The bell rings to start the market day. Relentless and demoralizing rain has been falling since the tents came out of the trailer and we began the set up, two hours ago. The gutters now strung up between the tents are working well, emitting a steady stream of water into the growing pool along the back curb and the tent side walls keep us relatively rain-free inside the stall. The very air seems wet, however, and little can be done about that. Tough morning at market so far.
I’ve been selling my family farm’s produce at Vancouver farmers’ markets for 20 years, so I know how to sell potatoes in the rain. It’s just like how to do it in the sunshine, except it seems mentally harder. The difficulty lies in keeping the stall in a high state of readiness, even though it might be empty and you would prefer to be warm and dry elsewhere. Every sale matters—especially in the rain, if your farm depends on farmers’ market sales.
I squeeze my way past the bins of backstock in the trailer where I have been changing out of sopping wet clothes. I have already traded a few hellos with the neighboring vendors, people I’ve seen every Saturday morning for years, but there’s been no time for more than that. I glance around to make sure all the signs are up and that the display is full: we’ve finished in time. It takes just as long to get set up in the rain as it does otherwise. Longer, of course, if you waste time regretting the situation.
The potatoes look good today, the red Chieftain and yellow Sieglinde sort of glowing in the dim light. My staff, who are making up $5 bags of potatoes and carrots, wisely refrain from discussing the weather. The vast, dripping, emptiness out in the market fairway which would normally be filled with customers eager to start shopping, lining up in advance of the opening bell, is obvious enough.
It is undeniably deserted, and despite the potatoes doing their best to provide sunshine, it feels disheartening. I give my head a shake because I think it’s too early to write this one off.
The first customer materializes. She’s a rain-or-shine regular who gave up on regular grocery stores quite a few years ago. She is followed by another I don’t recognize. A chef splashes his way in. I make sure his 20lb bag weighs at least 25. At the till, we’ll be rounding down more than usual. The customers might not notice but I don’t mind. I am feeling very benevolent towards anyone who turns up this morning.
Before I know it, an hour has passed, and I realize that the potato display tables are hidden from view by the backs of customers filling bags. The stack of now empty bins in the back has risen to a level I hardly thought possible when the opening bell rang. It’s going to be a solid day, despite the rain, which might even be easing up a little.
One of my staff has been coming to market ever since she was a baby, and her mom worked for a farm vendor here before that. She’s on the first till, and I jump behind the second one, a line-up having formed of dripping wet customers who thank us for being here today when they get to the front.
It bears repeating: the rain-soaked customers are thanking us and giving us money for potatoes. In fact, it’s now so busy they are lining up to do so. This, right here, is what makes farmers’ markets tick. People choose shopping in the rain over going to a grocery store. Farmers choose marketing in the rain over selling wholesale.
It’s what leads to the fact that farmers can make a living on an acreage that would otherwise be insufficient because they can get full retail for their produce. The customers keep coming back for more because…well…I just don’t know. Is it the quality of the product? The contact with an actual farmer? The coffee and crepes? It might be magic. Whatever the cause, it provides me motivation to keep farming, and to keep customer service and marketing standards high. It seems like a practical way of showing the customers that I really appreciate their business.
I love being a part of this special relationship, but I worry that it won’t last. It’s so much work, there is so much to learn, and there is so much competition for customers—and surely, they won’t keep coming? I mean, sometimes they must quietly wonder if it is really all that great? The weather, the effort, the cost. All that cooking.
Customers. We need customers to make markets successful. We need to retain existing ones and win new ones who might also shop in the rain. The good news is that we are only tapping a tiny fraction of the people who buy food, so there are plenty more to be had. The bad news is that the competition out there is absolutely fierce, and nowhere else other than at farmers’ markets are customers asked to go out shopping in all sorts of weather, probably park far away, and spend perhaps a little more than they really meant to.
Farmers’ markets enjoy one major competitive advantage however, and that is something I have begun to call “mutual appreciation.” This is an energy generated at the point of contact between primary producer and end consumer at market, most notably at the transaction stage. I take your money, you take my potatoes. We are both appreciative of the other. The feeling builds each week, from season to season and year to year and really can’t be re-created in other retail environments.
The farmer can do much to cultivate the feeling of mutual appreciation in the stall. It’s about a lot more than saying “thank you.” Developing good customer service and merchandizing skills is of prime importance—pre-market preparation, and of course years of practice help too. In my opinion, it is important to put as much effort into selling the food as you spend growing it. These customers deserve that.
The farmer makes the magic that the people are coming back for. If you can also create this feeling of “mutual appreciation” in your stall, I think you’ll be able to have both tills busy, even in the rain.
Anna Helmer farms in the Pemberton Valley with her family, friends, and relations. Her book is called: A Farmer’s Guide to Farmers’ Markets and is available on amazon.com.
Photo by Moss Dance.