We spent a lot of time selling produce this year. That has got to change. Time is money and money is in short supply (just ask the IMF, the ECB, and other central banking behemoths … and they get to pull money out their collective wazoos)!
First of all, let’s review where we sold. We attended a half-dozen Saturday markets from late April to early June, the peak gardening season when plant starts sell really well. We didn’t have much besides plant starts, however, so I think our best day was $500 but we averaged more like $300. The Saturday market runs from 8 until 4. With setup and takedown, it’s about a 12 hour day plus harvest time. I think $500 has got to be the minimum for a Saturday market next year; they’re just too painful without a bit of a pay off at the end. And, to that end, I’m pretty confident that we will succeed, owing to better crop selection and growing environment which will give us more to sell.
The Tuesday market was quite a bit better especially in terms of $/hour. The Tuesday market started up when we stopped doing Saturday markets; early June. Tuesday enjoys the same prime downtown real estate but runs only 4 hours (should be 3 but that’s a rant for another day). Setup takes less time because it’s not so congested with vendors (no artisans on Tuesday, just food). While baking up to 60 loaves of bread at the farmhouse on Rainbow that we had access to, I was able to help Pauline harvest and get all the market stuff loaded into the van. We left the farm at 2, arrived at the market at 2:05 and had everything ready well in time for the 3pm start. The market died at 6 so we were half-packed by 6:59 and fully loaded for retreat at 7:05. Back at the farm unloaded before 7:30. Our biggest market was $700ish and, even in the fall, we pulled at least $200. Again, those numbers should be higher next year although I might not bake bread and bread was usually more than 1/3 of sales.
The Growing Up Organic program, which is essentially a middle-person between growers and a few “bulk” buyers distributed some of our produce. Pricing was determined at the start of the year and was lower than Tuesday/Saturday market prices so we basically only sold our excess through GUO. The good thing about GUO is that the harvest happens after the order comes in so there’s no waste of unsold produce. The bad thing is that it was tough to sell. A buyer gets an email from the marketer saying we have Granadero tomatoes. So what? What a chef or grocer wants is a complimentary cluster of gorgeously ripe red plum tomatoes. After that, the orders come in with no commission paid to a marketer. And at the subsequent tomato delivery, there’s a complementary group of zucchini’s. OK, bad example. Nothing helps sell zucchini. In any case, our personalized marketing effort generated the sales that, in theory, GUO would generate. Contrary to what I was told, chefs don’t really mind you bugging them with good produce. So, if we’re direct-selling to almost all of the GUO buyers, the program probably won’t be worth our time next year. But we’ll see.
We started a credit CSA (community supported agriculture) program this year in which a handful of people gave us money up front and then took produce from us from the farmstand or the downtown markets which we deducted from that credit. The idea is to use this early-season money to pay for seeds and other expenses. We’re not particularly short of cash, at least not yet, so that benefit was of little value to us. We did it to generate sales that we thought we would not have otherwise earned. In our case, I’m not sure that we realized that benefit either. And even it did, the money we were talking about was not large. Our biggest contributor still has over half of their credit. But there’s the constant accounting that needs to be done, for $3 purchases or $15. Plus email account updates to the members. All in all, this is a project that I will likely discontinue.
The farm stand at the end of the driveway on Rainbow was excellent in the Spring while plant sales were on fire. Some days there seemed to be someone at the stand shopping almost constantly. But when the plant sales dropped off, we couldn’t make up for it with vegetables or other products. The big problem, I think, was our inconsistency and scarcity of product. Once they started producing, we usually made the effort to have tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini’s on the stand. But because of the lack of refrigeration, lettuce mix was a problem. It had to be sold soon after we put it out or it went bad. Our strawberries would have sold but, after our own sampling, there were none to sell. The only roots we had were beets which no-one was too keen to buy (our carrot crop failed and our Japanese turnips were in short supply; people were lukewarm about potatoes after “new potato” season ended). So we were in a constant conundrum about whether to spend time keeping the stand stocked or whether to just invest more in the Tuesday market.
Next year we will have fewer vegetable types but more of them. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers should be plentiful while zucchini’s, peas, beans and hopefully strawberries should not only be plentiful but early. If we can show a consistent abundance of those crops early then I think sales will justify more effort to keep it going, which should help sales in this virtuous economic circle. A logical extension is to sell bulk quantities (10 – 20 lbs) of tomatoes and cukes to people who make pickles and sauces. We did this with some success last year with no advertising at all and at attractive price points.
With an upcoming high tunnel expansion over the winter, I was thinking that I would have so many tomatoes, peppers and cukes that I could sell through one of the local supermarkets. I’d be able to sell lots of food quickly although at a lower price. In exchange, they’d get to local-wash themselves. In a positive development I will write about shortly, I will have much less fresh veg than I planned, resulting in quantities more suitable to supply the local health food store which is a better philosophical fit anyway.
Finally, an island growing group makes a weekly trip to Victoria to sell their produce (mainly sprouts and mushrooms) to chefs and stores there. They make space available in their delivery van for others in exchange for gas/ferry money. I might ask them to take some of my extra produce at some point to see whether it’s economic.
Finding the right combination of outlets is one of my major goals next year.