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Life Off-the-Grid

Just Corn and Tomatoes, Thank You Very Much

By Cam Mather

We’ve been setting up our produce stand in town for 6 weeks now and it’s going very well. It’s been a fantastic learning experience. When you hear a person commenting on what a great learning experience something has been, it usually means things aren’t going well and they’re trying to look on the bright side. For me it means that I am trying to stay positive.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to sell more stuff and make more money. But for a first attempt, it has been going really well. I knew the first year it was going to take me a while to get the lay of the land, so it really has been a learning experience.

I am extremely grateful to the many regular customers (many of whom are friends) who have been stopping and buying stuff. It’s a huge confidence builder to have someone purchase my produce. It’s been helpful that Michelle has been emailing every one we know the night before just to let them know what we’ll have on Saturday morning. Lots of people have said this reminder has been great.

It’s these regular customers that have formed the core of our income from Saturdays. I know that some of the people who have been coming have their own gardens and are just picking up whatever they didn’t grow or didn’t do well for them. I’m fine with that, whatever it takes. I suppose this drought has worked in my favor because people who aren’t reliant on their gardens for an income like I am have not paid the same attention to watering that I have.

Selling in town has also given me an opportunity to look at the logistics of a vegetable stand like this to earn an income. And so far my feeling is that in Tamworth, at this time anyway, the business model is not there. It’s not just the Saturday morning that I invest in selling. It’s the Friday night preparation and then the Saturday afternoon clean up and organization. Factoring in all the time that picking, washing and selling takes me, I might be on track for minimum wage. But when I factor in the cost of seeds and transplants, and then my time to weed and water the vegetables all summer, the model goes right out the window. I’d be way better to drive to Napanee and get a job at McDonalds.

But I’m okay with this. This summer was an experiment and without a summer’s worth of data to work with I can’t really make informed decisions for the future. I do think a CSA may be more viable for me, so I’m going to pursue that over the winter. With a CSA or Community Supported (or Shared) Agriculture, customers would purchase a share of my harvest upfront and receive a box of vegetables every week during the growing season. This would allow me to have a customer base established in advance and not pick stuff that I don’t sell on Saturdays.

I think the main thing I’m taking away from my Saturday mornings is that people in Tamworth right now want “corn and tomatoes.” Weeks before either of these was ready, people were stopping and asking “Any corn and tomatoes?” Nope. All that I had was a table full of fabulously healthy vegetables like lettuce, spinach, kale, potatoes, garlic, beans, peas, Swiss chard, … you know, the “other” vegetables. I also sell local maple syrup and Michelle’s fantastic homemade granola, but most people just seem to want the “C&T” combo. I don’t know whether or not these are the only two vegetables some people eat, or whether they all have their own gardens where they grow their own greens, while leaving heavy feeding corn to someone else, but this is the main lesson I’ve taken from my summer market so far.

This is why I’m so grateful to all my regular customers who have been buying the other stuff, because in our growing zone corn and tomatoes are late. I had corn a couple of weeks ago (August 6th) and this last weekend (August 20th) I finally had tomatoes.

I’ve sold out of corn each week that I had it because I didn’t grow enough. Even the two weeks when Sean Milligan set up a table next to me selling just corn, I managed to sell out. He was charging $5/dozen for his non-organic corn and I was charging $7/dozen for organic, and I was still selling all that I had. Of course I didn’t have enough to sell because corn is only one of the many things that I planted in my garden. I planted “everything” that we can grow in our climate. I wanted to diversify my risk and have as big a variety as possible to offer to customers. Heck, since I wrote “The All You Can Eat Gardening Handbook,” I think I should be proving that I can grow more than just corn.

This week another local farmer set up next to me selling much of the same organic produce that I do, and by the end of the day she too was frustrated by the lack of interest in all of the other vegetables and said “I’m just planting corn next year! Just corn!” This would be too bad, because people need to eat some carrots and beets and spinach and some of those other vegetables too. The other farmer was selling her organic corn for $5/dozen. I suggested that she needed to charge more because people would pay it, but she was concerned that they wouldn’t. So she sold out of her $5/dozen corn for $5 and I sold out of my corn at $7/dozen. Every time that someone bought a dozen of my corn I’d point out to her that no one baulked at the price. They just paid it. They want freshly picked corn. Whether it was $5 or $7 didn’t seem to matter to them. Finally I had one dozen left, and someone bought 6 for $4 and then someone bought the last 6. When I pointed out that I’d sold my last dozen for $8/dozen I think I finally had her convinced it was time to raise the price.

Corn is a big plant. It sucks a lot of nutrients and energy and water out of my soil, and it requires me to then rehabilitate it afterwards. It likes to blow down in those big windy summer thunderstorms that blow through when a heat wave is hit by a cold front, and therefore I’m more likely to devote space in the garden to something that I can’t end up selling. I should be selling it for closer to $10 or $12/dozen.

This summer has also taught me what most farmers have always known. You have to go big or go home. You need a tractor and many acres under cultivation to earn a decent, or I suppose any, income from farming. I have no money for a tractor and unless I get really busy with my chainsaw and start hacking back the forests, I’m going to have to figure out a better way to earn an income from a smaller plot of garden.

I know the local people who are buying their vegetables elsewhere will ultimately have to buy them closer to home, because peak oil is going to make it uneconomical to ship food long distances. I just hope that the local farmers who have the skills to grow a variety of vegetables can hold on long enough to be able to provide the food that will be required locally. And I sure hope that our diets consist of more than just “corn and tomatoes.”

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