Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Winter Farmer's Market
A quick Google search yielded no less than 4.5 MILLION entries when I typed in today’s title. WOW! Of course, I realize that this is because it searched for every entry for every single word. But, still…WOW!
Winter Farmers’ Markets are becoming quite trendy. Folks are realizing that the fresh, local food that is so abundant in summer is greatly missed in the winter. There are farmers with farm products available all year and there are customers who are more than willing to buy those farm products. There are all sorts of models for selling in the winter. It should be evident, but for the record the offerings of any “winter market” are far, far different from those of the regular growing season.
Once again, we find ourselves on the “cutting edge”… being pioneers and trend-setters without even trying. This is more than a little amusing. Anyone who knows us, knows that TRENDY is one thing we AIN’T!
While our plan isn’t a Farmers’ Market per se, we have found a way to get our farm products to customers during the winter.
“Back in the day” wintertime was dark and bleak. Not only weather-wise, but our cash-flow ended with the last day of the Market. Any winter expenditures were carefully monitored. We saved like crazy during the summer in order to keep this place operational during the winter. The expenses incurred in February and March to get our Market venture going again were an enormous leap of faith.
Lest you get the idea that we sat around all winter wringing our hands in hopes of making it to spring, we were indeed creative in our ventures. We sold some eggs, did a little custom baking, the Boss had a few odd jobs. We made soap, started plants, and created items for early season sales at the Market. But, it wasn’t until we realized that there was indeed a way to market our goods in the “off season” that positive cashflow became a year-round option. …and Winter-time shortened considerably.
The Staunton/Augusta Farmers Market is a true open air market. That means there are no buildings to shelter the vendors as there are in many other market locations around the country. This is great in the summertime; it adds to the character of the Market. The different color tents and canopies, the variety of display techniques and the myriad of farm products provide a sense of vibrancy and vitality. Along with music, the atmosphere is eclectic and fun.
But, when the cold winds of November blow, the atmosphere changes dramatically. By the last market the weekend prior to Thanksgiving, customers and vendors are all happy to head to warmer venues. I want to note that most successful Winter Markets have some sort of shelter and many move the entire operation inside. This is not a possibility for the Staunton Market, so it has been necessary to devise other plans. As if to drive this point home, October of 2011 saw measurable snowfall at the Market…an historic event that no one wishes to repeat!
Several years ago, one of our “customer-friends” who owns a downtown business, made the suggestion that we set up in their establishment and offer our products for sale. Hmmmm… Did I mention they have a coffeeshop? Definitely, mmmmm…
We had kicked the idea of winter sales around for a long time, but the location had been an issue. In the winter, eggs piled up without many customers. The positive cashflow would really be nice. If we planned well, we could offer all sorts of things for sale. But, we wondered if we would have any takers. After an informal “market survey”, we sat down and did a little logistical brain-storming. We came up with a workable plan, a database was developed; we were ready to go.
When I hit the “send” button on our first farm email, back in the winter of ’08, it was with a lot of trepidation. What if no one answered? What if they didn’t want anything? What if…? To top off my worries, we were hit with a tremendous snow that very first weekend.
However, I shouldn’t have worried. They answered, they ordered, they say they love us. Ah, job satisfaction!
This is our fourth year of offering our farm products in the winter time. We have yet to have a week without lots of answers to our emails and requests for our products. Many times we have sold out of a particular item within hours of sending the email.
Every year our winter venture has grown. We outgrew the warm vestibule of the downtown business and had to say good-bye to Blue Mountain Coffee. We moved our pick-up point to the cold parking lot that could accommodate our truck and trailer. Despite the change, the customers continue to come. It amazes us how many are willing to stand in the cold on a Saturday morning waiting to pick up their orders.
Each week, I write an email, adding a few pics of the week, a few snippets of farm news and note all the things we have to sell. Sometimes the winter weather keeps us from selling fresh greens, but most weeks we have something straight from the hoophouses for sale. Green stuff in January, February and March is a treat for everyone! I don’t think we can ever grow too much. We offer eggs and lamb, frozen vegetables, fruits and jam. There are onions and potatoes offered from cold storage in the reefer. Sometimes, the amounts we are able to offer even surprise us!
Since everything is pre-ordered, the customers don’t have to wonder if we’ll be there and what we might have. We don’t have to stand out in the winter weather, hoping for a sale. Our system seems to work well for all involved.
Every season offers a chance for improvement and opportunities for growth. The challenges change with the weather. We have already determined we need to add a few crops for next winter’s sales. We have folks who are waiting to join our email list.
So, the growing and the selling(along with the seeding, planting and picking…and endless weeding) have become a profitable year-round venture.
While we may never be “trendy” in most aspects of our lives, we’re right in there with our own "Winter farmer's market"!