Friday, 23 September 2011

A Day In the Life of a Farmers' Market Vendor - 100 Mile Produce

One of the big questions whenever a farmers' market is set up, is "what sort of vendors will be allowed?" Many people who want to shop at farmers' markets immediately think, "Farmers only! No re-sellers!" The trouble is that finding people who farm all week and then are willing to spend the 1 to 3 days a week at the market, working from (say for example) 5 o'clock in the morning until 2 pm, not including the commute, is pretty much impossible for a number of reasons; not the least of which is that if you are spending 2 or 3 days a week at a farmers' market selling, you are not farming those days. And if you are not farming for those days, then you don't have enough to sell at a farmers' market 2 or 3 days a week, and if you are not selling at a farmers market 2 or 3 days a week, you are not making a living - especially when you are talking about vegetables.

Consequently, most farmers' markets of any size have re-sellers at many of the booths. Of course, there are re-sellers and there are re-sellers. If you are trying to eat local food and want to deal with farmers, should you avoid them? Not necessarily, although there are some unscupulous vendors out there, of course. There are also some very good and interesting ones that are an important part of the distribution system for local produce. I'm probably going to talk more and more about distribution on this blog, because it's a big difficulty for a lot of local farmers and producers.

Many of us recognize on sight the folks who have piles of out-of-season imported produce on their tables, and know that they have bought it at the Food Terminal and are re-selling it. Some of us avoid them, but they do stay in business, so obviously a lot of people don't mind! It's much easier to recognize that someone with a narrow selection of goods, in season, is probably a grower. And yet, these are not always the easiest vendors to buy from. There's something more appealing about stopping at a vendor with a good selection of different items to choose from.

Consequently, there are also a number of farmers' market vendors who fill a middle niche - they often grow some of the produce that they sell, and they also sell produce they acquire in other ways. I spent a day travelling around with Robert Foreman, who sells at Keady market on Tuesdays (where I got to know him) and also at St. Jacobs market (Thursdays and Saturdays), and who is one such vendor. His company name is 100 Mile Produce.

Since he is at market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are spent acquiring and preparing produce for the next day. Yes, that's a 6 day week. He used to go to a Sunday market too, where he would sell whatever was left over from the week. He's been doing well enough this year though, that he has little left over and can skip working Sunday. He's been doing this for 10 years.

I arrived at Robert's 24 acre farm just south of Wingham at 10:30 on Monday morning, as he prepared to go around and gather the produce he would need to take to Keady the next morning. He had already been on the road for several hours at that point, having just returned from dropping off 500 pounds of rutabagas in St. Clements.

We started off with a tour of his warehouse, really a large shed behind his house. It's a large, clean cement-floored space with two walk-in coolers, and this odd-looking piece of equipment. I couldn't have guessed what it was, but it's a cucumber grader. You dump the cukes in at one end, and they fall through progressively larger gaps as they travel along it, sorting themselves from smallest to largest. Robert says it saves him hours of work each week when cucumbers are in season.

A few years back, he spent $20,000 to enlarge his warehouse and add a loading dock, another improvement that has saved him hours, not to mention his back. Cases of vegetables can now be wheeled on and off the truck easily instead of the constant bending and lifting required before.

Behind his truck lie some of his fields on one side, and his barn on the other side. He is using neither of them at the moment. His barn is used by a neighbour for beef cattle. In exchange Robert gets the manure for his vegetable fields, and the neighbour cultivates his fields. The neighbour gets to use the field on the left every second year as part of this deal, so it's in soybeans this year as it's his year to use it. That's half of his land; the other half was planted with 9 acres of sweet corn (3 remaining to be harvested) and 3 acres of pumpkins. In addition, Robert rents a tractor for $700 a year. "I'm not a mechanic!" he says. (I've mentioned before how so many farmers need to be.)

This was a theme that came up again throughout the day - none of the farmers and gardeners we spoke to could do this on their own, in isolation. Farming is not for rugged individualists; it is a communal activity. It's really impossible to talk about "a farmer" doing anything all by themselves, let alone selling at market. It's almost always a bunch of farmers doing something.

This was the first of Robert's coolers, which he got second hand from a fast-food restaurant. Right now it's actually being used to keep vegetables such as tomatoes and potatoes warm. The season for tomatoes is coming to an end as cooler nights begin to damage them. Soon they will be killed by frost, but right now there are still plenty, and his are being kept sheltered from chill damage in the (turned off) cooler, and also ripening a bit more.

The other cooler is also a second hand one, from a butcher shop this time. This one is being used as a cooler. Right now, it's low tide in the warehouse, and it contains only bags of beets and a few odds and ends. Our goal for the day is to fill this cooler in preparation for the market at Keady tomorrow.

Our first stop was Gorrie Line Produce, 44106 Howick-Turnberry Rd, RR#1, 3 lines north of Gorrie and just off to the east side of Gorrie Line. This Mennonite-run business is a combination retail shop and wholesale vegetable and fruit warehouse.

The shop wasn't open yet and looked a bit empty as baking and other products had yet to arrive. There was a good stock of preserves and honey though.

We pulled up behind the shop, between it and the warehouse.

Inside the warehouse, bins and cases of vegetables stood ready. We loaded up some carrots and onions, and Robert asked about getting some garlic. This was not actually for his market sales; he wanted to get some to a young couple who were moving north in the spring, but who wanted to get garlic planted at their new farm soon as now is the time to be planting it.

Robert deals exclusively with Amish and Mennonite farmers, and as someone who travels around with a truck he is often able to transport items for them that they would not easily be able to move around using horses and wagons. Sometimes this is done as a sale, sometimes this is part of the web of mutual favours that help make up a community. In this case, he was selling the young farmers the garlic, although at a considerably lower price than he could have sold it at the markets.

The garlic in question wasn't actually here; it was still at the farm where it had been grown, being cleaned.

Nothing to say about this; it's the yard at Gorrie Line Produce and I just liked the picture. Next we are off to the farm to pick up the garlic.

Garlic has been a bit difficult this year. It's selling very well. He had 3,500 pounds but it has all sold. In addition, one of the farmers growing garlic for Robert had nematodes in his, and it's mostly unsaleable and completely unplantable. Fortunately, one of Roberts' friendly competitors has only needed about 60% of some garlic he contracted for with Gorrie Line, and Robert has his permission to buy the rest of it. That will get him through the rest of the season.

At the farm where we are to pick up the garlic, we find the farming couple in their plastic covered greenhouse. I loved this greenhouse! It was still packed full of heirloom tomatoes, and was a slightly warm and pleasant place to be on a cool rainy day. We had a lively discussion about different tomato varieties, and they gave me a Pineapple tomato for the seeds. Hopefully, it will be in the garden next year.

I was very impressed by their cherry tomato plants. Even outside, they do get big, but these must have been 9' high as they had reached the ceiling. The tomatoes are obviously winding down, but they were still large and impressive.

The greenhouse is heated in the spring with a wood-burning furnace.

There's an upper room above the furnace where seedlings are started, mostly empty now.

From there, you can look out and see the vegetable gardens and fields behind it.

They had spent the morning picking beans before the rain got started. These beautifully sorted beans were for another purchaser, who supplies to the restaurant trade. They were perfectly sized and arranged with all the stem ends together, and the farmers sold them for 4 times as much as Robert pays for his beans, in unsorted sizes and higglety-pigglety. I imagine they were four times the work to pick, though.

Robert (and most other buyers) won't buy beans or greens picked in wet weather, because it will deteriorate too fast. The farmers don't want to pick them then anyway, as it isn't good for the plants either. Consequently, Robert ended the day a little short of beans and greens.

We had found the farming couple cleaning and sorting garlic when we arrived. They were happy to sell it, and when they heard it was to be planted to stop cleaning it too, in exchange for a slightly lower price.

Outside, some of the gardens were planted with buckwheat as a cover crop.

Traditionally, gardens have been mostly womens' work in the Mennonite and Amish communities, but as it becomes clear that there is money to be made in market gardening the men are getting involved as well.

We continued to travel from farm to farm, although we did stop back at Roberts' farm at one point to drop off the collection so far, and there were some other chores, such as stopping to gas up the truck and replace a defective windshield wiper. In all, I believe we visited 7 farms, although I lost track after a while. The one above was fairly typical; large tidy farmhouses with large tidy gardens, often with a shed turned into a small shop for their produce, or at least a sign out front advertising farm and garden produce for sale.

The social aspect of the farm visiting was an important componant of the day. These are people with whom he has been working for over 10 years now, and with whom he hopes to work for years to come. People who don't have much to sell him today may have something he needs in the future. There was a little haggling about price that I saw; it might seem odd that in all the cases the guy who was buying (not always Robert) was offering to pay more, and the guy who was selling was requesting less. But everybody is aware that the deal has to work for all concerned, not just today but in the future. As is usual with haggling, they generally met in the middle. It was just amusing to see the usual process reversed.

We also spent an hour and a half at the Bruce-Huron Produce Auction; I'm going to post about that separately later.

I tend to moan a little about how standard all the produce is at farmers' markets, but here's one reason why. Robert saw some seeds for white cucumbers at William Dam, thought they looked interesting and got them for one of his farmers to try. They haven't sold at all; no-one wants them. Good thing the farmer didn't plant very many.

That, by the way, is how Robert's agreements with his farmers work. He buys the seeds, and any sprays (generally fungicides) required. Sometimes he buys some of the equipment needed. The farmers supply the land, the labour, and some of the equipment. In general, Robert gets about 50% of the final selling price of the produce, and the farmers get 50%. It does vary a bit by vegetable. For more labour intensive crops, the farmers get a bigger cut. That would be things like beans, green onions and asparagus. For some things, he gets a bigger cut, for example beets. They are easy to grow and harvest, and he bears the cost of storing them.

Robert decides how much he is likely to sell of the various vegetables, and that's the amount he requests from his growers. He's on the hook for that amount; if they grow it for him he is obligated to buy it. If the crops fails, as crops sometimes do even for the most experienced growers, it's up to him to find a replacement source.

Out of his approximately 50% cut of the final selling price, he has other costs. He spends about $3,000 per year on seeds, a little less than $9,000 a year to rent space at the farmers' markets, and about $1,000 a year on liability insurance. Then there's the cost of running his vehicles - he does as much as he can out of a modified mini-van to save fuel and reduce his carbon footprint, but he also has a small cube van. There's the hydro for his coolers. He does hire help; he has university students help with growing and harvesting his own produce and selling at the markets in the summer, as well as some younger students hired on a more casual basis. When all is said and done, he hopes to keep 30 cents of every dollar's worth of produce he sells.

The gardens are winding down. Once Labour day is past, sales at Keady slow down considerably. After Christmas, Robert has no more market sales until asparagus season starts. He works at the local Co-op for a couple of months in the spring, organizing seed sales and mixing fertilizers. The pay isn't great, but it keeps him in touch with the local non-Amish and Mennonite community, and gets him through a slow time of year.


Tara said...

Fascinating post! I've been lurking for a while (even though I'm in Quebec, I figure our seasonal vegetables are pretty similar). I've enjoyed your blog this summer as I try to think more locally about food and where it comes from. Cheers!

Bright Smile said...

Very interesting post! I live in Toronto, without much experience of farms, or farming, so it's super interesting to see the process behind aspects of farmers markets. Thank you.

Peter Tschirhart said...

Wow, that really opened up my eyes! Great report, thank you for it.

Anonymous said...

Really interesting post. I never knew what was involved in both farming and farmers' markets and this opened my eyes. I'm due south of you, in the states.

Norma from Misty Haven Alpacas said...

Enjoyed this educational...and I'd say Thanks!

Ferdzy said...

Glad you all enjoyed it! It was a great trip.