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Secrets of the Farmers Market

It turns out there’s a lot more to this farmers market stuff than just packing up your veggies and laying them out on some tables for finicky customers to peruse. When Sara Lipka moved from the customer side of the table to the vendor side, she found that out for herself. When every green bean, cucumber, carrot, and head of lettuce corresponds to a drop of sweat, a twinge in your back, or an hour of lost sleep, suddenly $5 a pound for blueberries doesn’t seem so bad.

From The Atlantic:

On Sundays we’re up by 4:30 a.m. to haul boxes out of two walk-in coolers and a storage room into our refrigerated box truck. Two or three of us sit across the cab as we roll down our gravel driveway onto asphalt. It’s still dark setting off, but headed east, we see the sun rise.

The goal is to start setting up an hour and a half before the opening bell, maybe the only thing our market shares with that other one in New York. We line up our boxes along the curb, raise our tents and tables, and pile our harvest high. Layouts prompt much discussion and debate. What looks best? Features our marquee items? Lets customers flow through the stand? We weigh the relative merits of L shapes, T’s, and U’s; aisles, islands, and second tiers. Market design is about artistry and efficiency. And showing off.

Our farm’s and others’ bountiful displays–diminished by the time I used to arrive–still amaze me. Prices don’t. As a customer, I sometimes balked at expensive arugula or leeks, either passing them by or invoking Michael Pollan’s “hidden costs” of cheap food as I broke another 20. Now I look at string beans and remember how long it took me to pick them, in the rain; dry them on wire racks so they wouldn’t rust; and mix green, purple, and yellow varieties. Not to mention seeding, weeding, and releasing wasps to prey on the beetles that devour the plants’ leaves and dangling beans. $5 a quart? Bargain.

Prices do shift, I discovered. Just before we open, farmers surreptitiously scramble, eying one another’s signs. Cucumbers may go up if someone else is charging more; squash might fall. We add quickly in our heads as customers gather. The early bird regulars have been standing there since 8:55, their beets and blackberries packed, crisp bills in outstretched hands as they wait for the bell.

Chatting with customers makes my day. A smiling elderly woman who always comes during the week also showed up one Sunday. “I already ate all the peas I bought!” she said. “I won’t be able to last till Thursday.” Another woman once approached me and whispered, “There’s a very large spider on the chard.” Other customers share tips, like crushing sweet stevia leaves with mint in mojitos. And sometimes a question starts a conversation. One woman asked if we had lemons. A man held up a sweet white onion, greens still attached, and asked if you could eat the bulb.

Read the whole article here.

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