Tuesday was week one of our Portage County Healthcare Center Market, and our produce was packed and ready in the Field Notes cooler when we arrived to load up. As it was Tuesday, CSA dropoffs were also taking place, and we frenziedly packed and oriented the vehicles: Mission boxes in the side door of the Shadow; bike shop boxes in the back; POCO Market bins in Oren’s truck. We loaded the two vehicles heavily with veggies, and set out to station Sand Risers and fresh produce all over the community. I arrived to the healthcare center a bit before Fanni and Oren, to scope out the space as they made our Coop delivery.
There as I approached, I saw a lonely table in the lonely back corner of a huge lot, accompanied by a big, lonely tree and overseen by a lonely old man– the second new Bob to make my acquaintance in as many weeks. The season had been rough on Bob’s clay soil, and the smattering of veggies on his table seemed a bit lonely and forlorn as well. As we chatted, he explained that he had the time slot before us; they’d told him to set up way over here and it had been very slow since his arrival at 12:30. I eyed the front door across the parking lot, thinking aloud. “Hmm, we should probably just set up over there.” Just then, Oren’s pickup rolled up. “Hey Bob. Did they tell you to set up over here? Yeah, we’re going to set up over there by the door.”
We cruised to our new spot and the Grandmaster took over, orienting us to the craft of the market stand: setting up the tent, arranging the crates, and using the plank for a 2-level table arrangement. “Yep, stack those radish bunches as high as you can in that bin… Get some nice contrasting colors and shapes on the outsides… Stack the green onions like this…” As we arranged our bounty of beautiful food, Bob stopped by in his small truck. “Wanna set up with us?” Oren asked, gesturing to the open space next to our tent. Bob eyed our gorgeous array of produce, and respectfully declined. “Let me know if they give you a hard time about setting up by the door,” he said as he took his leave.
“If they do,” replied the Grandmaster, “then we just won’t come.”
After setting us up with cash belts and introducing us to the Square point-of-sale tablet and general money handling practices, Oren headed back to the farm, leaving my wife and I with some much-needed alone time.
And alone time it was. For the first hour, the only movement seemed to be that of my guts as they protested my incessant radish and arugula munching. The parking lot remained desolate and bare, with the exception of the occasional straggler stopping by for a bunch or two of radishes or a pound of snap peas. The rest of our beets, kale, chard, and green onions sat glorious and proud on the table, awaiting the opportunity to be seen, appreciated, paid for and eaten. Finally, a black Dodge Caravan pulled into the lot and parked purposefully in front of the stand. A middle-aged woman stepped out patiently, grabbing her fabric bags and approaching the stand slowly. She stood silent for a couple of seconds, taking in the majestic bounty facing her. “Wow…. wow.” “Did you guys grow all of this!?” “Is this all organic?”
“Yes and yes,” we replied proudly She spent the next 20 minutes expressing her appreciation and admiration for our work and the food; picking up and carressing bunches of radishes, holding parsley bunches lovingly to her nose, and weighing our massive green onions between her hands. “Oh, I just love beets… I actually put radishes in my chicken soup… I’m always making stocks… We are just so blessed, aren’t we?” At the end of it all, she walked away with two heavy, bulging bags of goodness- around $40.00 worth. She took all of her enthusiasm with her when she left, however, and we were faced again with the desolate lot for the last half hour, as we awaited Oren’s return. At the end of the 2 hours, we’d sold a total of only $60.00 of the hundreds of dollars of food that we’d brought, bringing to our minds the question of whether it was worth our time, or presently could be.
The original impetus for this market was that we’d be serving WIC and Healthcare clients, along with the Health Department staff; offering a market opportunity to those who can’t make it to the Saturday market, and increasing fresh produce availability to lower-income folks. The reality, at least this week, was that we saw neither hide nor hair of a single employee, served only 2-3 clients, and got a vast majority of our sales from one outside customer. Was it location? Possibly. We could have set up on the grassy patch immediately adjacent to the front-door sidewalk. Even so, the employees, we learned, park in the back lot and use back doors, so they wouldn’t see us unless they were actively looking. In order to catch the mass exodus of employees at 4:30, we’d have to set up by their private doors in the back, leaving no opportunity for a chance encounter with clients. The question becomes: who are we here to serve? And what is the symbolism of the segregation between provider and client– using separate lots and separate doors, leaving essentially no opportunity for chance encounters outside of the office?
At the end of the day, our first POCO market experience opened up more questions than answers. While service to a broader spectrum of the community has been a mission of ours from the beginning, a line needs to be drawn when financial aspects are considered. The costs of harvest, packing, transport and setup — in addition to time that Fanni and I could have been out mulching or hoeing vegetables that may actually sell — need adequate consideration. We are, after all, running a 1st year business. I suppose it’s just the age-old issue of business versus principles. I’m not sure what the future holds for POCO, but from a purely personal perspective, it was wonderful to sit behind a market stand once and bask in the enthusiasm and admiration of at least one enlightened eater, and spend some time with my wonderful wife.