January 6, 2011

Farmer's Market Decision Making

With the new year in way, it's time to start planning my 2011 market garden. But before I do that, I need to decide what farmer's market(s) I'm going to sell at this year and decide if I need to scale up or scale down. 2010 was my first season as a market gardener. I learned a lot about planning ahead, harvesting, what customers tend to buy, what they shy away from, and customer habits.

Last year I sold exclusively at one particular market. This market was relatively new (in it's second season) and was in a lower income area.  Due to a combination of poor weather, overall low attendance, and lack of food-educated customers, my first market season was somewhat discouraging. If I continue at this market in 2011, it will be on a limited scale (only a few weekends over the course of the summer).

I've been looking at other options for selling my produce from the Green Zebra Market Garden. My options are:

1) Switch to a different market
2) Alternate between more than one market over the summer
3) Start my own CSA (community supported agriculture)
4) Bail out of the market gardener's game and grow vegetables entirely for my own pleasure

Option #1: Due to my commitments with graduate school, I'm am restricted to farmer's markets that are on Saturdays or Sundays. There are only two markets in my area that fit that schedule (one being the market I did last year). The second market is slightly farther away from me, but may have a larger customer base.

Option #2: I may lose customers loyalty if I'm not at the same market every weekend (not that I had any loyal customers), but maybe a two-market system will help balance out my gains and losses.

Washing mizuna for the farmer's market

Option #3: I would love to do my own CSA, but I'm not sure if my garden is large enough to support a CSA. I could offer only a limited number of shares, but even this might be tough. Growing enough food to fill just one CSA share each week would require me to have 4-6 different crops ready each week throughout the entire summer. I know from experience that some weeks there is plenty to offer, but other weeks there's almost nothing. As an aside, I could include fresh eggs in my farm shares starting in June or July (assuming there aren't any legal issues).

Another advantage of a CSA system is that there are no rainy market days. The worst part about doing a farmer's market is spending all the time and effort harvesting, washing, and packing up produce only to have it rain on market day. Generally sales are down and you end up bringing most of the produce back home with you. What am I supposed to do with 30 heads of unsold lettuce? Donating excess produce to a food pantry is always an option (and I have done this), but doesn't help me support my gardening passion (addiction?).

So much lettuce and no one to buy it...

Option #4: Participating in the farmer's market was a lot of fun last year. I got to do a ton of gardening and had a blast talking with customers about growing food, recipes, and community news. However, planning and running a market garden is stressful. You don't know for sure if crops will fail, if your vegetables will ripen on time, if it's going to thunderstorm on market day, if any customers are going to show up, etc.  I don't depend on the market garden for my personal income, so is it worth the time, effort and stress?

In another example: I love growing heirloom tomatoes. However, the customers at my farmer's market don' like buying them! Many of my customers have never seen a non-red tomato before. The customers in my area tend to buy the usual bright red hybridized beefsteak tomatoes (you know, the ones that look exactly like the ones at Walmart). Anything unusual in color or shape doesn't tend to sell very well. Should I cater to customer preference and stop growing the kinds of plants that I love?

Gardening for personal pleasure is a lot less stressful  because you can grow exactly what you want. Also, if your crop isn't ripe by a specific day, no big deal...you eat it later when it's ready.

There are pros and cons to all four options. Luckily I don't have to decide immediately. Any wisdom or advice out there?

I put in an entire cut flower garden in 2010, but bouquets were a flop at the farmer's market!


  1. Daedre, I will be a loyal customer if I ever get my &$%^ together for a regular Saturday morning trip to the FM in south lansing. Or if you allowed pick ups!

  2. I'm probably going to cut down on the number of weekends I do the market, but I could probably arrange pick up orders.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...