Sunday, March 20, 2011

Doing the Farmers' Market

There are those out there that question the viability of farmers' markets; those that would question our commitment to our own market. It is to these folks that the following is written.

Allow me, if you will, to share our story…then, you will see that the Market means the world (quite literally) to us. We truly understand that in order for us to thrive, the Market as a whole must be a thriving, vibrant entity. Please re-read that sentence. The MARKET as a WHOLE must be a thriving, vibrant entity to benefit ALL the vendors!

We came to the Valley in late 1996. It was our plan to live and farm in the north end of the county with family. When this plan came abruptly to an end in early ’97, we were devastated, and had absolutely NO idea what to do, nor where to do it. You have not known desperation until you have ridden around the county looking for a home in the one vehicle you have left with your 6 and 8 year old children in the backseat, and no one has a clue what is going on. Our “time in the wilderness” was mercifully brief, and we found ourselves the owners of an empty piece of land in Middlebrook. Once the house was started, we looked for various ways to survive. The old adage “you can’t go home again” is oh, so very true. We had to make it here…and we had to do it quickly!

Friends suggested the Market. We had grown our own produce and even some proteins for years. We were fairly adept at putting food by, and I’m not a bad baker if I do say so myself. So, early in 1998, Tom attended the Market meeting, secured a spot, and we began planning to become “market vendors”. We had absolutely NO idea what we were getting into.

Our first week was opening day 1998. We made a whopping $66.50. But, we sold out! Tom was excited. His gregarious nature had found its niche. He asked me then “can you just bake ‘till the vegetables come in?” April comes early to the Shenandoah Valley, and far colder than our home further north. So, I began to bake….more and more and more. For ten years, I baked all day, every Friday, often starting on Thursday…sometimes as many as 100 loaves of bread EACH week. Yes, it can be done in a kitchen oven, with a fairly small mixer. It’s called desperation and determination!

From the first time we did the Market, we looked for ways to do it better. We made a checklist of what we needed for supplies. We found a cheap scale to weigh vegetables. We contacted the Virginia Dept. of Ag to find out WHAT else we might need to do. Tom is great at organization and the girls pitched in as well. In some ways, it was a great family adventure. In others, it was just a lot of VERY HARD work!

Over the years, we have evolved a great deal. Once, it was just Tom doing the Market. I stayed home with the girls and cleaned up from baking and took care of the animals. When B got older, she became Tom’s Market helper. She learned how to make change, keep the stand stocked, and settle out at the end of the day. Later, A realized she was missing out on the “fun” and went along as well. The Market served as an incredible learning opportunity for both of them. It is there that they developed some of the skills they use in their present occupations.

As they got older, found other interests and occupations, I became the Market helper. Now, it’s just Tom and me, working together on the farm AND at the Market. I have learned a lot at the Market as well. The personal touch of direct marketing does not come easy to us shy introverts. (yes, that would be me!)

In the early days, I didn’t attend the Market often. We only had one vehicle and two young children. It was too much effort to get the whole family down to the Market by 6 o’clock. There were farm chores to do. In order to complete the milking (by hand) and all the chores, I would have to start before 4 am. I was already doing that on Fridays to get all the baking done. No, I wasn't sleeping in on Saturday mornings...I was cleaning up all the mess from the day before!

Once, on one of my rare Market appearances, one of the Market committee members made a comment to me that changed my outlook and quite possibly our life. She and I were talking about how we were sold out before 10 o’clock. I rather wanted to go home…her comment was “well, you shouldn’t be sold out so early….MAKE MORE STUFF!” Rather than be bothered at her, I began thinking….hmmm, if I made more stuff….it would take longer to sell….We’d have more money…hmmm…! Tom and I discussed the conversation repeatedly. I took her words to heart and “made more stuff”. Every week we would take a look at what sold, or didn’t sell, and adjust our products for the following week. We were successful.

Our Marketing skills and products have changed greatly over the years. Where we just sold bread and the occasion vegetable in the early days, now we sell mostly vegetables, NO bread (thank the Lord) and meat and eggs. We are always looking for new things to grow, listening to customers to learn what things are popular and in demand, and tweaking our customer relations. It’s a lot of hard work, not just Saturday morning, but all the time. Even in the dead of winter, we are thinking toward Market season. We grow things year-round. This IS our life.

We have been at the Market for 14 years now. We have missed only a handful of days during that time. We have quite literally been to the Market despite Hell and high water…through thick and thin. The Market was actually under water one weekend following an amazing rainstorm. B and J’s accident this past April was truly of the “hell-ish” nature. We have come to know and love customers and vendors alike.Strong bonds have been formed over the years. I don’t even think of myself as shy anymore.

I remember the days when a new item met with a sneering “…I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that before”, and our prices were considered “far more than Wal-Mart”. It’s taken a lot of personal determination and public education to make the Market the thriving entity it is today. Despite the harsh growing conditions this summer AND the economy; the Market it still making money. Now, 14 years later, I am seriously UNHAPPY if we make 10 times our first day sales! Just sayin’…

I say all that to say this…we owe our livelihood to the Staunton/Augusta Farmers’ Market, and we KNOW it. The Market has been very good to us, and we have become an integral part of the Market. We wouldn’t think of missing a Saturday…not for fear of losing our space, but because that is our only day to make the income that we depend upon for our survival, and we love the Market and its customers.

When Tom became part of the committee and then the Market Manager, it was not for personal gain. (Let me tell you, the pay is seriously NOT worth it!) It was because he so greatly values the Market, that he wants to see it grow and thrive, because our business benefits from it. There are but a few who feel it necessary to commit to the Market in such a way as to assure its survival. The decisions that Tom and the committee make are sometimes difficult, but always with the good of the MARKET as a whole in mind. Keep in mind that "committee" indeed contains the word COMMIT!!

I could have gotten mad at that committee member years ago. We could have given up when various items were not successful, when things didn’t seem to go our way. But, we didn’t. We kept on trying, changing, and learning. It is a matter of determination AND perspective. If you’re looking for opportunity, the Market atmosphere provides it…but, YOU must seize the opportunity. Seize the opportunity; do not attack the very entity that grants it. Don’t look for someone to blame your failures on, look to yourself and improve yourself.

Tom and I both know how important the Market is to us, and we are completely committed to keeping it a thriving entity far into the future. Our lives, quite frankly, depend upon it!

No comments:

Post a Comment