Why I’m Not Selling at the Farmer’s Market Anymore
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“It’s not just the work, which is an inconvenience that can be scaled, it’s the feeling of doing something utterly useless that involves other people doing the same, stretching in a line back to some place totally disconnected from the reality of the ground war of farming and direct marketing. A burden of useless labor for all involved, all victims of the same stupid system, with a life of it’s own, and hardly anyone to really blame.”
This post is part rant, part politic, part personal, part declaration. My farmer’s market career has always been spotty. I have had long standing plans to eventually sell at the market, and have planted trees and flower bulbs here with that goal in mind for many years, but I wasn’t really ready when I started going. I was under a lot of pressure at the time to start going though, and finally decided to go with it since I probably wasn’t going to be much more ready anytime in the near future and I wanted to accommodate my partner at the time. I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot and it was good for me to get out in public with my stuff. Iit has rarely been easy to pull off though for all the reasons I knew I wasn’t ready in the first place. I had big plans for the market that I was not able to materialize to any extent. I still hold those plans in my head and in notes scattered around clipboards and computer files for some future time when I am functioning at a higher level. At least I was doing something though, and big plans could wait. So, I’ve basically limped along, making it to the market now and again. It has been rewarding, I met some great people, and that little bit of income was very significant in my universe.
At some point last year, I just decided not to grow any vegetable crops specifically for the market. Many of the crops I grew last summer went completely to waste because I wasn’t able to make it to the market due to chronic health issues. That just is what it is. I can adapt to that. But I still had other things that grow here perennially, and sort of grow themselves, which I could take to market if health and crop timing coincided. I have daffodils from about January through April and they sell pretty well. In May and June I have lots of artichokes. In late summer I have amaryllis flowers, which are also pretty popular and from late summer on, my many varieties of apples start coming on. And then there might be a few other odds and ends through the season, vegetables that I may have extra of on a day I might be going to the market, like a few tomatoes or something. Growing things specifically for the market just was not working out though, and I had to throw in the towel on that or keep wasting my limited energy producing crops for the chickens and the compost pile.
RED, RED TAPE
Even selling those perennial crops I just listed is not that straight forward though. The process starts in the spring, when I have to tell the county agricultural department everything I’m going to grow. Now don’t laugh, but they actually want to know everything I’m going to grow for the season, down to the specific variety, how many plants/acres, and how many pounds or units or bunches. It’s so ridiculous that everyone just sort of throws out some numbers and calls it good. This is farming, not accounting. Everyone knows it’s silly, but the laws come from on high where I imagine someone that knows fuck-all about growing anything is probably paid rather well to make our lives more complicated. I’m sure the intent is all good and well, to make sure people are selling stuff they grew themselves, but geez…
So, once my producers certificate is typed up, it is duplicated in multiple copies; I think it’s three or four. Then I sit there and watch the office workers stamp EVERY PAGE with an official county seal. In my case that has sometimes been a lot of pages! OMG. We’re all victims of the same stupid system! It’s painful to watch. Recently, they got an electronic stamp that can seal several pages at a time with a tap. I was so happy for them! They seemed to have to put some wrist into the old one. That cut down on the time I had to stand at the counter pretending to read pamphlets of current agricultural issues like invasive snails and glassy winged sharpshooters, all the while trying not to feel guilty that my producers certificate was so long, when I actually end up selling very little by the time the season is over.
So, that is a pain in the butt and it is very difficult to decide ahead exactly what and how much of everything will be planted, harvested and sold. But that’s okay, I can change it at any time! All I have to do if I need to change it at any time is do it all over again! If I change even one thing, say I decide not to grow a different variety of something, or forgot something, or decide to add a crop of carrots or someone gives me an extra tomato plant, I’m supposed to do it all over! Fuck me. I have to go give them the new list, it has to be retyped, new multiple copies printed, every page stamped with the official county seal and then I have to go in and pick it up again. Oh yeah, we both have to sign every page too!
So, lets say I forget to put something on the list, or somehow it gets left off, which has happened to me multiple times, probably even more than I know about. If that day happens to be an inspection day, I can get fined for selling something that is not on my list. I don’t know how to keep people from cheating the system and selling stuff they didn’t grow, but I can say that, from my perspective, this one sucks. And I don’t get the idea that anyone else involved is particularly stoked about it either. So, that is a burden. Actually, it’s fucking retarded. I’ve sold crops that weren’t on my producer certificate just because I figured it was better to take the chance of getting busted than to waste them, or at times I’ve just given them away instead of selling them. This whole red tape aspect was never enough to stop me from selling at the market, but it is hellannoying and it is certainly at least a partial disincentive for some of us. I would guess that most gardeners on my scale, most of which are basically subsistence gardeners, don’t sell at the market because of that stuff. Like me, they just have what they have at any time, and planning ahead that much or that far makes no sense for their context. Again, I don’t know what would be a better system. Maybe consumers want that kind of accountability. I’m just saying that from my perspective it seems silly, frustratingly silly. I won’t be going postal or anything. I don’t have the right guns for that anyway. My pellet gun isn’t going to rack up any kind of body count and there are no good clock towers in this town.
For me it is pretty impossible to predict most of what and how much I’m growing. I’m a subsistence gardener first and a farmer’s market grower second. I always produce extra veg, but knowing how much, months ahead of time? Hell if I know. How much will I eat myself? And how much will be predated upon between seed planting and market time.
THE APPLE PROBLEM
So, I have a quajillion varieties of apples here, because I have this experimental streak right. I mean I’m kind of nuts with stuff like that. I had grafted all these apples, probably something over 250 varieties to test out here. Imagine putting that on your producer certificate! I did put a lot of them on, because they really wanted me to. I couldn’t just say “heirloom apples” that doesn’t fit the rules. I also have daffodils all over the property. I don’t even know how many varieties. I listed a bunch of those, but got tired of that shit and just said “Turkeysong Mixed” for the rest. I don’t know what they all are anyway. I got away with that okay. I tried to un-list the daffodils I had listed specifically, but they wouldn’t let me. And the daffodils are literally all over the property! How many plants/acres/stems? you’ve got to be fucking kidding me. It’s not like they are in rows with tags. They are in drifts and patches on hummocks, hillsides and sprinkled through orchards and under fruit trees. Every year I plant more and spread them out further. I’m not going to count the damn things.
So, they call up from the county one day. I had submitted the 100 or so varieties of apples that may have been old enough to be capable of setting fruit at the time, figuring that if they were all on there, then we wouldn’t have to go through the whole re-typing/re-printing/re-sealing thing all the time. They seemed confused (join the club), and maybe a little suspicious, and wanted to come up to do an inspection. These apple varieties aren’t whole trees, many of them are just a branch or two. Some fruit one year and not another. I might literally have a few apples of any one kind to take to the market. That may seem hardly worth it to some, but remember, there are potentially hundreds of those. And why not take a handful of them anyway? That is still a few dollars that I can use to buy other food. And I don’t do anything just for money. I’m there to share what I’m doing up here with people in the community. That includes a half dozen of some random rare heirloom apple variety that made it past the gauntlet of birds, hail, bugs, fungus and bears. I’ve held dozens of impromptu tastings with people, because during apple season I always have a basket with a dozen or more apple varieties. I’m there for that sort of thing as much as anything, if not more. So, anyway, I can’t say, this many trees, that many pounds. It just doesn’t work. I just made up some categories and tried to see if it would stick. I used terms like branch and tree and 5 pounds or 20 pounds, depending on the situation. It was all very loose and I just want to be left alone so I can sell my stuff. My life is complicated enough as it is.
Anyway, the guy came out for inspection. Nice guy. He was stoked to see my apple collection and I fed him an apple or two. He’s just doing his job right? Well, they wanted to see what was up with my jillion apple varieties, all of which they had mistakenly listed as whole trees. I didn’t correct them of course. I don’t care what it says as long as I’m not going to get busted. Since I’m not a cheater, it’s all moot anyway. I had listed a ton of apples, but I wasn’t selling that much really. That’s because I have no idea what variety is going to produce how much, and all the other market people pretty much over estimate quantity so that they’ll be covered for sure. God forbid I should show up with 7 pounds of chestnut crab apple when I was only supposed to grow 5 pounds! Nooooooo!!!!! But, the Ag department wanted me to list them as accurately as I could, what was producing, and about how much, as soon as I could tell early in the season, every year. So, I modified my list for that year and the poor lady that has to type it all out every time that I change something did her thing and we tried to laugh about it (though it sometimes seems as though her sense of humor has failed her). Then bears ate most of my apples and broke the trees off while they were at it. I guess I would have to un-list those trees until they grow back. I was too sick to go to market anyway and what was left was mostly bird food. I didn’t get to take a single apple to market last year. Ultimately, the list is always going to be a certain percentage of bullshit anyway. It will never be accurate, so I’m not going to try very hard to get it right. Everyone is just worried about the authority that is over them coming down, and I’m at the bottom. No one is really out for blood when it comes to minor infractions fortunately, at least not that I’ve seen. I haven’t had any bad experiences with the ag department people. On the contrary, I’ve liked all of them so far. They’re nice folks.
CRAFTY, TOO CRAFTY
I have very little produce most of the time. What has made the market viable for me regardless of that is selling my crafts at the same time. And people seemed to like it. I’ve had plenty of people come back for them, or come to the market just to pick something up from me that they wanted to give someone as a gift, or that they remembered seeing before and had been thinking about. One lady was moving out of the county and came to the market just to buy some of my stuff, because it was of this place… a reminder of Mendocino County. There are rules about crafts at farmer’s markets, that, again, come from some higher place, and I really don’t know how that works. But rules are made to be interpreted and our market manager has always tried to work with me as much as possible without getting in trouble with whoever is above him. I have absolutely the highest regard for Scott as a market manager and all around great guy. We’re lucky to have him. So, we sort of made it work. But, alas, the rules changed recently and became very clear that produce is here, and crafts are over there. I would literally need to have two tables on different parts of the market to segregate them. The best loophole we could maybe use is to have different tables separated by some space, but I’m unclear how much space. That doesn’t work well for me. first of all, I am only one person. Secondly, I’m an integrated person. My life is about all kinds of things, not just produce. My market presence is just an extension of my life here where I live, and for me, doing the market has always be about representing that.
My original conception for the market was to educate people, because that is generally what I am oriented toward. If not teaching them something specific, then providing an example of what can be done, and specifically, what can be done with local resources. All of my crafts are made from local materials. I buy almost nothing. I tan all of my own leather, gather native woods, etc… The stuff I make is an extension of my entire attitude about becoming of a place and fostering a meaningful sense of place in others. To me, I am not a farmer. I’m a person who grows things and also does other things that make sense where I live. I use what is available to me in the local environment to make stuff happen and share that with other people, and to scrape up some kind of living. That includes not only using soil, water and seeds to make food, but also skins, berries, tree bark, bones, wood, scrap metal and whatever else occurs to me to make something happen. And all that stuff is part of the same system, not compartmentalized. I pick madrone berries to string as necklaces, but the reject berries (which is most of them) are fed to the chickens, who poop them out for garden fertilizer. The chipped oak bark from tanning leather ends up mulching the apple trees after all the tannin is leached out. Any skin scraps, hair and fleshings get composted. Lime from tanning skins goes on the trees and garden. Wood chips from wood working are used as mulch, or burned for charcoal to use as a soil amendment. There is just no separation between those aspects of my life in my mind. After years of thinking along those lines I see that stuff as part of a context, like seeing it as a big picture or a web. I can’t explain it really, you either get it or don’t, but it’s all the same organism to me. To present only one aspect of that web at the farmer’s market is to present a partial picture of myself and my homestead. Again, I’m not just there to make money, I’m there to represent myself and my homestead to the community, and that diversity is essentially who I am. And people want to know that. They ask about my place all the time and listen with interest. They want that connection. That is part of farmer’s market culture.
My extended market plan was never about money first. The money, however small, has been great actually, but I’m still there as much as anything for interacting with the community and being something that is different and represents the direction I think we need to head in generally; one of a sense of place rooted in action rather than thought. My plan was more along the lines of demonstrating various skills related to my crafts. I might be making baskets while selling baskets, or working on carving some wooden wares, doing metal smithing, tanning leather, leather working and so on. As I conceived it in my fevered imagination, it was awesomely cool! But, most of my few years of doing the market has been extremely challenging health wise, as well as personally and I had no where near the energy to make much of that cool stuff happen. It’s been challenging enough to get a few props together and make it down when I feel up to it. But you can see what I’m talking about I hope. I certainly can’t do anything like that with the current rules.
I mean what “AM” I? Not everyone has to “be” a narrow profession of some kind. We can try to buck the mold, but there will always be pressure from all sides to be less diverse and more predictable. Don’t fence me in bitches! You’re killing my dreams! I have no idea what the logic behind the rule changes are. I just don’t get it. Maybe it makes sense in some way that I haven’t thought of. It’s all a matter of perspective, and mine clearly conflicts with someone else’s.
At some point in the 19th century, a conversation began to happen in farming journals and meetings that I have caught snippets of while doing research on things like heirloom apple varieties. It was more like a debate. Farms had always been diverse, growing multiple crops and providing much of their own needs directly. That was the family farm model. Care for yourself and produce surplus to get other stuff. Then it started to be suggested that, such an approach was for stoopid dummies and the real success (money) was in specialization and monocropping. Well, we all know where that bullshit led, and the farmers market movement is, as much as anything else, about regaining what we lost as a result of the shift that happened over the past 150 years or so to bigger, less diverse farming. To me, whatever I do here, with whatever I have, is like that family farm. There are no categories for me. I just use what I have to make shit happen and get stuff to market when I can- creativity, skill and hard won knowledge, meets available resources, time and energy. Whatever the haps and mishaps, or fortunes and misfortunes of the weather or my health or what have you, I have diversity to make something work. But, for whatever reason, the farmers market system in California is no longer a viable market for that now. Apparently I can be a farmer or a crafter, but not both, or not there anyway. And I’m not the only one this affects BTW. I have more craft stuff than other vendors, but there were others that tried to round out a good or bad day with a little extra income from stuff they made.
It is possible that I will have enough apples this year to actually make it worth going down without my crafts, and again in the flower seasons, but then there is the paper work, the fees and the uncertainty about whether the days I have produce and the days I have enough energy to drag my ass down the hill will be the same days, and they very frequently are not. Without those crafts to round out my produce sales (and vice versa) it often doesn’t make sense financially. And of course, again, there is the whole fragmented representation of myself and my homestead.
Whatever. I don’t organize the thing or participate in making the rules or go to any of the meetings. I haven’t even been able to get my taxes done yet. I don’t expect any special treatment, or think it should all adapt around my needs. I’m just here to say that I am what I am and the market, as it is now, doesn’t accommodate me. And it barely did the way it was before. So, the easy going side of me is basically good with whatever. I can probably adapt or possibly find other ways to interface with the community. And I will, in a flat second, take any better options. I have zero loyalty to the farmer’s market system, because it has no loyalty to me. I have never had any issue with any of the great people that I interact with who run it all, and over all, it runs well and benefits a lot of people. The other side of me is more along the lines of- fuck all y’all and your narrow interpretation of what it is be a “farmer” or producer. I’ll join a bootleg “unofficial farmer’s market in a heartbeat if that becomes an option, and if you don’t like it, you can suck the giant bulbous zucchini I just picked. And I’m not the only discontent. If the market continues to become more burdened with rules and stuff that doesn’t serve growers, then they’ll bail out if there is any better option. It’s not as though any of them can afford not to. I’ve been to a couple of those shady farmer’s black markets you hear whispers about. They were awesome. Wish they happened here, hint, hint. The rules and paperwork were annoying before, but now they are prohibitive. I think more large scale gardener types would sell at the market if they could just show up with what they have that day. There is a micro farmers market forming out near where I live and I have heard of several others in the county. Of course, they don’t have the quantity of people that the main market has as a result of the efforts of the market managers, available resources, consistency and location. Those are worth a lot and I’ve obviously been willing to undergo some annoyance to take advantage of them. Fair enough.
Again, I don’t know what the answer is and would not be inclined to implement a solution, even if I had the resources to do so. I’m just offering my perspective and experience as a “producer” who has the option to either adapt or get out. In the future, if I can become the healthy person I should be, maybe I’ll up my produce game and go down and sell my apples and flowers and stuff and make the best of the system that is in place. But it certainly isn’t what I ever set out to do or be. I think those aspects that effectively keep very small producers out really suck, because that’s the kind of people I am and the kind of people I think we need more of to have any kind of food security. And I’ll refrain here from digressing into the fragile local black market economy as it relates to food and economic security… but it’s coming.
I appreciate the fact that the “official” farmer’s market system exists at this point. I occasionally shop there when I’m in town on that day, and I’m sure a lot of good people with a lot of good intentions have expent (I made that word up, but I like it;) a great deal of energy putting it all together over the years. It seems a cumbersome affair though sometimes, especially with the county involved. These things usually get more burdensome, complicated and rule bound over time, not less so. Some of that is necessary to keep the thing running well, maybe even most of it, I wouldn’t really know, but clearly some of it could probably be much simpler/better/easier; ultimately, more friendly to small fry like me. Rebel that I am, I would probably fit better (apparently) with a less “official” option. For now, I’ll put my energies elsewhere and figure out what to do when I have stuff to sell or when I’m ready to interface with the community more, as well as more consistently. That may or may not include doing the farmer’s market. Just the thought of doing my producers certificate again makes me feel all creepy inside. It’s not just the work, which is an inconvenience that can be scaled, it’s the feeling of doing something utterly useless that involves other people doing the same, stretching in a line back to some place totally disconnected from the reality of the ground war of farming and direct marketing. A burden of useless labor for all involved, all victims of the same stupid system, with a life of it’s own, and hardly anyone to really blame. Ick. just ick.
So, there you go. A combination of ill luck, silly rules and my insistence on being an oddly shaped peg in a world of square holes. Maybe an option will spring up, or maybe I’ll come up with some as yet un-thought-of creative solution. I just wanted to offer my perspective and let people who read my blog that are also used to seeing me at the market, or who may even read my blog because they met me at the market, know why I’m not there anymore. It does look like a good apple year. If I’m going to sell any at the market I’ll have to get out there and start counting the 150 or more varieties that are probably fruiting this year…..
“Lets see, what is this branch, King of the Pippins. Well that’s never fruited before, might not even be any good (I don’t sell produce that isn’t any good. My apples are good. no, really. I’ve eaten many fruits from the market and the coop that are just not any good at all, which is lame. I don’t do that). hmmmm count them, 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13 13 apples. Looks like the birds like them, and they’re extra hungry this year because of the drought. Oh yeah, the drought. Am I even going to be able to irrigate this later in the year. Probably, I made it through last year. anyway, aw, fuck it, I’ll just call it 10 apples just in case most of them make it, yeah right (rolls eyes)…. how many pounds is that. Ahhhhh! whatever it’s probably less than 5 lbs. Okay five pounds of King of the Pippins. Should I call this a tree? a Bush, a branch. um, how about tree, a small tree, no half a really small tree. whew. Next.”
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