It would be hard to overstate the importance of farmers’ markets to our current business model. We bank on a sizeable influx of cash from Saturday-to-Saturday in peak growing season, flowing in from our stands at the Neenah, Stevens Point and Appleton markets. Serving as our primary representative at the Appleton Market this season has provided me with invaluable insight into the world and backdrop of what would seem to be a simple market stand. There is, quite frankly, a lot riding on these Saturday mornings, and, given the logistical, preparatory and quality requirements for a successful market day, we simply can’t afford to miss the boat.
This Saturday, we came close. First was a call from Logan when we were already well on the highway, informing me that we’d forgotten the boards which make up the second tier of our market table. Given the bounty of the day, we certainly couldn’t afford to go without, and he turned back, compromising vital setup time. Then, I had to call Corrina back to Appleton to grab lettuce heads for Logan in Neenah, and she had to return a second time to deliver produce bags that had been unaccounted for. Beautiful lettuce heads are great, but you can’t sell them if you don’t have them, and you can’t very well sell lettuce, carrots, beans, or bulk beets without produce bags.
Given the plenitude of factors – primarily the weather – outside of our sphere of influence, we’ve got to do our best to control those that we can. These include vegetable quality and quantity, mental and logistical preparation, stand setup, and overall attitude. The energy of the market stand is tangibly dependent upon the energy of those working and of the vegetables themselves, and the difference between great and mediocre equates to a significant difference in overall sales.
Though generally somewhat nervous on market mornings, I was feeling the flow on Saturday as I systematically pieced together my stand. Bins stacked in order on the curb. Tents, tables, tablecloths. Bins, boards, roots. Greens, zucchini, lettuce…
The first thing that caught my attention were the bulky carrot bunches – bold, beautiful and lively. I piled them high on the sunny side of our tables, as an eye-draw to marketgoers from the east. They were, quite frankly, some of the nicest organic carrots I’ve ever seen. The rest of the stand came together as I rounded out the display with pints of cherry tomatoes on the top tier, and slicers spilling down to a lower-level crate display. It was a work of art, and Corrina confirmed as much when she returned again from Neenah.
From there, it was all about attitude and alertness. There’s an art to the flow of the workload, and keenness is key to a consistent presence. We flowed through the process of weighing, spraying, restocking and conversing; keeping our hands and eyes employed at all times. Demanding though it becomes, particularly during rush periods, it has to look effortless to the customer. You have to be the vegetable expert; answering whatever questions may come in regard to the eight varieties of tomatoes on the table. It’s customer service of the best kind; showcasing with pride the bounty of your collective labor – manifested in magnificent bunches of carrots and plump, colorful heirloom tomatoes.
Glorious though our carrot bunches were, a couple old ladies still came by to pick them up and scoff at our $3.00 price before heading off down the market. And that’s their right. If they came to the market for cheap food, they are simply not our customer, and there’s certainly another stand better suited to appease them. Another lady stopped and strongly suggested we lower the price on our lettuce mix before buying it anyway. There just wasn’t anyone else who had any left.
And this is by design. We push quality and we push volume, and a key element of our dynamic is the bounty of the table at all times. If the market ends at 12:30, we continue to restock even after noon, making sure the greatest amount of food is on display at all times. When something runs out, we flex something available into its place. As we sell out, we condense from four tables to three; from three to two, to give the continued impression of overflowing bounty through the whole market.
And this aesthetic draws in new customers — customers who come back, week after week, and year after year, for the best tomatoes they have ever tasted. Customers like the guy who comes at 8:15 every week and drops $30.00 on mustard mix and cherry tomatoes. Like the lady who bought three bags of salad mix for the third straight week – complimenting the freshness and cleanliness, and acknowledging how intensive the process must be. The ones who tell us we have the most beautiful stand in the whole market; who thank us for being organic, and express their gratitude upon finding us.
These are our customers, and we appreciate them dearly for keeping us afloat. Frankly, our food is too valuable for the price-balkers and discount-shoppers. Each of those carrots was hand-weeded and harvested, handled no less than three times in the washing and bunching process, sorted, and transported from Custer in the early hours of the morning. They are nothing but wholesome; they employ no cancerous chemicals; they’re beautiful and we are proud of them.
We put a lot into our vegetables; we put a lot into the market preparation; we take a great deal of pride in our stand, and we depend upon a loyal customer base to accommodate our financial requirements. They have proven their willingness to do that, and we are grateful to them for providing us with the opportunity to return for the wonderful market experience week-after-week.