By Megan Neubauer
The following is an excerpt from Megan’s new Acres U.S.A. publication, Pick-Your-Own Farming, and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Before converting to a pick-your-own, Pure Land Farm was a market garden for five years. This type of farm is typically a small, diversified operation where the farmer brings their harvest to local sales outlets in the community. Overwhelming- ly, market gardens rely on direct-to-consumer sales; in 2011, the USDA’s Economic Research Service reported that two thirds of these small producers earned at least 75 percent of their gross sales through direct-to-consumer transactions, the most common venue for which is the farmers market.
It’s no wonder most new market gardeners head straight for the market, as it has some appealing qualities. The customers are already there, the barrier to entry is low (usually a reasonable weekly fee for the booth space), and the regulations to sell unprocessed, self-grown produce are not complicated. Just grow some stuff and show up. For a new farmer, it might be worth starting out at a farmers market for a short time before launching into pick-your-own to get to know the local food community. There is clear value in marketing, as shoppers at the farmers market are many of the same people who will make the effort to come to your farm, but there’s another benefit too – farmers markets are full of farmers. It’s well worth taking the time to make friends with fellow local growers. When we started out, I was amazed at how generous our peers were when we asked for advice; there are no proprietary techniques, no secret pest control regimens, no seed hoarding to speak of among most small farmers growing food for their communities. If one happened to crack the code on a certain crop, they’d lay out exactly what they did, step by step, taking pains to explain where they made mistakes so that someone else might avoid them.
Those farmers already knew what it took us a couple years to realize; when one small farm succeeds, all small farms succeed. We’re not really in competition with one another. Shoppers at a farmers market expect to see fresh produce above all else, and attractive, high-quality offerings can entice the shopper who used to only buy eggs and vegetables to explore local cheese and beef too. A customer who becomes a convert, a True Local Food Believer, evangelizes to their community and brings others into the fold. When you spend a dollar with a locally owned business, seventy cents of it stays in your community. That money doesn’t just disappear into the internet, like most of our purchases these days; it ripples through your local economy. The people who own those small businesses live in your neighborhoods. When you shop at their establishments, they can pay their mortgages and feed their families. They can donate to fundraisers at the schools your children attend together and support the nonprofits that serve members of your community in need. And they can do all of this while they shop at other locally owned businesses, compounding the impact! Win, win, win.
The Limitations of Farmers Markets as a Primary Sales Outlet
Although they’ve existed in their modern form since the 1600s, America’s first boom of farmers markets hit in the 1970s. Healthy eating went from niche to trendy as Americans started taking more interest in sourcing and cooking with fresh produce. The movement has only grown in popularity since; between 1994 and 2019, the number of registered farmers markets in the US more than quadrupled.
With the increase in demand for high-quality local produce, small farms also increased in number. Add to this the promise of wholesome country living and sunny days spent in service of feeding our communities and it’s easy to understand why many are called to a life of farming. In the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of small farms (defined as one to nine acres) in operation came in at 273,000.
Initially, the supply and demand seem to line up perfectly. Data suggest there is ever-growing demand for high-quality local produce and that there are plenty of ea- ger small farmers trying to meet it. But it’s more complicated than that. In a recent seven-year study in Oregon, nearly half of the 62 new farmers markets that opened had closed by the end of the study, almost a quarter of those within their first year of operation. There are lots of reasons farmers markets fail. They can be poorly run by unskilled managers, they’re often unable to attract high-quality or in-demand vendors, and many areas are simply too saturated with markets to draw sufficient traffic to support them all. We see this phenomenon in our neck of the woods every year. Despite one or more existing markets mere miles away, there’s always someone starting a new market. Everybody wants their very own farmers market in their neighborhood, and on the surface, it seems plausible that creating more sales venues in this way might enable farmers to sell more. Unfortunately adding more markets often has a deleterious effect on the sales at each one, and even good new markets can take years to gain the kind of following that translates into consistent sales.
Over our first five years of farming, we sold at about half a dozen different farmers markets in the Dallas area and our experiences were varied. Good markets have reliable, predictable traffic, an appealing mix of artisans, and a fair representation of what is locally available by season. The best markets support their vendors and create a pleasurable shopping experience for the customers. The very best often have one simple thing in common, the lack of which has tanked many a Saturday of sales in our market days: a roof. The worst markets tend to be inflexible with vendors and lax about their rules, leading to low engagement and ultimately, vendor resentment. Some markets are certainly managed better than others, but there are limitations even a well-run farmers market cannot overcome.
In the beginning, we sold out at every market and were rather proud of our- selves. It didn’t take long to realize that was because we weren’t very good growers. It’s not hard to sell out when you aren’t putting much on the table. Over time, as we became not-terrible growers, the problem turned into selling everything we grew without killing ourselves selling at multiple markets and delivering produce all over town, which added up to a lot of time spent not farming.
Before I tear them to shreds, I want to say unequivocally that farmers mar- kets are not all bad, and we are not suggesting they be abolished. Farmers markets benefit communities in myriad ways, and many of their flaws are not in their control to change. To boot, there is typically no fat cat getting rich on the backs of hard-working farmers behind the scenes; most farmers markets are nonprofits run by volunteers or part-time staff for nominal pay. Some of the beneficial effects of farmers markets on communities include:
- Stimulating the local economy by serving as an incubator for small businesses and by increasing activity in the commercial areas where markets are held
- Creating conscious consumers and raising awareness of the importance of sustainable agriculture by exposing the public to small farms
- Increasing consumption of fresh produce across the board
- Increasing access to fresh food for those in need, with many now accepting SNAP benefits (also known as food stamps)
These are all very good things.
To broaden their appeal, many markets have added local arts and crafts vendors, a topic of some controversy among farmers who believe their presence detracts from the market’s purported mission to be a forum for the community to buy local- ly produced food. In our experience, most “farmers” markets today work far better for those types of artisans than for farmers. I humbly suggest that the term “local market” is a better fit for these venues. While I will happily shop at these markets for the rest of my life, I would never sell produce at one again.
Some farmers sell at the market because they simply choose to do so and always will, but many don’t know any other way to reach customers. If you’re a market gardener with a good spot at a well attended market where you’re able to sell everything you grow and you enjoy it, you’re probably not reading this book. But it should not be automatically assumed that to grow and sell produce directly to consumers, you must go to the farmers market, as is still the default for so many. For Pure Land, that model was unsustainable. We want to show those who find themselves in a similar position that there’s a way to make a living growing food without the farmers market.
Here are the reasons farmers markets didn’t work for us.
Ripe melons wait for no man. As experienced farmers know, many crops picked ripe, at their peak of flavor, do not have the shelf life of the practically in- destructible produce found in a grocery store. Fruits and vegetables destined for distributors are often picked well before ripening, rendering them lacking in flavor and nutrition but very shippable and long lasting, features considered much more desirable to a distributor. In fact, much of the effort in developing new improved varieties has been on improving characteristics such as yield, durability through shipping, and shelf life, as opposed to taste and nutrition.
The disparity in flavor between what you’ll find at the grocery store versus your farmers market is best illustrated with cantaloupes, or more broadly, muskmelons. A muskmelon picked ripe is indescribably superior to what most people are used to eating. Their flavor can be exceptionally sweet and complex, and they are exceedingly fragrant. Ripe muskmelons can be smelled for miles. One day, I was making some restaurant deliveries that included a tote of melons. At one stop, the chef was about a hundred feet away when he caught a whiff from inside my truck and exclaimed “Wow! You got melons in there?”
When ripe, a muskmelon will crack around its stem and release from the vine with the gentlest tug, called “slipping”. There is an unexplainable phenomenon whereby the majority of a muskmelon crop will always slip on Sundays, the day after the farmers market, leaving the market gardener stuck trying to hustle them midweek or store them for the following weekend while they stink up the place and go soft. Even if kept at the optimal storage temperature, the quality of a melon picked ripe diminishes in just a few days and they quickly become unsellable. Some crops are just not designed to sit around for a week. If you consider the flavor to be the most important aspect, as we do, picking them unripe to increase the storage life is not an option.
Some try to get around this issue by going to a midweek farmers market, but it’s not just the time standing at the market table that is sacrificed. It also takes time to pick, prep, store, and load everything, set up and break down the tent and tables, and finally, find buyers for what did not sell because midweek markets are usually poorly attended. All this easily adds up to more than a day spent not farming.
We should care more about the quality and flavor of what we grow and eat, and the way to inspire people is by appealing to their senses. Pure Land customers talk about our cantaloupes year-round on our social media because they’d never tasted one that was picked ripe before finding us and had no idea how good a cantaloupe could be. We’re not going to convince people to support local food if they feel like they can get the same thing cheaper and more conveniently at the grocery store – we have to show how much better locally grown food can be, and that starts with serving it at the peak of flavor and quality.
A four-hour window on Saturday mornings is prohibitively inconvenient for a lot of people who would otherwise buy from you. Farmers markets are generally held for three or four hours once a week, creating extremely limited availability of the products to the customers. A lot of people want to sup- port farmers, but Saturday mornings are a busy family time spent making French toast and shuffling to soccer games. It is just too inconvenient for many to patronize a business that is only open once a week for four hours on Saturday mornings.
We know farmers that have abandoned markets in favor of running their own full-time retail, but that presents plenty of other problems. If you decide to go it on your own, your regular customers must be willing to go out of their way to buy from you. Many may first look for you at the market but settle for purchasing from another farm out of convenience, since they’re already at the market anyway.
The structure of business hours at a farmers market at least creates a schedule that customers are willing to follow; when farms decide to handle their own retail, some customers tend to believe they’re always open. Harvesting all through the week and managing inventory are time consuming and disruptive to a farming schedule, while setting limitations on availability risks losing customers. Farmers who offer orders for pick-up regularly lament customers not showing up, despite being given several days and times to choose from. Then they’re faced with restocking and man- aging refunds. Have you ever successfully restocked a tomato?
Weather is utterly uncontrollable but dominates market performance. This is frustratingly basic, but most farmers markets still take place out- doors. If it rains during the market, the customers don’t skip eating that week. They head to the grocery store. You are the one soaking wet with a week’s worth of perishable product and an empty cash box. Frankly, I’m on the customer’s side here; when it’s raining, very hot, or very cold, it’s unreasonable to expect people to shop outside. I certainly never enjoyed spending five hours outside in 30 degree weather to sell six heads of lettuce, and I don’t blame anyone for not joining me. Our last year of markets, it rained every Saturday morning in June, the peak season for produce in North Texas. I’m still not over it.
There are too many markets. Every neighborhood wants their own mar- ket. Farmers markets are social events where connections are made not just between producers and consumers, but neighbors. You’ll probably never text a friend to meet you at the grocery store to do your shopping together, but a trip to the farmers market entails strolling outside with your dogs, a steamy locally roasted coffee in one hand and breakfast burrito in the other. There’s probably a pony ride or face painting for the kids and you might pick up some vegetables while you’re there, too. It’s fun, I get it. But from the seller’s perspective, creating more markets dilutes the number of shoppers at each one, leaving vendors saddled with purchasing addition- al market setups of tents and tables and paying someone to take product to other markets. One rancher I spoke with said he had to send staff to four markets to make what he used to earn at one market ten years ago, leading him to pull out of them entirely and move to wholesale. We don’t need more markets; we need better ones.
Should you decide to set up and staff booths at several local farmers markets, don’t necessarily expect the same sales as the one you, the farmer, work. Shoppers find it easy to tell the hired help from the farmer, and they want to talk to the farm- er. Staff that can’t describe the farm’s policy on pest control or give gardening advice can be a turn-off to customers.
They come with built-in direct competition for your products. Shoppers rarely make significant purchases from any single vendor at the market because they’re faced with so much choice. A typical farmers market customer might buy carrots from me every week, arugula from John, and strawberries from Pam, even though all three of us have mostly the same produce on our tables. As one of my regulars told me, “I want to support all my farmer friends!” It’s hard to argue with that.
More problematic are farmers markets that permit the resale of produce purchased wholesale from distributors, often grown in California, Florida, or Mexico, allowing vendors to dupe customers into believing it’s locally grown. When revealed, this practice is usually as shocking to market customers as common, which is to say, very. It is an immense disservice to the local food movement for a vendor to display red tomatoes and watermelon at the first market of spring when the local growers have only kale and cabbage. If market management will not commit to being grower-only or enforcing the market’s procurement rules, the vendors often turn to policing each other, creating a toxic environment of people desperate for sales and a pretty miserable place to work.
It’s hard to tell your story. A bunch of carrots looks like a bunch of carrots, whether it’s on a table at the farmers market or in the cold case at the grocery store. What makes your carrots different is their story. Maybe it’s an heirloom variety you’re trying for the first time, and you had trouble getting them to germinate in your crusty soil, so you had to baby them and hand water for a few weeks, but they turned out to be the sweetest you’ve ever grown. Your granddaughter can’t stop eating them raw, but your favorite way to fix ‘em is roasted in a hot oven with a drizzle of maple syrup.
It’s hard to get a personal story like this across in a ten-by-ten tent in a parking lot, a place that feels about as far away from a farm as you can get. This is why you see many savvy farmers hang large banners with pictures of their farm in their booths, to visually make the connection in customers’ brains that I, the person standing in front of you and pictured here on a farm, grew this food on the table with these hands at my farm. Absent the story, your carrots look just like the ones at the grocery store and the higher price tag doesn’t seem justified. Ask any grower at the farmers market, they all have stories about these shoppers. “Wow, that’s so ex- pensive, I can get those two for a buck at the megamart!” Why would the customer pay more for what they perceive as the same thing they can get cheaper elsewhere?
The success of the market is largely out of your hands. A well-managed farmers market secures a good location, has engaging social media, maintains an informative and updated website, and makes the effort to promote their vendors as much as themselves. They schedule special events and musical acts over the sea- son to keep it fun. They get involved with the surrounding community to advertise the market and draw people in every week. Good markets make deals with nearby businesses to provide ample parking and curate a balanced mix of vendors to ensure there is good variety. Bad markets often do none of these, limiting their general appeal to shoppers. Of course, there are tactics you can use to boost your sales. A colorful, bountiful display never hurts. The vendor should always stand, never sit, and greet every shopper as they approach the table. Be ready to take any form of payment so the shopper can spend freely without having to conserve their cash. But ultimately, these tips will only get you so far. If the market stinks, people won’t want to come.
Even inside a relatively well-run and busy market, there can be issues. It isn’t possible for every vendor to be front and center, so there may be farmers with prime booth spots that have great sales while others are tucked in a dead end no one ventures down. Markets that prioritize supporting local agriculture reserve good spots for local farmers, but these are few and far between. The vendor mix can be an issue, too. It’s obviously unwise to join a relatively small market where there are already plenty of farmers. Unbalanced the other way, a market with twelve craft vendors and only one farmer might seem attractive but probably won’t bring in many shoppers looking for produce.
Farmers markets require consistency to be successful, both for the individual vendor and for the market at large. It is in the market’s interest to have the same roster of farmers there every week for as long as they can because it offers consistency and legitimacy to the customers. Market managers justifiably hate having to tell shoppers that the farmer they’re looking for isn’t there that week, regardless of the reason why. Many markets ask that you sign a season-long contract for discounted rates or pay a fee for dropping out early. New markets especially will make a hard play for the vendors’ commitment, and if it’s in a convenient location or you have reason to believe strongly in the potential of the market, it may be really tempting to sign on.
On the vendor side, it takes time to build up a base of regular customers every week, and regulars are every vendor’s bread and butter. Our most profitable and in-demand crops are the ones harvested in the spring and early summer, which is when farmers market attendance peaks here in North Texas. If we had to be present at every market of the season, we’d have to sacrifice some of the spring and summer crop growing space for less lucrative fall and winter crops, effectively putting a damper on our earning potential for the year.
Except for at the very best markets, there are just not enough shoppers. This is in part because there are too many markets, but markets are also facing downward pressure on attendance from new forms of competition. Prepared meal delivery services and kits are gaining in popularity, and some even boast of buying local produce in their marketing, regardless of the consumer’s location (obviously some kind of sorcery). Many of the folks who still cook from scratch choose the relatively new convenience of ordering groceries online and having them delivered. All of these incredibly easy, efficient, and exciting new ways to buy groceries result in fewer and fewer people heading out on Saturday mornings to buy local.
About the Author:
Megan Neubauer is a farmer in North Texas. She graduated with a BS in Biology from Boston University in 2004 and after several years working in biotech and scientific research, Megan and her father created Pure Land Farm in McKinney, TX in 2012. Pure Land Farm uses organic, regenerative growing methods on three acres of thornless blackberries and two acres of diversified fruits and vegetables, exclusively marketing their products using agritourism. Since 2016, Megan has also served as the Executive Director of the Seed Project Foundation, a McKinney nonprofit that funds agricultural, educational and community initiatives that support sustainability, and mentors their donation farm, McKinney Roots.