Farmers markets, in which gardeners and other growers can set up stands and sell fresh produce directly to the public, are popping up once again in cities and towns all over the country.
My family signed on as regular vendors at Omaha's downtown farmers market. The experience was a good one. It taught us firsthand that almost anyone should be able to use a farmers market to turn surplus garden produce into extra cash. The experience also showed us several ways to make selling fresh produce more attractive, easier to run, and far more profitable than it might otherwise be.
Unusual Vegetables Sell!
Perhaps the most important of all the lessons we learned last year was that "variety crops" sell, and sell well! It took only a few days at the stand to show us we'd been far too timid when selecting the vegetables that we'd planted for sale. We had figured that most customers would want only the "tried and true," and that very few would be interested in trying anything new.
Surprise! About half the farmers' market crowd — we soon learned — were there to find adventure! Spaghetti squash and sugar peas were sellouts . . . even to people who'd never heard of them before. Broccoli was a strong mover (as opposed to the more-ordinary cabbage, which we practically had to give away). Even ming beans, which didn't sell the first week, were a big hit the second, after I'd put them into four-ounce packages with simple sprouting directions.
Perhaps more amazing yet was the way that flowers sold. Even simple little bunches of zinnias, which we'd really planted only for ourselves. Apartment dwellers — it seems — generally have no place to grow fresh flowers of their own and, consequently, often jump at the chance to buy even small bouquets.
Herbs were another pleasant surprise. They turned out to be some of the most lucrative items we stocked! And probably the least work too! Actually, the herb garden was our 11-year-old daughter Barbara's project. And, being less than enthusiastic about outdoor work, she did little more than "drop in the seeds" in the spring, then pick, package, and label the herb leaves on Friday nights before Saturday market. Still, she sold everything she took to the stand and made good spending money with very little effort.
As the season wore on and — market day after market day — we saw how well "offbeat" produce sold, we tried harder and harder to satisfy this obvious demand.
In addition to the bin of "big ones" we took into town each week during potato season, we once tried a flat of smaller spuds. Interestingly enough, some of our customers — especially the women who were old enough to remember "real" food and how to fix it — began asking for "the smallest potatoes you have". So I gradually began bringing in smaller and smaller spuds . . . until I'd worked all the way down to the very tiny ones that I'd thought were far too small to sell and which I'd sorted out for our own personal use.
We also did a brisk business in the wild mulberries and elderberries that we picked off our land. (Both the jelly-making crowd and the homemade wine brewers appreciated the berries!)
And "pickling" cucumbers! They sold so fast it made our heads swim . . . probably because all the other vendors offered only "slicing" cucumbers (which are not nearly as much work to pick and which don't have to be as fresh as pickling gherkins). Yes, it took some extra effort to get up early, fresh-pick our little cucumbers just before going to market, sort them by size, tuck in a few sprigs of fresh dill, and label each basket with a note reading "fresh-picked cucumbers for pickling". But it was money in the bank! Our customers told us they'd "looked all over" for the baby gherkins . . . and snapped them up as fast as we could haul them into town.
We Didn't Always Do Well at the Farmers Market
Although we had more than our share of successes last year, we had some disappointments too. The heavy demand we experienced for our small potatoes and small cucumbers, for instance, didn't carry over even to the larger cucumbers we sold.
Most of the present generation of American shoppers, it seems, believes "bigger is better" so firmly that it'll pick a big, woody, overdeveloped vegetable over a smaller and far more succulent one almost every time.
I couldn't believe that at first. But I caught on fast when I saw customer after customer pass up our tasty "picked at the peak of perfection" squash, beans, carrots, slicing cucumbers, etc., in favor of the grotesquely overgrown produce at nearby stands.
Result:  I soon gave in, let most of our offerings grow bigger than I really should have, and watched sales go up. Still, this bothered me so much that  I'm now preparing a pamphlet, "How to Tell a Good Vegetable When You See One" which I intend to distribute from our booth.
Another downer: Few shoppers realize that a washed vegetable is inferior to and will not keep as long as an unwashed one (even if the scrubbed carrot, squash, or whatever does look prettier).
Yet another disappointment: People almost invariably shop for price and not quality. "Organically grown" didn't seem to mean much to most of our customers, in other words, if our prices were higher than those posted by a neighboring stand. Which, of course, means that we now have a golden opportunity to do a little more missionary work this coming summer.
Packaging Is Unnecessary at the Farmers Market
I'm still a little unhappy, too, about an additional lesson our first season as produce vendors taught us: Packaging — even when it helps produce a better product — isn't appreciated by the people who shop at farmers markets.
For example: The last item we harvested each Saturday morning before leaving for town was our leaf lettuce. We grew a beautiful assortment of greens and reds, which I mixed and packaged in plastic bags. The stuffed and tied sacks were then transported immediately to our stand in insulated chests, on blocks of ice from the freezer.
Obviously, no lettuce could be fresher. I think I was justifiably startled when one customer told me she wanted lettuce, but that ours "didn't look too good."
Where could we possibly have gone wrong? I didn't know, so the following week I tried something entirely different: We pulled whole heads of leaf lettuce and put them directly on ice, without bags. And? All our lettuce sold out the first hour!
Evidently people find lettuce more appealing when it's not packaged. So, OK . . . that's the way we give it to them now. Which hurts, since the last few heads we sell every day are already starting to wilt. But that's the way folks seem to want it!
Get a Pair of Good Scales for the Farmers Market
Perhaps our experience with lettuce was related to another discovery we made: People buy more produce when they can actually pick through the vegetables and select their own. Which meant — right at the start of our first season — that we had to buy a scale . . . an expense we hadn't counted on.
Most of the other vendors, we noted, were making do with inexpensive and widely available "kitchen" scales. But — after watching one operator of a stand trying to balance a couple of tomatoes on his scales' undersized platform — we decided that our customers deserved something better . . . something that was "legal for trade," with an up-to-date inspection sticker.
We first thought we'd try to pick up a real produce scale from a remodeled grocery, but quickly learned that such a "bargain" would set us back several hundred dollars! So we settled for a $40 hanging scale from an old hardware store. It immediately proved to be worth its weight in gold! Business boomed as our customers started picking out just what they wanted and weighing it themselves.
Is the Farmers Market Worth the Effort?
We don't look on truck gardening as a way to get rich quick (or ever, for that matter!). But we do think it's a satisfying way for those of us who like to be outside and to be our own boss to earn a supplemental income.
As we were going into the business, we figured we'd need to clear $100 every Saturday to even make the idea worthwhile. We soon learned to be satisfied with a net of anything over $50, however, when we realized how much extra our truck patch was also "earning": We fed our family of five totally out of the garden all summer long, canned and dried and froze enough of the produce to last us the rest of the year, and still had jams, relishes, and pickles left over to use as Christmas presents.
All in all, we probably came closer to that $100-a-week net than we realized.
Onward and Upward at Next Year's Farmers Market!
Now that we have a year's experience under our belts, we plan to be back at our farmers market stand next season with everything the same, only better.
Naturally, we're going to concentrate more heavily on the "unusual" and "variety" crops that sold so well last year. As already noted, for instance, we'll certainly grow broccoli instead of cabbage. (Both take the same amount of work and, at least in our experience, the first will outsell the second any day. Besides that, broccoli — after its central head is harvested — will, unlike cabbage, go right on producing side shoots almost indefinitely, and all of those shoots are easy to sell too.)
Likewise, when we do grow tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, and other "standard" produce, we're going to specialize in the varieties — low-acid tomatoes, spaghetti squash, "burbles" cucumbers and pickling gherkins — that haven't already flooded the market.
We're going to go very big on melons. Everyone, it seems, loves a melon! We never failed to sell all we took into town last year.
We're also going to raise a lot of green beans. None of the vendors at our market ever had enough last season. Yes, beans are so prolific and easy to grow that such a shortage is ridiculous. We suspect that the situation has been created by the labor involved (after all, it takes an hour to pick a dollar's worth of beans and only a few seconds to harvest a dollar melon). But we don't mind working, and we intend to cash in on the demand this summer.
We will not, however, bother with corn. Everyone has it, the competition to sell roasting ears is too stiff, and perfect ears — especially when they're organically grown (which is expensive, time-consuming, and hard on the soil) — are worth more than the 60 cents a dozen they bring at the market.
Further Words to the Wise
Before you take the big plunge (buy a season-long vendor's license) into the farmers market business, do study the maturity dates of all vegetables you plan to grow for sale. In short, make sure you'll have a full truckload of something to sell every weekend.
And think about lining up other outlets for your produce too. Otherwise, what will you do with the 25 melons that ripen the day after your selling trip to town?
"Sacks, sacks, sacks. Please find me some sacks! " We saved every paper bag we could get our hands on for a year before we opened our stand . . . and still ran out within three weeks! A surplus store — "paper sacks, 20 cents a pound" — was our salvation.
Both you and your vegetables will last longer in the shade. We always set a pole frame and canvas cover up over our pickup truck's bed.
The all-out effort to get ready for market — even just once a week — can be a big drain on your time and energy. If you're afraid the pace will exhaust you too quickly, think about concentrating on a specialty crop that you can harvest and sell just a few weeks a year.
Plan to take only your "perfects" into town. (Vegetables that need trimming can feed your family.) And brace yourself for a few inevitable sneers about prices . . . even though you'll know there's absolutely no danger that your produce business will ever make you rich.
On the other hand, you also can expect that most of your customers will be a delight. They will! I had figured that the majority of our shoppers would be large families looking for food bargains. Instead, 75 percent of the clientele turned out to be older folks. Perhaps because Omaha's farmers market is located downtown, close to some older neighborhoods. Or, perhaps, because — in the main — only older people now remember what really fresh, homegrown food tastes like . . . and are not afraid to buy such produce and thank you for the privilege.