Growing to Market
By Greg Peterson
The main reason the Urban Farm came into existence was to grow food. Before long I found that I was growing way more food than I was consuming and I began sharing it with neighbors and restaurants. I set up a trade agreement with one local eatery and for many years provided her with a bounty and got my ‘free lunch’ in return.
I learned the beauty of the garden is plenty and that the steps to taking my leftover groceries to market was really quite easy. In this week’s article, I outline a plan for you to get your produce from seed to the local market. It is easy and quite fulfilling. There is nothing better for me than to plant, nurture, harvest and ultimately share with the community all that my garden grows.
To market – to market – to sell a fat zucchini… That would be the Farmer’s Market!
Start with the love of gardening, sprinkle in a desire to grow food and add the persistence to get your “groceries” picked at their peak and you will find yourself well on your way to becoming a successful urban farmer. Once you are producing a plethora of edible treats in your yard, what do you do now? Maybe it’s time to step out and share the bounty beyond your family, friends and neighbors. Go ahead, take the plunge – grow to market!
The hardest part for many of us is taking the first step. I started the journey of moving produce to market a dozen or so years ago when my friend, and former restaurant owner, Susan, became the lucky recipient of my extra produce. She gladly used it at her restaurant and I thoroughly enjoyed eating her peach cobbler made with the fruits of my labor. Over the years we established a great culinary relationship as I grew snow peas, zucchini, apples, eggplant, okra and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables for her. Every week I would deliver baskets of bounty from my edible yard and in return Susan would feed me. This delicious arrangement lasted for many years.
Then my inner entrepreneur got hungry and I began thinking, “I am growing great fresh food anyway, I wonder if there is a way to turn the green in my yard into green in my pocket?” So it was off to the market. Well sort of…. I talked with the manager of a farmer’s market to find out what it takes to rent a booth, which, by the way, has turned out to be the simplest part of the process. But the mystique of the market still made me nervous and had me pausing for an inordinate amount of time before moving forward. I finally forged ahead and talked to another market manager to compare, but ended up back at the first one. Like most things in life, going to market proved way more overwhelming to think about than it was to actually do.
If you would rather grow slowly into a market booth you might consider befriending one of the market farmers first to see if he or she would be willing to buy some of your wares and sell them with theirs. Many of the farmers are willing to trade this way and it is a perfect opportunity to get your feet wet and harvest a little income in return for your efforts. Then as you increase your crop production you can cultivate a booth of your own.
Markets work in one of two ways: requesting an up-front fee, usually between $10 and $20; or taking a cut of what you sell, in most cases ten percent. Generally you will be asked to arrive an hour or two early to set up and bring everything you might need to conduct business — tents, tables, display baskets, cash box, etc. It’s a good idea to check with the market manager for a list of items needed for that specific market. You’ll find that most markets don’t require you to be there every week, they are just happy to have you there when it works for you. Your customers, on the other hand, are a whole lot happier, and will purchase more regularly from you, if you are there every week!
Generations of growers have taught us that farming is certainly a labor of love and “farming your yard” is not much different. Those of us who love it can tell you that the special effort and long hours we put in lead to the unequaled joy of picking and enjoying our own fresh, delicious produce. Persistence seems to be the key to success.
The best way I can describe the process from seed to table is to explain my 40/40/20 rule of urban farming. Forty percent of your time is spent prepping your beds, planting out seeds and tending the farm — watering, weeding, pruning and protecting crops against pests — until the day your produce is ripe for the picking.
The next forty percent is spent harvesting, cleaning, packaging and preparing your produce for the consumer. Remember your product needs to be pristine, which begins with careful harvesting. It’s best to start early in the morning when it is cool outside. This way you don’t have to deal with the damage created by field heat throughout the day. It’s critical to take great care throughout the picking, handling and packaging processes. I have learned that the more you handle fruits and vegetables the more opportunity there is for damage, so it is always best to work quickly. Once you begin it is important to pick, wash, pack and store everything as soon as possible. I’m a big fan of using plastic stacking tubs then quickly getting your produce into the refrigerator.
The final twenty percent of your efforts are made at the market. The prettier the presentation the more produce you will sell. I keep buckets of water on hand to store herbs and spritz the produce throughout the day. I highly recommend displaying everything you have in order to provide a welcoming, cornucopia effect because sparse presentations will result in a lack of sales. Passion is as important as presentation, so when your customers arrive be sure to share your gardening enthusiasm with them. Explain how your produce was raised, share planting and growing advice and be sure to include your favorite recipes and cooking tips.
The first time you go to market it will be exciting but probably a little nerve-racking too. Just remember to take a deep breath and have fun. I think you will find that it is a very rewarding experience and one that you will likely want to repeat in the near future.