Too Many Farm Markets?


From GENE LOGSDON

I never thought I would see this happen: throughout the local foods movement, there are complaints now from the farmers saying that there are too many markets and marketers. That means less money for each farmer, the ancient problem that never goes away. Lynn Byczynski had the courage to bring the issue up in the September, 2010 issue of her excellent publication, “Growing For Market.”  Lynn points out that in the case of local farm markets, the problem is more one of distribution than numbers. Some areas have lots of them and some areas don’t have any. To remedy that, that is to increase the number of customers everywhere, “we need to educate people about the entire spectrum of food issues (health, nutrition, food security, farmland preservation),” she writes.

All well and good, but my mind keeps wandering off from the practicality of the problem to more philosophical thoughts about the whole business of business. If farm marketers think they have it tough, try making a living from writing. Everyone is a writer these days. It takes very little overhead to get started, and requires, at least in the minds of those who want to try it, very little preparation. Anyone with the gift of gab who can scrape up $3000, can get their book published if they can’t find a publisher. The result is that there are so many books out there that it is impossible to keep track of them, let alone read even a fraction of them. Most books never make a penny and the writers don’t care. They are in it simply for the pleasure of seeing their work and name in print or have a cause they are pushing. I feel guilty every time I encourage a young person to become a writer for money just as I feel guilty encouraging them to become farmers for money.

What words of wisdom do I need to hear in this regard? Is it really admirable for me to encourage young people into farming and into local food production as a business, knowing that while many are called, only a few are chosen? My experience is that encouragement can in some instances be downright harmful. Bullheadedness and luck are what brings success more often and then success does not always bring contentment but only nervous breakdowns. But how do you tell a person with great dreams and great intentions about farming that they are too nice to make money at it?

Farm markets have a related problem no one wants to talk about. The professional farm marketer often gets upset when an amateur out on a feel-good expedition, wants to open a booth at the market and practically give his or her produce away. This happens all the time. Yes, the amateur doesn’t last, but a steady string of them can hurt sales for the professionals. We all believe, or say we believe, in free enterprise but if you are the farm market manager, it is hard to resist the temptation to ruin this last bastion of free enterprise and set floor prices.

My deep, dark thoughts are extremely impractical. I’d like to see a world where food production (and writing) would be removed from the money game entirely, which is what we do with our backyard gardens and our personal journals. What if we were all responsible for our food just like we are responsible for bathing or brushing our teeth. Obviously that wouldn’t work. We all need money, but it hurts everything it touches.
~~

26 Comments

I quit my job to farm and can and sell full time a couple of summers ago. Yes it was a whim, but I only needed to cover a few bills to stay afloat. I made canned goods of all sorts including jams/salsas/crock brined pickles and sauerkraut. I also sold some of my rare or unusual heirloom veggies. This was the only way to go because I couldn’t compete price wise with the retired farmers on sweet corn/tomatoes/beans& zucchini. Only by selling things like leeks, German butterball potatoes, collard greens, heirloom squash, sweet potatoes, rainbow carrots and various sundry other things that can’t be bought at the produce auction (my market is a poorly regulated WIC market/just a bunch of us in a public green space…no sign in no fees no set spaces)! The pros got mad because I was selling home canned goods (without weight in oz on the label!) but none the less the guys from the health dept. still showed up to by my jalapeño jam. I figure if people are buying stuff out of the back of my minivan they know I didn’t produce it in a million dollar certified kitchen. Anyway that’s my two (or 20) cents on the subject. I did however meet some of the most wonderful people with real old-time knowledge about things like the wonders of scrapple and fellow cushaw lovers!

thetinfoilhatsociety, “guilds” are better known these days as “price-fixing”. Seriously–I’ve known markets to be threatened with this, should they discuss pricing strategy too much. Gene, have you read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn? He has several others in the same sort of “series”….My Ishmael is a necessary sequel, I think. Ishmael won a book award for its solution for “changing the world”….he talks about the differences between societies where the food is under lock & key (the “takers”) and where food (and other things) are free (the “leavers”). History is told by the victors–we are the descendants of the takers (and continue to live as such). Anyway–interesting thoughts if you haven’t yet read it.

Great thoughts. And…. if everyone grew some of their food they’d need LESS money. It works. Really. Last week we had a $30 grocery bill and that’s about par for the summer. We grow/butcher 98% of our meat, almost all our dairy in the summer, and grow or barter a lot of our produce. A chicken in every pot? Nope.. how about “a flock for every yard?”

Jay,

You might enjoy the book “Raving Fans.” It sounds like you are doing it anyway.

My wife and I made our first attempt to sell some of our production this year. We quickly sold our entire honey output. This was the first year we kept hives and I was pleasantly surprised at the reception although, with all due modesty, our honey is sinfully good.

Find the right product, preferably a value added product,produce the best and let others scramble to sell the cheapest tomato

thetinfoilhatsociety October 4, 2010 at 7:06 pm

This is exactly the reason for guilds, once upon a time. That way there’s a minimum price established, and guidelines for where/when things can be sold. Of course, it does limit the number of people who can participate to those who pay the guild dues, but it also guarantees a living wage to those who do. And once upon a time, guild requirements held the force of law, and getting beaten quite severely for thumbing one’s nose at the guild or going to jail wasn’t just a fantasy.

Just because you *can* sell a product for less doesn’t mean you *should* especially when it hurts a fellow ‘whatever’.

Hey, don’t fault yourself for being stymied. This is, as you pointed out, an ancient problem, and making each person responsible for feeding themselves has some significant merits as a solution.

Perhaps the best thing that we can do to encourage accurate pricing of food is provide some decent information to buyers and sellers. Let’s say that there was a database for each state in the union (or better yet, each county in each state) where people could input the prices that they were setting & getting for different produce items. Let’s say that it was fairly open so that anyone could post as a “buyer” and more restricted for people who wanted to post as a “seller.” That would allow you to filter results to keep would-be vandals from poisoning the well. Then prospective sellers could get a good look at the going market rate for produce, and other farmers could gently nudge them towards selling at or only just below that price. If you can provide people with information, they will often make better decisions. With this information, the seasoned farmers can be helpful mentors rather than brow-beaters. It would also give market managers who wanted to move to command-and-control systems some decent information to go on when setting their floors.

Now all we need is a few hundred thousand dollars worth of volunteer labor & server space along with a few hundred markets willing to put up with several months of using a beta service.🙂

See! You’re not the only one who can get dark and impractical.

Roof, I certainly took it as a compliment and thank you very sincerely (that’s the trouble with email, sometimes it’s hard to tell what emotions accompany the words)!

Roof,

I must really be slow this week. Now that I see the connection with Beth’s post, it’s really funny.

Thanks for the laugh.

Roof,

I too, it as a typo I couldn’t figure out. The joke was too good to pass up.

Gershon

Beth and Gershon, please forgive me for being a poor writer; I should have written “If writing is a disease, I hope you remain ill.” I was referring to your prior post. I meant what I wrote to be a sincere compliment, and if I offended, I apologize. I will do nothing but encourage your writing, because I enjoy reading, and I learn from it.

Again, I am very sorry if I offended; that was not my intent at all.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House October 2, 2010 at 6:41 am

I have to agree with Roof, first I read Gene’s work because I enjoy his perspective on so many farm related subjects, his wit, and his contrariness, but I also love reading the comments because there are so many thought provoking people who have something to say here. I always come away with new ideas or see a subject in a new light. Of course, sometimes there is the comment that is so specialized/scientific that it is way over my head…….I just love the rural/farming/independent lifestyle because it resonates with me.

Roof, I have to concur with Gershon–no one has ever told me “thanks for being a sicko” before! Other things, yes (although a thank you wasn’t part of the message…). Much as I would like to dream about it, I know it’s not reasonable to withdraw entirely from the money system, but I make, grow and barter wherever I can, have no hesitation about shopping at the Salvation Army or yard sales, or getting things I need from Criagslist-free or Freecycle. It’s amazing how little actual money you need when you live that way, not to mention that when you have less stuff there’s less to clean and maintain. I think Jerry is making a good point about “enough”; we are conditioned to have a nagging sense of needing more, practically from the day we are born. This little ember is fanned by our peers, the media and advertising to a raging flame, and the result is the conspicuous consumption and chaotic destruction of the planet’s resources we see all around us. For myself, I know what enough is; I’m teaching my grandchildren and still working on my husband and adult kids!

Being a market gardener sounds like a tough job with little rewards for all the work. I enjoy growing lots of fruits and veggies to support my wife, kids, and especially grandkids. No amount of money can equal the satisfaction of sharing a home-grown meal with all of them. Watching the grandkids devour all the berries on the blueberry bushes is one of my life’s greatest pleasures. These things keep me planting seeds and pulling weeds.

Doing this for ‘money’ would just make it another job. No thanks.

There is a passage from the Tao Teh Ching that says “Only he who knows what is enough will always have enough”. In the case of money, most of us haven’t a clue as to ‘enough’. Maybe a nice piece of fertile ground and abundant wood and water can put the money thing a little more out of the equation. I’m counting on it.

I’m thinking I’m looking at the whole thing upside down and defending the lack of efficiency in farming at any level.

It costs me next to nothing to produce my vegetables. The land is free as I had it anyway. The water is free as I’d have watered my lawn anyway. I figured my time very closely this year, and I grow $30 of vegetables per hour of work. That’s tax free, so I’m making the equivalent of a lot more.

Given this efficiency, why shouldn’t I sell any extra at a farmer’s market? It’s pure profit. The only reason I don’t is I don’t have many extra.

Wouldn’t the ideal from our point of view be that we all grow our own food?

Roof, this is the first time I’ve been thanked for being ill, but if it pleases you, I’ll go tickle my throat or something.

PeterPansDad, it is so uplifting to me to hear from people like you and other responders who actually take time to ruminate on and discuss what they read in this frantic world of ours. Thank you very much. Gene

What I gathered from Lynn Byczinski’s article on this problem (Growing for Market– great magazine) was not that there are too many farmers per se– just too many farmers’ markets, which is spreading farmers thin timewise.

Every neighborhood wants a farmers’ market, so we’re winding up with a whole bunch of little farmers’ markets with about the same number of customers and farmers that used to go to a few big ones. So the farmers are still selling the same amount of produce, just spending a lot more time doing it and it stops being worth their time.

So as far as I could tell, it wasn’t really an overproduction problem, but more of an efficient-distribution-to-customers problem.

Thanks for being ill, Beth. Same for Gershon. I have to confess, I read the blog almost as much for the letters as for the blog. There are some very bright people who read this thing, and it’s always good to hear their experiences and opinions.

This morning the news told me that Snooki had gotten a book deal. The only reason I know who she is: shows like The Daily Show play clips from Jersey Shore to describe how close we are to the apocalypse. It’s hard to refudiate that, momma grizzly. Ecclesiastes says something about the race not going to the swift, nor battle to the strong, etc., but it didn’t say anything about how damn bizarre things were going to get.

I don’t shop much at farmer’s markets: I buy from people I know and have talked with, so I know where stuff comes from. I’ve bought eggs and processed chickens from the same lady for twelve years: the hens eat good stuff, run free in grass in the sunshine, and know a rooster in the biblical sense of the word. I call before I travel the four miles, to make certain she’ll have eggs for me. I could get eggs cheaper, but I can’t get a better value.

I realized quite a while ago that time is the ultimate commodity; I could always make more money somehow, but I enjoy making friends more. My goal in the morning is to exceed my dogs’ expectations. That’ll keep you busy.

Couple of thoughts. We need money to deal with scarcity. How do we allocate scarce resources without some measure? Should we grow enough zucchini stuff every unlocked car at church? Is there a better use for that soil/time/energy? God help us if we put in a man with a plan to tell us what to do.

I thought you were going to post that the market gardeners, like the farmers they truly are, had already outproduced what the market demands. I’m sure we can grow more than we can eat. I’ll point to zucchini again.

Even good writers tend to overproduce. Thank God you only post your blog weekly. I’m currently four books behind on you. I spend too much time ruminating on and discussing ideas you present. It’s not like a novel I can leave behind. I still pick up “Living at Nature’s Pace” a couple of times each year.

Gene, I think you should always encourage people’s dreams! I have found that even if the dream doesn’t turn out quite the way I pictured it, the journey is great and sometimes the outcomes are even better than I expected. As for money, if you can keep in mind that it’s the “love of money” that is the root of all evil and recognize “enough”, you can see it as just another medium of exchange, no different than wampum. And finally, in my experience, if you’re a writer, you write whether you get paid or not–it’s a disease!

A comment about writing, not farming…everyone does indeed think they are a writer these days. Ask a friend if they are a good singer, or a good artist, and 90 percent of them will say “Oh no, I’m terrible.” But ask them if they can write and 90 percent of them will tell you how really terrific they are. I don’t know why that is.

Well, I know good writing when I read it. That’s why you’re one of my favorite writers, Gene. Thanks for blogging.

I remember reading a few years ago a manual for farmers markets. The main thing it said was not to undercut other sellers. If their product was worth £xs then why isn’t yours worth the same. I run a market (not a farmers market)and the rules are no undercutting.
Pete

” They are in it simply for the pleasure of seeing their work and name in print or have a cause they are pushing”

This was predicted by Isaac Asimov in the Foundation Trilogy a long time ago. It was based on a form of the internet which didn’t exist yet.

This spring I was considering starting a CSA next year. As I ran the numbers, I realized I’d be creating the same problem you describe. Growing is easy. Marketing is the problem. I realized I’d always be at the mercy of my dumbest competitor. And there are plenty of them out there.

So, I made my own garden, and to my delight, managed to grow about half my vegetables for the whole year. I’m the next worst nightmare of the farmer, I guess. But it’s being done only for the delight I’m getting from it.

To hit both sides of the issue, I’m also writing a book. Not for publication, but for the fun of doing it. It’s an extremely narrow topic and there is only one book on it written in English. All the others are in Hebrew or Aramaic. I expect my audience to be one.

Your deep, dark thoughts seem to match mine. When money is exchanged, it becomes a form of prostitution. Whether it’s for religious teaching (a huge pet peeve of mine) or for food, it doesn’t matter. It takes the delight out of it.

Back to the writing.

Here in Appalachian Ohio, many folks have multiple “income” streams to get by. They farm a little, fix small engines, work a paycheck job or two, hunt for the table, forage, and generally do what they must to survive. Barter is a viable form of payment in our area too. (In fact, I’ve made a deal with my orthopedist to take homemade preserves in exchange for reduced fees!)

We have many small farmer’s markets, plus one big one (in Athens). The small markets are a boon for those of us without the gas money to travel 30 miles and back to the big market. This year I’ve gotten cukes, tomatoes (before mine ripened), dried beans, and other produce and will pick up several bushels of apples there as well. If these farmers hauled to Athens, they’d be adding overhead to their costs (gas for travel, fancier set-up to compete with the “big” guys, possibly portable scale, etc.) They get a fair price locally, without a lot of hassle and serve a need here.

I wanted to be a farmer and a writer most of my life. Now I’m both, though neither makes me much money. Both satisfy in ways a paycheck never has. Yes, it means having to scrounge for money to make the bills, but there are not many people who enjoy life quite as much as we do.

That’s something I’ve noticed in my neighbors too. Most are poor and have been that way all their lives. They’ve worked hard. But they’ve achieved a level of contentment I rarely saw when living and working in the city.

Makes me wonder about the necessity of Mafias,Cartels,Monopolies,Corporations,Territories,Protection,barriers to entry,Control.Hmmm…it’s tough trying to be Civilized. Yet,I like Utopian dreams…keep on writing Gene.

Gene, I agree with your comment that “money hurts everything it touches.” I make my living as a working musician, writing and recording. I often battle with myself thinking, “I personally love this song, but will it SELL to my customers?” Just because I love to play 20 minute long blues songs doesn’t mean my customers will pay for that.

Although I’ve never sold produce from my ever growing garden, I’ll admit I daydream about doing the “farmers market booth” a lot. What if I DID start selling some of my produce? How would I make customer relationships in an “industry” I know nothing about? I grow food for the enjoyment (and nourishment) of my family, not for profit. You add money to the mix, the game changes from, “oh well, our eggplants didn’t do so great this year” to “WE’VE GOTTA CHANGE THINGS OR WE’LL BE BROKE!”

Thanks for this post. I know I’m CALLED to grow food, but whether or not I’ve been CHOSEN to grow food is as of yet to be seen. A guy can dream about being an urban farmer, eh? Oh well, back to my guitar I go…

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