I should have been hitting the I-81/70 interchange right 6:30am on my way to Bethesda Central Farm Market, but at a stop sign several miles into the commute the Check Engine and Traction Control System lights came on. Nothing happened when I stepped on the accelerator. As a reformed geek, my immediate assessment was to first reboot. Restarting the engine turned off the Traction Control System light, but not Check Engine. An emergency call to my mechanic precipitated another call to AAA.
Vehicles can be repaired and replaced. I wasn’t worried as much about the van as I was my customers. An overwhelming guilt washed over me. Unloading and reloading into the bed of a truck would be difficult and time-consuming. All the coolers would be exposed to the blazing sun during the hottest part of the day on the drive home. I took a deep breath and accepted reality – I would not be going to market.
It happens to us all. The unexpected rears up and changes plans. As we’ve become a culture of availability where big box stores, franchises and chain stores have fail-safe work forces offering 24/7 service, occasionally this expectation spills over into farmers markets.
One of the favorite things customers do which I have come to appreciate over the years is they tell their vendors when they won’t be at market or when they are moving away.
“I’ll be gone for six weeks,” warned a regular. Sure enough when the seventh week rolled around he was back with his insulated bag and standard order.
Unlike the homogeneous (and boring) world of corporate retail, farmers markets are dynamic, ever-changing experiences. This is a more realistic view of a food system, especially agriculture. On a daily, seasonal and annual basis farmers must be flexible to accommodate everything the world throws at us while trying to get our products to the customers.
Breakdowns; it’s not a matter of if, but when.
In the early years of my agrarian endeavors, I always thought farmers spent a lot of time fixing stuff. Experience has taught me that if you’re fixing stuff, you’re farming. Tractors, implements, fences, watering systems, tables, tents and yes, vehicles all take a beating in this industry (sometimes the farmers, too). As much as we try to prevent such events through regular maintenance and mitigation, manure happens.
Many Central Farm Markets vendors travel the same arteries into the city. When a fellow farmer’s vehicle is broken down on the side of the road, one, two and even three other vendors have pulled over to help get them safely off the busy highway, to market or back to the farm. These are events few customers ever witness or hear about.
Trust me, we don’t want to break down, get injured, get sick or anything else that causes an unexpectedly missed market. Farmers with planned absences try to inform customers the week prior to not being at the market. The market staff does an excellent job at listing all vendors attending markets that week.
Breaking down on the way to market was stressful, but thanks to all the wonderful messages of concern from both customers and fellow vendors the frustration of the experience was significantly lessened.