The Elephant At The Market

18

I’ve been trying to write this piece for a couple of months now, and while some of the delay is just from traveling or being busy with other things on the farm…a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is kind of a delicate issue. It’s really important how you talk about it, and though I’ve tried here, I will have undoubtedly missed something or failed to explain an aspect of this topic. Please let me know what I’ve missed, and I’ll address it through our website’s “Edit” function. So what is this thing I want to talk about? Some call it fraud, some call it re-selling, some cynically call it farming and for some it’s viewed as necessary—a temporary means to a worthy end. Regardless of how one feels about it, I think the key component to consider for any of these definitions is honesty. You see, people come to market to purchase products in a place that provides a different experience, a different relationship with one’s food and those who produce it and for what people trust to be qualitatively different and better products. Though it has been discussed in some forums, I think that most people don’t realize how pervasive it is and just how often they’re being lied to.

Elephant

Why does it matter? For one, it matters because many farmers at a given market are not there because it is a hobby or a side gig after their day job. On the contrary, these farmers are trying to make farming their livelihood, and selling at the market is a way for them to get their farm into the local scene, meet people and to get direct markets eating their products and, ideally, coming back for more. At the end of the day, anyone who is farming is running a business and none of them can afford to lose money. This is especially true for anyone choosing farming as their (attempted) career. It is a world full of narrow profit margins, intense and unrelenting work that comes with challenges and frustrations that rival any occupation out there. It’s exceptionally difficult to turn a profit, grow a farm and set one’s self and family up for the long-term. It becomes something intensely personal and in many ways all-consuming. So re-selling with ill intent is not something one can take lightly, nor should it be taken lightly. Even if someone is re-selling with the purest of intentions, they will often sell their product at a price that is so low it’s often lower than the cost of production. Wisconsin has a statute highlighting how such practice is illegal, but I digress…

For a fascinating look at what California is doing about this issue, check out the Modern Farmer article HERE.

In order to share my thoughts on the matter, I’ll use one of the markets we’ve sold at as an example, but know that by doing so I’m not trying to call that market, its staff, its vendors or its consumers out. I just need to be able to relate some truths to you in a way that is based in reality. So this market is not a “producer only” market that requires people selling goods there to be the producers themselves. This market does not require that everything you are selling has been produced by *you*. The rules, as stated, allow for 25% of your products/sales (probably impossible to truly enforce) to be products that you buy-in from somewhere else—ideally another farm. It is a good market, in a community that strongly supports the market, it has a good management team and as with many markets across the state, it is a mixture of craft vendors, farmers, and other businesses.

Now, some people might wonder why any market would be “producer only”. That’s a fair question. My thoughts are that when a market does this, they are letting all of its customers know that when they buy something, they are dealing directly with the person who made it. This is important if you’re wanting to cultivate relationships between producers and their consumers, and people should also realize that it’s not easy for the producers to be at the market week in and week out. The farm doesn’t stop while they are away. It’s also important for consumers because questions can be answered directly by the producer. It’s a lot like going to Napa Valley (or even better, Sonoma/Russian River) and you go into an establishment to try some wine. Would you prefer to deal with someone who works there a few days a week and knows very little beyond tasting notes, or would you appreciate getting your wine poured by the person who planted the grapes, directed and participated in the care and harvest of the crop, selected the finest grapes for the finest wines and then made an array of products for you to taste, judge and hopefully purchase? We all know the answer to that. Well, unless the owner-operator is a real jerk and has a light pour 🙂

Ancient Egypt Wine

More importantly, and this is really what I’m writing about here, why would a market allow producers to sell products that are not their own? I think there are ways to do this that are straightforward and honest, and those ways hinge on clear labeling and enforcement of a markets’ rules, which are hopefully clearly defined and easy to enforce should the need to do so arise. In this light, there are different categories of vendors that I have experienced over the years, and if any of these descriptions resemble you, it is just a coincidence.

Vendor A: This vendor is a farmer. The vast majority of what he or she brings to market is something they’ve grown/made on their farm. They have likely maxed out their current potential at offering an array of products that will grab the attention of passers-by, so in order to increase what’s available at their stand, they buy something from another farm that they know will be popular. Let’s say they purchase fruit because people love fruit and this vendor doesn’t grow fruit. This works out for the fruit farm that may not be at a market, or it gives them access to a retail price when they’re used to wholesale price. This works for Vendor A because now they have fruit to complement everything else. This vendor will then label the fruit accordingly (i.e. Strawberries from Hill Farm!) and not pretend that he or she had anything to do with their production. There may, in fact, be more than one product from another farm that they sell, but the vast majority of what they sell is their own. This is important.

Vendor B: This vendor is a part-time farmer. What he or she brings to market is a mix of things that they have grown/made on their farm and an array of other products that were produced somewhere else. Their potential for producing a wide selection of products for customers is limited due to the fact that they farm part-time, so in order to increase what’s available at their stand, they buy a *lot* of things from another farm, group of farms or possibly even a food auction. There are many different variations on this kind of vendor. Some will label everything that isn’t theirs, some will not. Some will source only from other farms, some will not. Some will source from a food auction (there are several in Wisconsin) and buy pallets of products at a pallet price. I like being optimistic, so for this example we’ll say that our farmer grows some vegetables and then buys out-of-season vegetables, eggs and meat to compliment their offering. We’ll also say that Vendor B labels *everything* so that customers know that the majority of what’s being sold was grown by someone else, somewhere else. I should add that this vendor is often growing their farm operation, and that is not an easy thing to do. Re-selling other items can help a vendor doing this because they get to build their brand by being at the market and make a little more money that can go to growing their farm. In reality, this vendor is the one who will elicit the most questions.

Vendor C: This vendor doesn’t farm. What he or she brings to market is only what they’ve bought from other farms, a food auction, or maybe even the local grocery store. They may play the part of farmer, and they may even have a business that has a real farmy name. They may be the nicest person around, but ultimately they are simply there to take advantage of people who are paying what is sometimes a higher price for qualitatively better produce, meat, eggs, fruit, etc. They do not label anything in any sort of informative or meaningful way. They simply aggregate products, mark them up and sell them to you at a nice profit for their work…considering they did next to nothing. In case you’re wondering, yes I resent these sorts of operations a bit and precisely because of the hard work that is put into providing good food for people, which is consistently undervalued. Did you know that there are “CSA” (Community Supported Agriculture) programs popping up that use the term CSA, behave like a CSA but the only thing they have in common with an actual CSA are those three letters. Some might applaud their innovation, but it’s really kind of adding insult to injury when you purchase produce at the lowest price you can get and then turn around and sell it at the highest price you can get whilst pretending that you and the producer are one and the same. There *are* aggregators who serve as a sort of hub for other farmers, and they are usually very clear about who they are and what they’re doing. This is very different from what I’m trying to speak to here.

So, how do you know who is who? Here are a few suggestions:

– Look at the price. In Wisconsin, as I type this, it is -10F outside. This weekend people will go to farmers markets across the state and people will be there selling things like spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, bell peppers, salad mix, etc. It’s entirely possible that people are producing these things, though a few are very unlikely. In order to do so, you’d need a heated greenhouse at a minimum. That means that the cost to produce those items has gone up. Some of these products are very delicate as well, and they are very susceptible to the cold. So, for starters, cheap salad mix is a dead giveaway. You’d think that producers looking to take advantage of you would at least charge the higher price and take *full* advantage of what prices spinach and other greens can command when everything outside is frozen solid.

money

– Know how produce is grown, at least a little bit. Let’s start with products that require pollination. For example, a zucchini offered during the cold winter months means that a producer has a heated greenhouse with air and soil temps above 70F for ideal conditions (and why grow them if you can’t have ideal conditions?), the plants were started 40-50 days ago (so if you see any this weekend, that means early December) *and* the plants would require hand pollination since the insects that pollinate have long since clustered up for the winter (and many won’t leave the nest/hive until temperatures are above 50F). Hand pollination can be done, but it adds to the labor equation. Cheap zucchini in February? BUSTED. Tomatoes are similar in that they need a lot of heat, and they would require a heated greenhouse to not perish. The amount of time it takes to grow a tomato plant is quite extensive compared to something like greens (fruiting takes around 60 days after transplanting for the fastest, cool-weather varieties), so you’re heating that greenhouse for a very long time to get fruit. Peppers, again, would require a significant amount of heat (85F is optimum for germination, 60-75F for growing and below 50F plants will have big issues with ripening), they would require a great deal of time too (their growing season is 110-150 days) though they are self-pollinators. These are all complex details that a lot of people won’t know, which is fine. There’s an easy approach to all of this. If you see a fruit or vegetable that is usually only around during the summer, ask the person selling it where they grew it, how they grew it and so on. Anyone pulling off summer vegetables in winter and making a profit of some sort will love to tell you about it, seriously.

– Look around the vendor’s area. Some vendors will not label their products, but they’ll overlook the fact that their truck has a big box from southern Indiana in it. They might re-use smaller boxes, but fruit and vegetables in containers from California or other southerly states at least begs the question as to where they were grown. Local farmers are far more likely to have black crates or something else more durable for week-to-week use. Some vendors will not even bother to take products out of the palletized boxes they were purchased in at a food auction.

Auction

– Know when fruits and vegetables are in season. Anything not in season should make you wonder. As I’ve stated before, it is possible to grow a lot of things during the winter but it is far more complicated, requires far more inputs, has higher costs of production and in many cases it would require a lot more labor than usual. Here’s a good guide for Wisconsin.

Seasons

– Think about the time of year. Earlier in the winter, for instance, it makes sense to see a lot of high quality storage crops. The further you get into winter, though, the more likely it is that storage crops may have suffered a little bit when it comes to condition. Again, it’s possible to have a root cellar dialed in perfectly, but if it’s mid-April and there’s still snow on the ground…it’s increasingly difficult to offer storage crops at market simply because they’ve been stored for so long. It’s also difficult to grow those same crops in frozen, snow-covered ground.

Storage Crops

– Go to a farm’s website. This isn’t foolproof, but farms will tend to have pictures of their operation. A farm that has a winter growing operation will definitely want to be highlighting that fact as well because it makes them stand out, it is impressive as operations go and its direct verification that they’re the producer. You can even go to Google and look farms up on a map. Does a farm have a lot of out-of-season produce, produce that require pollination and it’s all pretty cheap? Assuming a farm keeps things centralized around the homestead a bit, an overhead look on a map will show you whether or not they have a greenhouse, a high tunnel, etc. Chances are, the cheap summer prices being offered in winter are there because whatever it is that’s being sold was grown in Mexico or beyond.

That last one is a bit intrusive, but it’s something I’ll admit to doing. I did it to provide visual evidence that a farm at a market we were selling at was in violation of the rules in that none of their tomatoes, zucchini, etc. that were being sold in the early weeks of April were being grown in a heated greenhouse. Therefore, they should have been labeled accordingly…maybe “Grown In Florida”. So why would I do that?

Ultimately, I realize people are going to do what they’re going to do. That said, if there are rules on how to present your products at market, they should be followed. They should also be enforced, but to be fair to management…they often don’t have the time, resources or knowledge to effectively police vendors. I often joke about creating a team of farmers who are willing to go to farms, verify what’s being grown and ask the right kinds of questions. Kind of like the California model that Modern Farmer wrote about (see link above if you missed it). That seems like a lot for just selling at a market, but if you are trying to create a marketplace that is providing local food to consumers, the most important thing in your toolkit is integrity. It’s also important that customers in Wisconsin have expectations that are grounded in the farming realities of Wisconsin. People often ask me why we aren’t selling a certain product, and I simply tell them that it is not possible or profitable to grow that right now—it’s out of season. Anyway, if people learn that you have no rules or don’t enforce them, that people buy-in a lot of their things from auctions and grocery stores and re-sell them at a higher price, that people are lying about producing certain items on their farms, or any number of things like these that are inherently dishonest and taking advantage of consumers…why would anyone continue to shop at your market? Now put yourself back in the shoes of the producer who is trying to make farming a career. Imagine being a part of a market that people stop supporting because they discover that they’ve been lied to and that much of what they see is just a facade and that there are truly only a small group of vendors at the market who are on the up and up and produce all of the products that they sell. All of that having been said, if consumers see a product they want, see that its label states it was grown elsewhere (so it is being re-sold) and they still buy it—-they’ve at least made an informed choice and the transaction was honest from start-to-finish. Assuming your market allows re-selling, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that kind of transaction, even if it does frustrate me a little bit.

To wrap it all up, the moral of the story here is that all of the information you could want and more is out there. No, it’s not all on *you* to know everything and to ask the right questions. It is, however, up to you to create the sort of relationships you want to have, and if knowing more about your food, how it was produced, where it was produced and by whom is important to you…all you should have to do is ask. Any producer worth his or her salt will tell you what you want to know, and the more informative conversations you have the better you’ll get at distilling the truths and realities that are a part of each display at the market. More importantly, you’ll have formed relationships that are lasting and based upon a lot more than just a simple transaction on a Saturday morning. Good luck getting that at your typical big box stores.

The more you know