Sunday, April 28, 2013

Notes From The Farmers' Market

It occurred to me when her blue eyes smiled at me. Scratch that, they twinkled! She did not stop to talk but just smiled as she passed by.

Visiting a farmers’ market is healthy. Not just because of the food, but because of the interpersonal connection. Something magical happens when you make eye contact with others.  Suddenly you are one. Or not. Some folks like to talk, some do not.

For some reason, I dislike the phrase, “How are you?” It feels contrived. I find myself telling passersby “Let me know if I can answer any questions.” And that seems to be a neutral invitation for conversation that doesn't immediately obligate one for extensive personal reveal.

Then, the connection either grows or is broken. It is unlike reading a Facebook post or receiving an email. It is a two-way interaction that rests light responsibility on both pairs of shoulders. I've learned it is okay to always be myself – foot-in-the-mouth and all – regardless. I can’t help but be myself. Besides, I hear everyone else is already taken.

Interestingly, repeat customers know what they want and typically don’t read your signs anymore after about the second visit. This is, again, an opportunity for conversation. If an individual chooses just one or two items, I always say, “What else?” instead of “Is that all?” – and open ended question is better than a closed-end question and the reason for this is not to make another sale, but to expound upon an opportunity to learn about your customer. “ I've got lettuce growing at home,” they might say to which I always smile and encourage anyone that attempts to grow their own food. It seems contradictory but really, it’s to everyone’s benefit to grow one’s own food, and creates a ripple effect that cultivates all of our roots – we all have this in common: the necessity to eat. Not one of us is immune to that need.

One of the greatest things about the interaction of the farmers’ and their customers is the invaluable feedback that returns from week to week. “Your lettuce keeps so well, I still have some left!” This is valuable to us, and to consumers, and we growers will remember this as our experience grows. Feedback, negative or positive, is essential to good customer service. I've come to offer the vulnerability of telling the truth – the heat makes lettuce bitter, and that if they experience anything that makes them unhappy, to come back and tell me, and I will replace it. So far, everyone that has come back has told me that they have loved the fresh food. This makes me happy.

What also makes me happy is that people seem to smile more at the market. There must be something in the air. Maybe it’s the fresh morning breeze.

Getting to know your fellow vendors is important, too. Most often, if they don’t smile – smile at them first. It’s free and they can’t help but smile back – it would make them look like a jerk if they didn't  yes? It can be like an awkward dance, at first, especially if you and another vendor are producing like items. The produce world can be brutal. Dealing with perishable crops and being at the mercy of the weather and persistent pests can cause stress. Stress can help us become better farmers and better customer service providers. Competition, on a healthy level, is usually a good thing. Sometimes, when a farmers wears too much of a frown, especially when he or she looks my way, it might be a sign that they are having a bad day. Or, it could mean that they’re just jealous. Wait, that’s what I just said! Or, it means that it has nothing to do with me and that comparison is the thief of all joy. Be like a duck and let it roll off.  Better yet, extend your hand and smile in grace and mercy and open that door to conversation. You might be surprised.

On another note, kids (of ALL ages) like to touch. It’s always good if you can have something out front for people to squeeze, pinch, smell and feel. I learned this from a gentleman who genuinely loves to grow plants and is a very talented grower and is very much a people person. The senses are very much a part of the farmers’ market experience. Put a bouquet of herbs out there – lemon balm is always nice to touch and smell. Interactivity is the basis for our relationships. It starts with the twinkle in the eyes which starts with the smile.

See you at the market!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Winning Friends, Influencing People and Cheap Spinach

Today I learned a lesson over again. You can't please everyone all the time. You can only please one person at a time. Today was not my day.

I learned something else, too. Slugs will eat holes in your Wong Bok. They will also eat holes in your Romaine lettuce. Fire ants will take up residence in your raised beds, laughing at you because they know you refuse to use poison (diatomaceous earth slows them down and even makes them move, but then they come back and with a vengeance.) I hate slugs. I'm thinking of inviting them to an all-you-can-drink beer-fest. "Leave your keys at the door, boys and girls!" Heh heh heh.

When I price my spinach, Romaine lettuce, radishes (let's not forget the voles that take tiny, teeny little bites out of the radish JUST as it becomes ripe, the little twirps), turnip and mustard greens for market, sometimes I have to remind myself that here in America, we pay less for our food than most other developed countries. It seems bizarre that I would labor for hours, days and weeks over a few ounces of spinach only to practically give it away. Especially poignant is when people say, "oh, it must be nice to stay home and garden. I wish I could do that." But they forget that there are no acrylic nails here, the hair salon visits are years apart, and that hands are not Palmolive soft - they're more like #50 sandpaper and catch on any nice clothing you may have, but not wear, as it is too muddy, dusty, or you-name-it out there.

Today I learned that I really appreciate all of the things that Captain Strong Arms does to make our lives just that wee bit easier. Like the automatic chicken waterer. And the goat milking stanchion. And the list goes on. He was out there with me in the greenhouse tonight, until just a little while ago, holding the flashlight. Yes, you read that right, flashlight. An 8 am farmers' market in a county 30 minutes from here dictates an evening harvest. We'll see how everything holds up.

I'll try to remember to take pictures tomorrow.

Happy Farmers' Marketing everyone, 'tis the season! Support your local farmers, don't haggle them down on price, and ALWAYS WASH YOUR PRODUCE before you prepare it.


Saturday, April 6, 2013

Farming Is....

I'm up late, or early, rather, as it is technically Saturday morning at 3 am. I've surveyed all the problems in the world and have determined that life is a lot like farming. "Farming is a profession of hope," said Brian Brett. There are so many things that resound with me regarding that statement.

Photo by Shannon Thompson

Today was one of those days. It was great, it was tragic, and strangely simultaneously normal.

I'll break it down:

Eddie and I went on a field trip for homeschool - the Discovery Kids is a terrific way to show children how the imagination can trump a pile of worksheets any day. After several days of Language Arts, Math, Spelling and Science - we put the "hands on" into our learning day. We both had a great time. What we didn't do was take pictures. I opted for joining him in the fun, and so I did not traipse around with my camera. He especially liked the water "exhibit" where he pretty much got drenched, played with boats, and unknowingly learned about density, gravity, displacement, and pressure.

Sadly, whilst we were having fun, another baby chick in our brooder died. That's two in two days, too high of a mortality rate for this soft-hearted farmer. We buried the baby and talked about why, sometimes, life with animals is really difficult and sad. Farming is hard.

Later, upon watering seedlings, transplanting some Swiss Chard and Kale seedlings, I looked upon two of my cabbage patches to find that Hattie had helped herself to my early cabbages. So much for taking those to market. She had let herself out of the open gate that Captain Strong Arms had left ajar while he was picking up the manure to add to the compost pile. At first, I was seething, "damn cow!" I said. But when I realized she could have done so much more damage, I stopped and felt gratefulness creep in like a kind reprimand.

Sigh. Farming is frustrating. And scary. What if some of my crops fail? What if I have to resort to using chemicals to prevent a total loss of a certain variety to pests? What if Hattie gets out again? What if I'm not good at this?

Sometimes I wonder why we do it. The grocery store is just 8 miles away. The jobs are just over an hour's commute north, east, and west of us. Is it because it's in our hearts? A nagging sense of duty that cannot be shushed away? An unending call from day to day to grow, nurture, cultivate and share? Once in a while unwanted doubt creeps in and takes a seat, "you can't grow enough to support your family and a farmers' market. Who do you think you are? You don't know what you're doing."

Farming is sometimes full of self-doubt.

Photo by Shannon Thompson
It certainly isn't for the recognition - the fame, or the money - the fortune. Farming is developed. I was going to say it is in your blood, and while I do believe that to be true, I'd say that something can be in your blood without being embraced. It has to be developed. Cultivated.  

What are you cultivating?

I'm signing off. Breakfast is just a few hours away. See you on Facebook for a morning mid-day photo.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Holding My Own Pen

When it is silent in the greenhouse, there is a lot of time for thinking. No noise pollution - just the singing of the birds - it is quiet. Often it takes some adjustment to hearing your own thoughts - we are so used to being conditioned to always be doing something; listening, watching, reading. I welcome the quiet of the greenhouse. It forces me to think about what I'm doing at that very moment. Being present takes getting used to.

What I thought about yesterday while starting lettuce seeds was, "Who are we?" Instead of the age-old adage, "We are what we eat," which is mostly true, I wondered, "What story are we writing with our lives?"

No answer came quickly, but as I painstakingly prepared the soil-less mix and counted each seed one by one, I began to realize that we are writing our stories as we go along.

Who (or what) is holding your pen?

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