The numbers don’t lie. Since the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market moved from its temporary site at Green Street to the Ferry Building our gross receipts have fallen. Meanwhile, our farm’s costs, like labor, diesel, insurance, electricity, seeds, and supplies continue to rise. If I thought that raising prices for our vegetables would make our farmers market stall more profitable I would do so, but I doubt that charging more is going to make much difference over the long haul. This candid posting about the Ferry Plaza Market from the Yelp web site by “Toro E.” in April, 2006, is instructive. After making glowing comments about the market’s setting and the prepared foods Toro writes, “ I usually leave the place with only few things in my hand. I know many people do all their grocery shopping here, but I think it’s easier to get that done at Trader Joe’s, throwing bags in the car trunk rather than lugging it back from Ferry Plaza walking. ”
The market has changed. Many farms have changed with it by turning their attention towards providing value added products like juices, preserves, herbal salts, and snacks that can be eaten out of hand. We’ve changed at Mariquita Farm too, by focusing on serving the restaurant trade to make up for lost retail sales. I figure that if I can’t sell fresh vegetables to diners and tourists, then I’ll sell my vegetables to the chefs that cook for them. But with a selection of bulky, fresh, wet, dripping, heavy crops that need to be prepared, we are ill suited to take advantage of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market’s upscale retail demographics. Vegetables we don’t sell at market can’t go back into inventory the way salted nuts or frozen juices can, but have to be counted as a loss against the day’s sales. The farms that we compete with at market for the cooking public’s vegetable dollars are better than they’ve ever been too, and there are more of them. Sometimes the hardest business decision to make well is to decide when to quit. Ego gets in the way.
Julia and I are proud of the contribution that our farm has made to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market over the years. We’ve been there since the beginning. We’re bowing out now, but my ego isn’t sore. I’m not quitting farming, I’m just changing how we do business. Our farm is stable and solvent. I’m sad, because over the years Julia and I have made many friends in San Francisco, and we won’t be able to see them every week any more. Saturday at the farmers market has been the high point of our social lives for years, and no matter whether Julia or I went to the market, the first question we’ve always asked each other when the truck got back to the ranch wasn’t, “How much money did you make?” but “Who did you see?”
Thinking back, it’s hard to fix on any moment that was the high point of the farmers market for me. I remember once I was able to display a harvest of strawberries, sweet peas, basil, lavender, mint, and thyme all at once, and the fragrance was almost overwhelming. Customers stopped in front of the stall like I’d clubbed them with a mallet. One woman, who worked as a Muni driver, said that my stall smelled so good it made her want to cry. That was a nice morning.
I remember, too, the first time I sold vegetables to Mr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I grew up in the middle of nowhere, and San Francisco always seemed as distant to me as Constantinople. In high school, when I was 15, our class took a field trip to the Steinhart Aquarium, and I slipped away from the schools of fish and crossed town for a pilgrimage to the City Lights Bookstore. My literature teacher, Wally LeValley, had been a taxi driver in North Beach during the poetry renaissance, and he turned me on to the Beat writers. Mr. Ferlinghetti. had a lot of moxie to take on the Federal Government and fight for the right for the right to publish Ginsberg’s poem Howl. He won that battle so that any of us can publish uncensored poetry! That was a real Patriot Act. So years later, when Mr. Ferlinghetti came to my stall for broccoli and cippolini, it made me feel good to have something for sale that he appreciated.
All the years in the Ferry Plaza Farmers market gave me a chance to meet a lot of interesting San Franciscans, but some of the most pleasant times at every market have been the moments at dawn just before the people showed up when I could step back and admire all the colors and smells and shapes in my vegetable display. I’d pause for a moment, and then, back at Green Street, the flock of parrots from Telegraph Hill would swoop over the market, right on schedule, squawking and scandalizing in their flight as they made their way to their hidden gardens. Then the crowds would pour into the parking lot, and the day would be a blur until I’d get home and tell Julia who I’d seen.
Customers who’ve shopped with us since the beginning can remember how many times I’ve changed our farm’s mix of products over the years. I started out with salad greens and tomatoes, then turned to herbs, flowers and strawberries, and more lately focused on bunched greens and heirloom Italian vegetables. It’s never enough to just grow vegetables to survive as a farmer. The challenge of farming is to change as fast as the marketplace does. The only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that everything always changes. Like the poet said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” We’re not dying at Mariquita Farm, we’re just molting.
Julia and I plan to focus ourselves on Two Small Farms community supported agriculture program that we run in partnership with High Ground Organic Farms, and we intend to improve service to our restaurant account. Julia and I are going to keep putting out our Ladybug Letter because it’s a project we enjoy doing together, and we’ve started a blog because we want to stay in touch with the people we’ve met as best we can. Look for a newsletter article soon on how Mariquita Farm goats are working to restore native California coastal prairie habitat at High Ground Organic Farm in Watsonville.
And we’re going to continue to open Mariquita Farm up to the public for u-picks and open houses. This summer I hope to host America’s first Pimiento de Padron u-pick. Maybe I can convince one of my chef friends to come and toast some peppers in a skillet so that we can all enjoy tapas. Laura Kummerer, the native plant specialist who is guiding the habitat restoration project at High Ground with my goats, is planning to host a no charge field trip to show any interested people what we’re up to. High Ground is a gorgeous ranch, so I encourage you to visit. Check our next newsletter or our blog for details of this, and other events. When my crop of red flowered fava beans is ready to harvest I’d like to share the seed with gardeners who would like to help me pick and clean the crop. Details tba when the beans begin to dry.
The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market has been good to us over the years, and any number of times a good day at market helped us make payroll. Julia and I can feel confident as we evolve our new marketing strategy in part because we have met so many chefs and restauranteurs at market over the years. It is our hope that another small farm can take our space and grow into a strong, sustainable business by taking advantage of the unique opportunity that the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market offers. I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to serve on the Ferry Plaza Board. It was a great education. I want to thank all of you for your support over the years, and I especially want to thank farmers market’s founding Executive Director, Ms. Sibella Kraus, for inviting us into the market in the first place. I’m grateful for all the work the C.U.E.S.A. staff puts in on behalf of farmers like us and I’m thankful to Dexter Carmichael, the manager, for all the hard work he’s put in over the years. Thanks again. I’ll miss you all. Andy
here’s a gift to all our ‘frequent market customers’: a virtual farm bouquet of unexpected agricultural flowers
Julia’s note: I’ll MISS THE MARKET. And…. we hope to see many of our frequent customers and friends down on our farm when we have open days, and at dinners we’ll attend and host with restaurants we sell to. -julia