A Farmer’s Trip to the Farmers Market
From the Farmer's Tractor
January 22, 2015
by guest columnist Shannon Douglass
People love making a weekly trip to the Farmers Market. You can shop for fresh produce while you support your local community. It seems like everyone wins. But, often people don't think about all the work that goes into getting that product to the market.
Here are a few things you may not think about that go into the Farmers Market:
Time. It isn't just the early mornings. Most market sellers are awake in the wee hours of the morning packing up and driving to market for early set up. By the time they get home after market, they have easily put in a 10 to 12 hour day. If you are shopping at 8, you can bet that farmer was up at 4 or 5 am.
Permits. For me to sell beef at the farmers market, I had to have a series of inspections with the health department. This meant special trips to the county seat of the county I wanted to sell in, so that they could inspect my freezer just to be sure it was in working condition.
Memberships. Most farmers markets, especially the larger and most established markets, require joining the market association. These are typically reasonable fees, but becoming a member can be a slow approval process. It can very difficult for a new producer to try and join. Even if a new member is allowed to join, it may be some time before the new member is actually allowed to sell. Markets try to not have too many vendors selling the same products, but this makes it difficult for a new farmer to participate.
Inspections. Each farmer at a certified Farmers Market must work with their county agriculture commissioner so that they can certify that the farmer indeed grows the products that they want to sell. Note that this is the difference between a certified and uncertified market. So I have to make appointments with my commissioner for inspections and I need to have a certification form with me at the markets.
USDA regulations. I sell beef at markets. As a meat seller, I must follow the same meat processing and inspection requirements of any other beef sold in the U.S. I honestly have no complaints about this process. But that's because I'm fortunate to have a USDA inspected facility near my home that will work with small farmers. I only have a 5-mile drive to the USDA facility, but most of the other beef they harvest for small producers comes from hours away. Those long drives add to the work and expense of producing local meat. Note that there are some USDA exemptions for poultry producers (they have slightly different rules than beef, lamb and pork).
Labeling regulations. I have chosen not to make any labeling claims on our packages of beef, so I have a simpler process that most people. But, my packages do need to say who raised the beef. So, I have to order labels every year with our ranch name that our butchers can use and that fit the labeling machines. Just these labels alone are an extra $200 per year.
Help. Employees that, for example, help you while you manage both being a farmer and a mom, welcome a whole new set of regulations. The labor paperwork and processes were so burdensome that I had to hire a service to help me. Add on the cost of workers compensation, SSI and the rest and suddenly an employee costs double their hourly wage. For a small farmer, this is a big headache – but necessary.
Insurance. By selling the product ourselves, we take on an additional level of liability. You can probably guess that liability insurance isn’t cheap with today’s food safety concerns. We had difficulty finding an insurance company that would cover our small farm sales. And not surprisingly, it costs us over a thousand dollars per year. This is a big chunk of overhead when you are already working on small margins.
Storage. Having inventory to sell weekly means you either pick fresh product every week or you utilize cold storage somewhere. You need an approved facility that is willing to work with small producers who need minimal space. In most cases you cannot store perishable products on the farm without building a facility that is up to restaurant standards, even if you are not processing. In our area the only cold storage option is located almost an hour away and at an additional expense.
Inventory waste. Non-perishable products have a great advantage here. But most of the fresh produce doesn’t store well after markets. At my local market most of this produce is donated to the local food bank. But this is product that the farmer has lost money on. If the weather happens to be bad and people don’t show up to buy, you can very easily have excess produce that isn’t sold.
Family. In theory, the Farmers Market is very family friendly. But to sell at a market every Saturday means you can’t attend any Saturday events with your kids. No soccer games, no early weddings, no bridal or baby showers and no kid birthday parties.
As you can see, a ton of work goes into the process of getting local food to market. It can be very rewarding to have a close relationship with our consumer customers, but we aren’t sure anymore if we can justify the sacrifices we make in order to have that relationship.
California has been battling a terrible drought. Back in the spring of 2014 we had to drop our cattle numbers and temporarily stop selling at the Farmers Market. While we were sad to miss those sales and our wonderful customers and farmer friends, we are having a tough time deciding if we will go back to selling there.
Shannon Douglass, 31, is a cattle farmer along with her husband, Kelly Douglass. Shannon is a first generation farmer. She raises beef cattle as well as specialty seed crops like sunflowers, melons, squash and lettuce on their family Douglass Ranch.
From the Farmer’s Tractor is an editorial column written by farmers in their own words about issues that matter to them. If you are a farmer interested in sharing your views on farming and the food industry, please contact Allison@supermarketguru.com.