. It's a tough guess at times, but we try to send what we think we can sell.

So, that's a bit of the logic behind the farmers market. Ultimately, we also have to keep in mind that we're one small farm and we can't feed everyone. Rather, we try to support markets and encourage other small farms so that we will have a diversity of farmers at markets, able to meet the needs of our customers' menus. I remain confident that a multitude of small farms can meet much of our society's food needs.

An efficient food system, in my ideal, means little waste and a diversity of growers -- including traditional farmers, urban farmers and gardeners galore. If we can do this by selling and using everything we grow rather than by throwing out surplus produce we're onto a good thing.


  1. It is interesting how people want to tell you how to make the market fit their needs (like not getting up early). I have had people ask why we don't "keep" some bread for later in the day. (Snort!)

    The smaller makers of any kind of fresh food are faced with the same balancing act of math, weather forecasting, product forecasting and magic. Chris at Rise Artisan Breads goes a bit crazy before each and every market, trying to get a formula that doesn't end in him having left over products (with ingredients he's paid for) or left with nothing to sell half-way through the market.

    But the freedom of being a small producer is a "perk" that is hard to find elsewhere. I guess that's what keeps all of the Chrises (and other Farmer's Market Model fans) going.

  2. Chris

    Great post. Lovely to see all of you this weekend. yes you are definitely battling the mentality of people used to getting whatever they want from a grocery store and always being able to get more.

    I see the big picture here and the benefit of small farms producing great produce for people to get at the market. If you are out then you are out but it's the early bird who gets the worm here and is at the Farmer's Market ready to get the good stuff