I began harvesting at 7 am, packaged Swiss chard, kale, salad lettuces, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, and fresh-cut herbs by 8:40 am. Loaded cooler, readied vehicle and changed clothes – by 9 am I’m turning the key in the ignition of the old mini-van and am rolling west-bound toward the farmers’ market. Arrive and set up by 9:50 am. At 11:30 am I have counted the dollars that have come across my quilt-covered table and I can’t deny being a bit disappointed. Sixteen dollars and fifty cents grace the bottom of my change box.
With just over two hours to go, I chat with fellow vendors on either side and across from my table. There is abundance of squash, tomatoes, lettuce, blackberries, green beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and some specialty items such as sprouted grain whole wheat breads baked in a wood fired brick-oven and pasture raised poultry and fresh-from-the-farm free-range eggs. It’s a delightful scene..
Everyone who’s ever grown a market-garden and attended farmers’ markets knows that they take time to grow. As this market is brand-new as of this past May, it would be wrong to have high expectations in regards to sales, but it would also be wrong to believe that it is sustainable to spend, by the time I arrive back home and unload the van, just over eight hours and have brought home (hopefully) twenty dollars. That breaks down to two dollars and fifty cents per hour, folks. Hardly a wage to behold – keeping in mind this does not take into account the fuel used to travel the 56 mile round-trip and the time, seeds, water and other tools used in preparation for the growth and harvest of the produce. And we all know that when beginning a business, especially in the agriculture world, one cannot even begin to look at recovering the cost of their time. Out the window it flies, whether we’re having fun or not.
My kale and Swiss chard seems to silently scream out, “Pick me – I’m GOOD and I’m NUTRITIOUS – I haven’t traveled 2000 miles nor have I been sprayed or dusted with any kind of chemical, EVER!” the passersby head to the tomatoes and jellies on the table next to me. Or, they stop at the table two stalls over for the great looking red and green cabbages. I don’t begrudge them their choices, nor do I feel ill will toward the fellow farmers. I want everyone to succeed.
Second in nutrition only to spinach, my Swiss chard is a sleeper, with few knowing the power of the vitamins, minerals, and protein wielded within (yes, protein). Although not one ounce of anything is ever wasted on our farm, even if the greens did go on a 56 mile round-trip, for if we can’t eat it right away, it goes to the pigs, chickens, cow, horse, goat, rabbit and the guinea pig. Sometimes my dogs look at me with forlorn eyes as though they think I might believe they could become vegetarians. Although Sam, my border collie, will dig an avocado skin out of the compost pile every single time I put one in there. The symbiosis is almost enough to make up for the lack of revenue. Almost.
“This area won’t support a farmers’ market,” they’d say. I refused to listen for almost three seasons. As stubborn as a mule, and able to argue with a post, I have been determined to direct market my fresh, local food to the very people with whom I share zip codes with. The first season, 2011, I sold my eggs. I quickly learned that Joel Salatin nailed the mindset when he talked about customers coming to the market with a $1.49 bottle of soda in their hand while complaining that three dollars per dozen for farm-fresh free-range eggs was “too darn much money!” The second season, my husband, in charge of going to market as my AmeriCorps VISTA duties required that I adhere to a strict “no moonlighting” policy, lasted only until the end of June. He became thoroughly disgusted when he could not give a tomato away let alone sell one. He quit. And my heart ached. This year I resolved to farm full-time. I told my husband, “It’ll be different; I’ll grow other things that we won’t have to try to give away.” Here I sit with my Swiss chard. It’s the end of June. I’m a wee bit worried.
If I weren't in the midst of reading Forrest Pritchard’s book, Gaining Ground, I’d be even more than a wee bit worried. I’d probably cry. Never mind that I had to take a deep breath when 1:15 pm came and went while my cash box increased by just eleven dollars. This brings my grand total to $27.50 today. In the book, on page 188, the paragraph that resounded with me most began,
“Just like a farm, markets had to be tight and good enough, too. Each tent was like a little garden unto itself, with a farmer tending to its needs. Collectively, these gardens created a landscape, a market unto itself. But no matter how excellent the presentation, no matter how fresh the produce, regardless of how well these farmers watered and weeded, tilled, and toiled, the work was all meaningless if there were no customers to buy the food.”Sigh.
Don’t get me wrong, I've had good days. Days when I've sold out and left the market early because I had nothing left to sell except for a sprig of basil and two bunches of orange and chocolate mint and maybe a dozen eggs. I LOVE growing food and I LOVE going to market. There is something special about meeting the people who are going to take home MY food and turn it into a part of a meal that will nourish their bodies. Developing relationships with individuals and families is extremely important to me. I've come to know many market-goers by name and if I saw them somewhere else, I would stop to ask them how they are doing, and walk away smiling because it was food and a farmers’ market that allowed me to know them. I’m honored to grow food for those who want it.
As I drove home today after a debauched errand my heart sank lower than it has felt in weeks. Between the end of the market, which yielded not one additional penny, and driving home I had a chance to read more of Forrest’s book. I’m still a dreamer. This paragraph resounded with me heavily:
“All farms require a resident dreamer, someone to thumb through seed catalogs in the cold days of late January, imagining summer fields of squash and cucumbers, tomatoes and sunflowers. Fall harvests are the reward of winter dreams. Someone must decide where the next fence should be placed, or conceive of a clever new way to organize the market stand. On a farm, there’s no shortage of little dreams needing to be dreamed.”
I must credit my husband with being the dreamer-in-chief. There have been countless conversations – early morning, late night, and in between – about keeping our feet on the ground. I've been called a pessimist when I was simply being what I thought was a realist. “But what a about ‘you-fill-in-the-blank?’ I would ask. His answers would vary, but always firmly root in the fundamental soil of ‘If we don’t try it we’ll never know.’ He has stretched us, as a family, and caused me to question everything I have been taught and told. I suppose that is one of the driving motivations for turning to farming in the quest for making a living – question everything. Often I tell people that everything is an experiment – learning the hard way teaches me the best lessons. And sometimes the most financially stressful ones, too.
It is good that the farm has been officially and affectionately dubbed "small-timey" because I'm feeling rather small and vulnerable right now - like a seedling just transplanted before a big downpour. I'm either going to make it, or I'm not. My vote is for the former.