There was a period many years ago when we were financially able to give up my steady job and try some other things. We moved to the country, I did some long-distance contract programming for my previous employer, and I spent some time trying to establish a desktop publishing business. A friend of mine was under the impression that I had somehow become independently wealthy and had just plain retired, which made me laugh. I had a lot of breathing room, and my use of it might have made me look like one of the idle rich, but it was still necessary for me to decide what I was going to do next. That particular “next” entailed moving into town and taking another corporate job.
When the internet bubble popped in 2001, we were once again provided with a good deal of financial breathing room. Good thing, because by this point we were on a rapidly accelerating journey towards a very different kind of life, and quite a bit of research and rethinking was necessary in order to chart a new path for ourselves and (hopefully) future generations. Over the past six years we’ve experimented with various methods of providing for ourselves, and it has been a real blessing that for most of that time it was never urgent to succeed at any of them.
Our savings aren’t unlimited, though, and knowing that has been enough to keep us diligent about getting clear on where we think we are going and how we will eventually be providing for the family’s needs. One major assumption we’ve held for awhile now is that we would do that with numerous and diverse small enterprises. I mentioned this idea awhile back on the weblog and heard from a commenter who, while intrigued by the idea, was very skeptical that such a thing was possible. Well, we’re nowhere near providing for our every need in that way, but we have started a number of projects which are each capable of not only providing some of our own needs directly, but can also produce a small surplus which we can probably sell or barter. These include beef, chicken, eggs, garden produce, and soap. We plan on improving the acre of wild blackberry bushes at the top of the hill and figuring out how to pick and sell them in quantity. There is an old apple orchard on the property, with upwards of fifty trees, which we will try to revive; they will join the eighteen trees we planted last fall along the driveway. And we continue to hope for access to a commercial kitchen, which would allow us to sell higher value prepared foods: preserves, salsas, etc. (The bookstore continues to provide a small portion of our income, well worth the work we put into it but hardly likely to grow into something that will provide the bulk of our support without taking steps we aren’t interested in taking.)
One critical piece of the puzzle which has been missing so far is direct customer sales. Given the nature of life these days, there is a maddening separation between folks who have food to sell and folks who would like to buy it. We have some good food we’d be happy to sell or trade, but in the immediate area there is no market for it, since most of our neighbors either have plenty of good food of their own or, like many folks these days, aren’t interested in good food. Meanwhile there are plenty of people (at least for our purposes) in urban centers like Lexington who would love to have our food at a price we’d be thrilled to take—if only we could find them and arrange to get them the food.
This is something that Jerome Lange has been doing for the past twenty years, mainly by working with the Good Foods Coop in Lexington. He has also dealt more directly with customers at various times, through farmers’ markets and buying clubs and home deliveries, but over time has found that these are unstable and generally more trouble than they are worth (at least as long as he has a good steady buyer like Good Foods).
Still, there are some important advantages to dealing directly with customers rather than wholesaling to a grocery store. One obvious one is that you get to keep all the money, significant when the retail markup can run around 70%. Another is that in Kentucky if you are selling stuff you made from stuff you grew directly to customers, you can avoid many of the stringent requirements on food preparation that wholesale goods need to meet (e.g. many things don’t need to be prepared in a certified commercial kitchen). So while we are able to grow some things for sale to grocery stores, and could possibly make some other things to sell if we had access to a commercial kitchen, the opportunities to make a few dollars selling a few things increase tremendously if we are able to sell direct.
This is one reason I was checking out regional farmers’ markets last year. Although they are nominally attractive, there are a number of things about the idea in general and about specific markets near us that led us to decide not to go in that direction. For one thing, I know that Jerome worked various farmers’ markets for several years, no longer does so, and has said on numerous occasions that he wouldn’t go back to it, the main reason being that the ideal of a farmer-centered cooperative is inevitably compromised as they strive to become commercially successful (the explanation is long and I’ll save it for another time, but in short such markets become customer-driven in a bad way). For another, we have a friend who has been working farmers’ markets in the Lexington area for many years with only marginal success, for the same sorts of reasons that would also limit our own potential success there. And maybe most important, most successful farmers’ markets cater to a customer demographic that we earnestly want to avoid, the high-dollar impulse buyer for whom time at the market is as much an experience as an errand.
At the same time I read Samuel Fromartz’s book Organic, Inc., which devotes a chapter to a fellow in southeatern Pennsylvania who has gathered together about a dozen area farmers and created his own farmers’ market. Each Saturday he loads up three large trucks with their produce and drives them down to Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C., to the parking lot of a private school where he sets up shop; he is open for business at 9am, and has sold his inventory by noon. What impressed me about his operation is that, because it is small and controlled by a single person rather than a collective, he is able to resist the pressure to cater to customer wants simply to make a buck, e.g. obtaining tomatoes from a random source simply because the customers expect tomatoes and he could make some extra money selling them.
At the same time I was doing occasional deliveries of produce to Lexington for Jerome. He delivers to Good Foods Market on Tuesdays and Fridays, but a delivery takes a good part of the day which he could spend more productively at home on the farm, especially during the peak of the season. I offered to help him out as needed, which worked out to taking the Tuesday deliveries. Because Jerome only has a passenger van, this made for some early mornings as I got up, drove the half-hour to his place, loaded boxes from the cooler into the van, and then tried to get to Lexington while it was still cool, usually arriving around 7am. In the process I learned a few things about handling produce, where to obtain it, and what a grocery store’s expectations were. This convinced me further that even though a grocery store could be a good customer, there were many advantages to be gained from finding a way to supply the customer directly.
In the next installment, I’ll explain how these various strands of thinking began to converge earlier this year.