Don’t get me wrong, I care a lot about greens. I spend a lot of my work day thinking about mustard greens. How much I can harvest this week–how to keep them ideal baby salad size forever–how to keep the flea beetles away from them–but usually I cook them with bacon. At best, salad is a side dish for this young greens grower.
Supposedly a new farmer’s most profitable crop is salad greens, because they’re easy to grow, quick to harvest, and the most justifiable thing for the common man to buy locally. Baby greens are among the most fragile of food crops and can be grown almost anywhere; it just makes sense to skip the shipping costs and buy a bag of greens that were cut that morning by your neighbor. And yet…I can’t get the common man to care about them. Week after week I watch people swarm the booth for bread samples, and when the bread is gone I find myself foisting salad upon reluctant passerby. My customers are more enthusiastic about radishes than lettuce. Radishes!
I believe partly this is because farmers markets have become (or perhaps always were) places to buy quaint oddities rather than dietary staples. I think most localvores buy their lettuce at Safeway and their lavender lattes at the Farmer’s market. I don’t blame them; the only way I can afford mostly local vegetables is because I spend my summer growing them. Unlike produce markets in poorer parts of the world, American farmer’s markets are tourist attractions more than groceries.
So then how do farmers make themselves more appetizing? Should we fight for rock-bottom prices like grocery stores, competing over who can sell the most cheap and despondent lettuce? I don’t think anyone can beat Walmart at that game.
I’m dreaming up a new strategy, one I announce with a little shame as it acknowledges my flagging lettuce enthusiasm. One of the best and most frustrating parts of this season is realizing how little I can do to change my trajectory with vegetables. Farming is a long-term game; my quickest product takes a month to be ready to harvest. When it comes to increasing profits my hands are tied to the seeds I’ve already planted. But baking bread takes a few hours. And people seem to like it a lot more than lettuce. I see no reason to be aesthetically pure about selling vegetables. Bread and salad belong on the same table, and I believe they encourage the sale of each other. Instead of constantly brow-beating myself for failing to sell my precious mustard greens, what if I started selling cookies, and cheering whenever someone buys some greens with their cookies? Frankly, I believe in eating both greens and cookies, heartily and with great abandon. Where is the line between full-time farmer/hobby baker and hobby farmer/full time baker? The startup business books say don’t get distracted from your goal; build it and the customers will come. But until the carrots and other colorful vegetary oddities are ready to harvest, I’ve got to DO SOMETHING and SAVE THE FARM.
I read somewhere that farmers are frequently jack of all trades. We have to be master gardeners, diesel mechanics, unflappable marketers, fieldwork yoga practitioners, amateur welders, casual inventors, and full-time philosophers. I need to take a crash course on baking. Any masters of the craft willing to be paid in lettuce?
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