The Price is Right

Last week I sat down with a young woman who was about to attend her first ever farmers market with meats she had raised as a fourth-generation farmer on her family farm. I had met her the previous year at my USDA processor. She lamented that for what she was making from selling her livestock at the local auction barn she’d never be able to pay her bills on farming alone. Turns out that she was raising her pigs on pasture, her cows were grass-fed, her chickens were free-ranging, she used no chemicals, hormones or antibiotics and she was still getting commodity meat prices, a pittance, at auction.

“You should go to market one week to see what it’s like,” suggested my butcher who is a co-packer for many small-scale farmers who sell direct through farmers markets and restaurants. A few weeks later, she was at Bethesda Central Farm Market with me to see what it was all about.

Her eyes grew wide with the number of vendors, the diversity of customers, the array of products and yes, the prices. For her, purchasing direct from the farm had always meant a steep discount. That may be so in remote, rural counties, but the clincher was when I explained that for many of the vendors farming was our sole source of income; we farmed for a living. The prices she was seeing were what they must be to list farming as an occupation; not a footnote, not a hobby.

I shared with her that when I first began going to farmers markets as a vendor, the most difficult aspect for me to overcome was having a customer complain about the prices of my products. It was devastating knowing how much investment of money as well as work went into raising the food I was trying to sell. I netted $11.15 from my very first market. In utter defeat, I limped back to my office job for several more years.

We went through the checklist of everything she needed. She handed me her product list and I whipped out my pen crossing off her prices, changing them to enough to cover her production costs and add in a profit. She gasped, “I can’t charge these prices!”

I explained that the changes I made reflected the true cost of production – not just the feed and processing. There are so many other factors that go into pricing products – insurances, market fees, tents, coolers, tables, signs, certifications, licenses, credit card transaction fees, vehicle costs – it adds up quickly.

Similarly, setting prices below production costs hurts other farmers with similar products. The fastest way to earn the ire of fellow vendors at a market is to undercut them by a wide margin. This usually results in harsh words and hurt feelings. Over the years, I’ve been on both sides of that table. As with everything else in life, it’s a learning experience.

According to the Farmers Market Coalition, “In 2017, American farmers receive only 14.8 cents of every dollar Americans spent on food. At farmers markets, farmers head home with upwards of 90 cents on the dollar.” Additionally, the USDA puts off-farm costs including marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing (they forgot to mention profit) at more than 80 cents of every food dollar spent in the United States.

Currently, the United States is hemorrhaging small to mid-sized family dairy farms on a scale never seen. Why? The farms are simply not paid enough to cover the costs of production of their raw milk. When farmers choose to process, market and distribute their own dairy products, as Dishing the Dirt discussed earlier this year, the farmers are able to capture the majority of profits that otherwise would go to the processor, thus they are able to remain in business.

Business. I think one of the hardest reasons farmers have effectively pricing their products for direct-marketing is they don’t look at farming as a business first, but as a way of life, a passion, a calling. When working with young farmers, especially those who are the youngest of a multi-generation commodity farm, these are a few bullet points I give them when it comes to setting their prices.

  • Track ALL of your costs. From the cost per mile of operating a vehicle to the bags of ice needed each week, it’s the little things that add up. Understanding the true cost of getting your product to market is a must.
  • Know the comparative products’ prices both at the farmers market AND at local retailers.
  • Coming down in price is discretionary, going up is not.

This past spring a customer informed me that a local retailer had leg-of-lamb on sale for the holidays. As part of my regular reconnaissance I had been to that particular store the week prior. Yes, the leg was on sale, but the price of whole racks was double what mine was. “There’s only so much profit to be made from an animal,” I explained. In the commodity arena, it boils down to quantity versus quality.

The buzzword that has been bandied about for the last twenty years has been sustainability. Yes, there are many aspects to sustainability in agriculture such as soil health, conservation, animal welfare, genetic diversity, environmental responsibility, carbon sequestration, etc. What it really boils down to is customers who are willing to pay a fair price that keep the farmers in business.

After the success of my young farming friend’s first day at a new market, I foresee her forging a new path for her family’s farm so her infant son can grow up to be a fifth-generation farmer.


Sandra will not be at Bethesda Central this Sunday but will return next week.

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When Bugs are a Good Thing

Insects and Imperfections

Last week at one of the markets an irate customer wanted to return lettuce from one of the Certified Organic vendors because they had found larvae in it. It could have been a grub or a caterpillar. Good thing it wasn’t me fielding their ire or I would have told them they were lucky they weren’t charged for the added protein.

Seriously.

Here at Dishing the Dirt we’ve been talking about the challenges of Certified Organic produce production and the weather this last month. Today we’re going to put both topics together to drive home the point of how much weather impacts production.

Yes, lots of rain brings planting, growing and harvest challenges for all farmers and producers, including those of us who raise livestock. The rains and humidity increase incidences of pests and fungus.

Think about those two words, pests and fungus.

Why do people buy Certified Organic foods? Could it be because they don’t want pesticides and fungicides sprayed on their food? I’ll try to make this as simple as possible. You can either have bugs, slugs, beetles, grubs, worms, larvae, flies, snails, and hoppers on your fruits and veggies or you can have chemicals. You can have mold, rust, spot, rot, blight and slime on your fruits and veggies or you can have chemicals.

One of the biggest pet peeves of anyone who grows sweet corn is when customers peel back the husks, find one small worm at the top of the cob just under the silk and then toss it aside in search of an ear without a worm. “They don’t want spray and they don’t want worms,” groused one farmer who threatened to quit growing sweet corn until posting a sign toward the end of the sweet corn season that read, “We guarantee that every ear of corn contains a worm. You don’t have to check.”

And about chemicals, before passing judgement, realize that not all non-certified producers use pesticides and fungicides and those who do may have no other choice. Not all “chemical” means of pest control are alike in their toxicity, persistence in the environment and range of action. Unlike conventional pesticides which are synthetically formulated to be chemically toxic causing death in the pests using nerve or stomach agents, biorational chemicals are less toxic. Examples include pheromones that lure pests away from produce to be caught in sticky traps. A pheromone is a chemical compound, but it is nontoxic, only confusing the pest instead of directly killing it. Other non-toxic chemicals include attractants, repellants and anti-feeding agents.

In addition to the insect explosion that is inevitable with wet, hot, humid weather, fungi go into overdrive. Notice how ripe fruits on your counter tend to grow fuzz and liquefy at lightning speed during the dog days of summer? This is the work of fungus among us and it is what farmers must deal with on a large-scale every growing season.

Customers have become accustomed to pristine produce, choosing only the most perfect specimens, passing over anything sporting a blemish. Farmers strive to offer the best they can, but sometimes nature has other plans. If you watch closely, you’ll see vendors constantly roving throughout their stands picking out the less-than-perfect and tossing it in a compost bin behind the tables. Unfortunately, that’s difficult to do when an entire crop, like mustard greens, all have tiny bites from Flea Beetles on each leaf.

Last Sunday I brought home a couple of eggplants, one that had been tag-teamed by pests & fungus and another with a cosmetic blemish. The bulb of garlic was struggling in the humidity to properly cure and would have most likely rotted if not used soon. Despite these imperfections, my baba ganoush was delicious.

Here are some tips for dealing with pests and fungus you may find on fruits and vegetables in wet, hot and humid weather.

  • Wash it. Even if you purchase Certified Organic, the produce still needs to be thoroughly rinsed to remove debris such as soil and {gasp} bugs. Rinsing and drying will also cut down on fungus during storage prior to consumption.
  • Refrigerate it. Warm temperatures and moisture are the perfect environment for eggs laid by pests to develop. In a chilled environment, the eggs will fail to develop.
  • Eat it. Don’t wait until Thursday or Friday to make that peach cobbler or caprese salad if the fruit was ripe on Saturday or Sunday when purchased.
  • Buy it. Fruits and vegetables blemished by environmental factors took the same amount of time, labor and resources to grow—probably more due to the battle against nature. Losing crops = losing income and farmers still need to pay their bills.

Rain. Rain.

After I left market on Sunday I swung by the Amtrak station in Rockville to collect a dear friend who had traveled from the small agricultural valley in southern California where I had lived for many years before returning east to farm. I was wet from tearing down and packing the stand. I had driven through flooded streets, water spraying so high from passing cars they caused a wet slap on my windshield with each one driving by. My mind was clicking through worst-case scenarios of what the deluge meant for me back at the farm – flooding in the barn, flooding in the lower pastures, erosion, mud, flies, foot rot.

Exiting her train, my friend’s first words were, “All this rain, it’s so wonderful. Everything is so green. You are so lucky!”

As we caught up on too many years gone by, she told me what fourteen years of drought has meant for her. The one that took away my breath – hay cost $18 a bale, more than four times the average cost in the mid-Atlantic region. “We had pastures for about a month this year,” she said. When there is no pasture, one must purchase hay. In comparison, I have pasture for nine, some years ten months out of the year. My perspective was quickly shifting about the impending week of storms.

The big shocker, when it rains her local farmers markets get canceled!

“You still had market today with the rain?” she asked, and I responded that markets are only shut down for hurricanes and single-digit temperatures although once there was a market right after a derecho. No one bought anything because everyone was out of power.

The down side.

A week of torrential rains can create havoc on a farm. At Spiral Path Farm all this water means the fields are too wet to safely plant, drive through, and harvest without harming the soil. Many summer crops, like melons and tomatoes, need it to be hot and dry to grow and ripen properly. “Think of a vine-ripe cantaloupe sitting in nine inches of water,” lamented Lucas Brownback.

At Two Acre Farm all the green beans and tomatoes needed to be replanted. Nicole Olson explained, “Moisture from all the rain-soaked in the beans themselves causing the beans to be rubbery and entire tomato plants simply rotted out of the ground.”

The up side.

For Lucas at Spiral Path, the plus side of the rains is there is no irrigating needed. I thought of my farming and ranching friends out west who have had to let entire orchards of citrus and avocados die because they could no longer afford the water needed to irrigate and livestock ranchers selling off entire herds due to lack to water. Drilling a new well into a depleted aquifer is futile.

When customers lament the rain, I remind them how critical it is, even if this week it seems to be too much of a good thing. Yes, there will be many crops impacted, but there is enough water to sustain future plantings. Other geographic regions both in the United States and throughout the globe experiencing severe droughts do not have this option and are instead saddled with economic losses, social changes and migrations of both people and animals.

I’ll take the rain.

Life Doesn’t Always Go as Planned

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.

Staying Sharp

With the purchase of meats, vegetables and fruits comes the task of preparation. What is the primary tool for such tasks?

The knife.

From paring to carving and every size and shape in between, slicing, dicing, boning and peeling all take their toll on a blade over time. Unless you know your way around a whetstone or sharpening steel, keeping an edge on frequently used knives means turning over your tools to a professional.

So, it made perfect sense for Central Farm Markets to include a mobile sharpening service as one of the markets’ regular vendors.

Robb Balfour, owner of Robb’s Edge Express, rotates through all four of the Central Farm Markets sharpening everything from scissors to scythes. “Kitchen knives are by far the most common item,” Robb said when asked about his work at the markets.

Most services can be performed in an hour with Robb’s mobile sharpening equipment. Simply drop off your knives, scissors and gardening tools like loppers and hedge shears with Robb and his wife, Keli, enjoy shopping at the market and pick up your tools on the way out. Some things, like chainsaw blades, circular saw blades and hand saws must be done at Robb’s workshop in Hagerstown, MD. They can be dropped off at the market and will be returned on his next trip.

Although Robb has only been with Central Farm Markets for four years, he’s been sharpening blades since 1961. He is certified by the National Beauty Tools Sharpeners Guild and regularly attends trade shows to stay up-to-date. In addition to the markets, Robb specializes in professional salon scissors, clippers and clipper blades. He also repairs Andis, Oster and Wahl clippers (I know there are horse and dog people who frequent the market who should know about this).

Robb is currently working with Shepherdstown University to offer a workshop on basic sharpening.

I asked Robb if he could tell people one thing to stop doing with their knives, what would it be? “Do not put knives in a dishwasher.” He explained that the humidity and moisture attack the edge which is very thin. “The edge gets pitted and etched.”

For those who put their knives in the dishwasher, here is Robb’s schedule so you can have your knives restored sharp enough to split a hare (or a chicken, or a tomato). Bring your blades wrapped in a towel, in a box or in a sheath for a proper sharpening.

Robb’s Edge Express Schedule for Central Farm Markets

Pike: 2nd Saturday
Westfield: 4th Saturday
Bethesda: 2nd & 4th Sunday
Mosaic: 1st & 3rd Sunday

Happy Independence Day

You know the great thing about the Fourth of July falling in the middle of the week? Sure, it screws up the three and four-day weekends, but it also stretches the festivities across two weekends instead of one. Flags appear, cherry pies get baked and the fireworks begin. The first two icons are easy to understand, but when did fireworks become part of the celebration?

From the very beginning, thanks to John Adams.

The drive to market from the farm is my time to listen to audiobooks. Last year I went through a founding fathers phase queuing up biographies of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and a slew of similar works. After all, they too were farmers.

In Joseph J. Ellis’ book First Family: John and Abigail Adams, there were excerpts of a letter Adams had written to his wife on July 3, 1776 detailing his vision for marking the signing of the Declaration of Independence the following day. He told Abigail that the occasion should be “commemorated with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.” The weight of Adam’s words carried far beyond his personal letters and the very first public Independence Day celebrations were held in Philadelphia and Boston on July 4, 1777 with large fireworks displays. The tradition continues…

As for the cherry pie, walk through Central Farm Markets and you’ll find cherries galore right now. How fortuitous that cherry (and berry) season occurs during the first week in July. We can thank the Dutch for importing cherry trees to New York (when the region was under the sovereignty of the Netherlands) in 1689.

There are assorted shades of the stone fruit which basically fall into two categories: sweet and sour.

Today, we think of cherries as fruit for eating, but in colonial times each type of cherry had a purpose. Sour cherries were a favored remedy for gout as they lower uric acid levels in the blood. Added to brandy, sour cherries served as an antiviral, antibacterial and to reduce muscle and joint pain. Sweet cherries are high in the antioxidant melatonin that has a calming effect on the central nervous system, alleviating insomnia, headaches and irritability. I can attest that a bowl of fresh sweet cherries and Blue Ridge Dairy Greek Yogurt can quickly cure a bad case of grumpiness due to oppressive heat.

This year my go-to recipe for cherries has been Spiced Brandied Cherries. They store well in the refrigerator or can be canned. A spoonful is perfect over ice cream for a quick and easy delicious summer treat. Old Fashioned anyone?

Brandied Spiced Cherries

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cloves
  • 2-3-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1 star anise pod
  • 2 allspice berries
  • 2 cardamom pods
  • 1 quart cherries, pitted and stemmed
  • 1 cup brandy

Directions:

Combine spices and sugar in a sauce pan with ½ cup water. Simmer until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and add cherries and brandy to the mixture. Store in jars in refrigerator.

Summer Sizzle

Mother Nature wasted no time cranking up the heat after the official start of summer last week. Temperatures have soared into the 90’s with equally oppressive high humidity. It seems like only a few weeks ago we were lamenting the frigid chill of a lingering winter. Last weekend was a scorcher and the coming weekend is forecasted to be even hotter.

Here are seven tips to make your market experience in hot weather easier.

1. Leave your dog at home. We love dogs. They are welcome at all Central Farm Markets locations. However, look down at your feet at market and you’ll notice you’re standing on black top or concrete. By noon on a sunny, hot, summer day concrete can reach 150 degrees and black top temperatures can pass 160 degrees. That’s hot enough to fry an egg!

2. Bring an insulated bag or cooler. In addition to cold items, an insulated bag will help protect tender greens from wilting between the market and home. Here’s a tip. Fold several layers of newspaper to the dimension of your bag. Shop for cold products first. Cover the cold products with the paper and put fruits and vegetables on top. Newspaper is a great insulator and will help keep cold items cooler. Or you can go all out in full summer market style.

3. Protect yourself from the sun and heat. Hats, umbrellas, shades, sunscreen, and linen are all ways to ward off the ultraviolet rays of sun. For additional cooling I’ve seen everything from bandanas with cool packs to battery-operated fans on baby carriages. My personal favorite is a misting bottle with plain ol’ cold water for regular spritzing.

4. Stay hydrated. It never fails. At least once each summer someone hits the ground from dehydration during market. Vendors, customers – we all need to consume more than our usual amounts of liquids this time of the year. Mountain Valley Springwater and other drinks are available at many of the prepared food vendors. Dr. Brown with Doctors to You stresses the need to replenish electrolytes during extremely hot weather to avoid heat distress.

5. Know the signs of heat distress. Signs of heat distress include clammy skin, heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, rapid pulse, muscle cramps, nausea and headache. Be aware if you are experiencing any of these symptoms (or witness someone in distress) to immediately move into the shade and drink plenty of cool liquids, preferably liquids with electrolytes to replenish those lost through sweating. Dr. Brown explained that everyone reacts to heat and sun differently depending on age, health and medications. He advised, “When a person stops sweating and their skin turns red, then it’s time to call 911.”

6. Shop early. In addition to beating the high temperatures of the day, early shoppers get first pick of a fully stocked market and a good parking space. At the same time, please allow vendors to get set up and ready for business if you arrive at market prior to 9 AM.

7. Use the Market Concierge. This is the final market weekend prior to Independence Day. We’re expecting it to be not only hot as in temperatures, but hot as in busy with everyone stocking up for their Fourth-of-July celebrations. Instead of making multiple trips to a hot car that could melt zucchini, leave your purchases with a Central Farm Markets employee at the Customer Service tent who will load your car curbside.

A Community of Trust

We Are Family

My high school class reunion was last weekend. I was on the fence about going since doing anything social on a Saturday night requires I be home in time for a decent night’s rest prior to market the following day. Throughout social media in the days leading up to the reunion fellow classmates started hash tagging their posts #wearefamily in anticipation (I’ll date myself, Sister Sledge was on the charts when I was a teen).

My decision was made – Central Farm Markets won because we are family.

There is an inherent vibe to a great farmers market that folds customers and vendors into a unique camaraderie cutting across social divides. I get to see my siblings once, maybe twice a year, but my fellow vendors and customers are there just about every week, some year-round. Creatures of habit, many customers frequent the market about the same time each week, developing their own relationships through chance meetings at their shared favorite vendor stands. Recipes are shared. Together we celebrate our milestones, like births and weddings. We mourn our losses.

We develop a trust with each other. Sometimes that trust pays off in ways far more valuable than what’s for sale.

The customer had a special order, her regular purchases and an add-on of something extra. The amount was much more than what she usually spent. Rooting around in her basket she panicked realizing she did not have her wallet. She apologized profusely then lamented she’ll have to wait until next week.

“Take it,” I said, “I know you’re good for it,” refusing to take back the products and writing down her total in my notebook. She’s been a regular for ten years. I wasn’t worried in the least about getting stiffed.

After she walked away, the next customer incredulously said to me, “I can’t believe you let that woman walk away without paying? Maybe I should forget my wallet, too.”

“Not on your life. I’ve never seen you before,” I responded and then went on to explain the benefits of regularly participating in a local food (or anything) economy where in addition to financial transactions, relationships are valued.

I get it. I’ve been there when I realized my wallet was sitting on my desk at home when I’m at the butcher shop, at the organic feed dealer, at the poultry farm where I pick up peeps for broilers – all in one day, all at a significant distance from the farm. Being there every week, every month, year after year has created an element of trust within our sphere.

…just like at market.

There are several ways Central Farm Markets fosters weekly community spaces – tables, chairs and shade for customers to congregate, to visit with each other and, listen to live music. There are activities for children and pets. There are cooking demos along with health education programs. Central Farm Markets works with community groups, such as Manna Food Center.

Family keeps in touch.

Did I miss catching up with my old classmates? Yes, but thanks to social media I’ve been able to keep in touch with many of them over the years. Which brings me to the Central Farm Markets family. There are many ways for everyone to stay in touch. #CentralFarmMarkets tracks across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram platforms. Even if you are not signed up for the weekly email newsletter, it’s cross-posted along with the line-up of vendors at each market that week. Show us what you’re buying, what you’re cooking, what you’re eating at the markets. In return, you can follow what your vendors and markets are up to and you just may get in on The Dirt before everyone else.

The Dirt on Certified Organic

This week’s Dishing the Dirt answers the question, “Why are there not more Certified Organic vendors at the markets?”

First, let’s establish the official lingo. There’s a distinction between organic practices and being Certified Organic – little o versus big O. Unless a producer has been granted approval (and paid fees) from a USDA-approved third-party certification body, they can not legally mark or advertise their products as Organic or Certified Organic. Certified Organic producers you will find at Central Farm Markets include Spiral Path Farm (Bethesda, Westfield), Bending Bridge Farm (Bethesda), Toigo Orchards (all markets) and The Mushroom Stand (Bethesda).

What is “Certified Organic”?

Certified Organic produce is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms (GMO), or ionizing radiation. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

To use the Certified Organic logo, producers must be certified by one of the 48 domestic USDA-accredited and authorized certification operations or use imported materials from 32 certification bodies located in foreign countries approved by the USDA National Organic Program (NOP) or the 21 foreign governments with specific organic trade agreements with the U.S.

While most of this sounds simple in practice, in reality it can be onerous, especially for new and beginning and small-scale producers who would much rather be devoting their time and resources to growing food instead of paperwork.

The Challenges

The first hurdle to becoming Certified Organic is the Transition Period – a 36-month time-frame in which producers must follow all the regulations, keep all the records and pay all the fees without the benefit of using the Certified Organic designation and the ability to charge accordingly, thus increasing the likelihood of operating at a loss.

This brings us to the second hurdle – money. Organic certification costs the farmer money every single year. The certification body charges not only annual fees based upon formulas of application fees, certification fees, site-inspection fees and a percentage of sales, all of which adds up to thousands of dollars every single year. Add to that number resources allocated to paperwork, the added expenses of a Certified Organic supply chain and costlier, more labor-intensive agricultural practices. It starts adding up quickly.

Many customers ask for Certified Organic meats, however, for a producer this means starting with Certified Organic animals (breeding or young), using only Certified Organic feeds which routinely cost more than twice that of non-certified, have the land where the livestock is raised certified and have the livestock processed at a Certified Organic slaughterhouse/processing facility, so few and far between many organic livestock producers must transport their animals several hours away and book their animals several months in advance. Plus, if an animal becomes ill or injured, medicating it automatically removes it immediately from being sold as Certified Organic. And here’s the rub, if a farmer is raising multiple species, each species of livestock must be certified. Similarly, so must the processor. Given the stringency of the guidelines, for smaller producers/services the investment in fees, ongoing paperwork and logistics doesn’t often pencil into profits for small-scale producers who direct-market to their customers.

Why do it?

There are many reasons producers go the extra mile to obtain organic certification along with other third-party certifications validating their production practices, such as Certified Forest Grown, Certified Gluten-free, Certified Kosher, Certified Grass-fed and Animal Welfare Approved, to name a few. Many of Central Farm Markets’ vendors utilize organic practices but forgo certification, especially those who only sell direct to their customers.

“We grow beautiful food. To us, that means food produced with integrity, care for the land and for the people who grow it,” says Audrey Fisher-Pedersen, co-owner of Bending Bridge Farm, which has been Certified Organic for ten years.

In addition to the extra effort to adhere to rigorous standards and third-party inspections, Pedersen added, “It’s damn hard. Organic methods are genuinely more difficult to use successfully.” She cites row covers to protect tender plants from insects instead of spraying chemical pesticides. “Row covers cost us thousands of dollars each year for the product itself. Plus, they are labor-intensive to apply to crops and remove for cultivation and harvest.”

When asked what the largest hurdles to having more Certified Organic producers are, Lucas Brownback of Spiral Path Farm, now in their 25th year of certification and second generation, immediately responded with “money and paperwork”.

“Though costly, we believe in the standards that the certification implies, and we are willing to make that investment,” said Brownback.

Toigo Orchards has been a staple of the farmers market landscape in the mid-Atlantic region for over twenty-five years and has been a founding vendor at all Central Farm Markets. Although the original orchards are not certified, throughout the years they have worked diligently to battle production challenges by using organic methods such as integrated pest management (IPM). With the construction of their state-of-the-art greenhouse, Toigo Organic Farms now produces Certified Organic vegetables, including tomatoes, peppers and eggplants.

Owner Mark Toigo witnessed the growing demand for Certified Organic and has come to where he is through much trial and error. “It’s not an easy undertaking and you have to have the right people who genuinely care,” said Toigo who strives to do a better job at what he is trying to do.

Certified Organic is much more to these farmers than just a label, a standard, a certification – it is a belief, a way of life, a philosophy.

THANK YOU

To our customers, you’re the B E S T!!!

I am very grateful to Central Farm Markets to write this blog as an interface between the markets, our customers and extended community. The online platform has offered space to bridge the gap between eaters and producers. As I’ve worked my way through subjects relevant to both audiences, this week’s post is a HUGE thank you from the Sunday markets vendors, volunteers and employees to all the people who braved torrential rains to shop.

Yeah, we know we had a washout with the rain killing hopes for a lucrative day during the spring flush of strawberries, the first cherries, asparagus and many other crops that farmers have been working relentlessly to bring to market. Here’s the rub – we can’t hold over most fresh products from week-to-week. The good news – much of the unsold produce goes to Manna Food Center.

The reality is going to market is a gamble and sometimes Mother Nature gets the best of us. It’s tough to do business and keep your tents from cartwheeling into a twisted mess for the recycle bin. Each vendor must make a call based upon their own experience. In severe weather, some vendors may not be able to physically make the trip due to localized flooding, blocked roads or the need for all-hands-on-deck to deal with weather-related emergencies. Similarly, choosing to close a market is not a decision made lightly, one often involving a combination of weather-watching and vendor feedback.

Although the markets made it through Sunday, some vendors chose not to come, and the Diabetes Awareness Day at Mosaic had to be cancelled…but has been rescheduled to Sunday, September 16 at Mosaic! Others made the best of a bad situation with a healthy dose of humor.

Even though we were all soaked to the bone, our stands awash in rain, some products damaged beyond donation, there was a sense of accomplishment, of gratitude because of our customers chose to show up in some of the most miserable weather in the history of markets.

Many customers lamented our fate to spend six hours (or more) working in the unrelenting rains. Here’s a secret: market day means standing under a tent on black top and interfacing with people who appreciate our hard work as opposed to….well, farming in all sorts of weather and conditions. See all that gorgeous produce? It’s harvested when there’s oppressive humidity and pouring rain as well as when there’s not a cloud in the sky on a balmy day every single week. It’s what we’ve chosen to do with our lives. It’s what we’re passionate about. Last Sunday our customers rewarded us with gratitude instead of grumbling and we love you for coming out along with us in the rain.

Despite the frustration and helplessness of inclement weather there was a definite air of relief as patrons dashed in and out, many with colorful rain gear (especially the kids!), graphic umbrellas and waterproof boots. Oblivious to the rain, internationally renown chef and humanitarian Jose Andres strolled through market shopping with his family, thanking vendors and customers for being there.

Die-hard customers are a sign that a market has become an integral part of the existing community. While the markets coped with high winds and downpour last Sunday, customers were also doing their best to support their market by showing up and we thank you!