By Alli Greenberg
AMI Market Stand Set Up
For the last five weeks, I have been setting up and managing the Allegheny Mountain Institute (AMI) Market Stand at the Highland Farmers Market in Monterey, Virginia. In my last blog post I wrote about how permaculture can help achieve environmental sustainability in agriculture, and to me, the farmers market helps answer the question of economic sustainability. Small and medium farms need to be profitable, not only attract new farmers, but also to meet the growing demand of local food economies. The growth of farmers markets in both numbers and sales has helped make small scale farms viable and profitable. Farmers market advocacy has helped drive this demand as food celebrities like Michelle Obama open markets, Michael Pollan makes them a tenant of eating wisely and Mark Bittman expounds all the values promoted by farmers market shopping. This awareness has reached the Virginia Mountains in Highland County. Total market sales increased exponentially in the last few years and programs like AMI and those run by the Highland Center make residents aware of healthful, local eating.
Highland County Food Celebrity and Farmers Market Manager Scott Smith on the “Art in Bloom” themed market day.
Even with this increased demand and awareness, it is hard for small, diversified farms to be able to meet all their costs with farmers’ market sales, especially in the first few years. Current AMI Senior Fellow Garden Manager, Emily Lawrence researched this in her Capstone project last year. She found that direct sales to customers are the most profitable whether through community supported agriculture (CSA) setups or farmers markets. While wholesale may be more predictable, it is not more profitable- especially in the long run. In her interview with Scott Smith, the Highland Farmers Market Manager, he drove this point home: “I’ve had new vendors starting out in the past who expected to show up the very first day, and sell out. It generally, if ever, does not work that way. Vendors need to take the long view when deciding if direct sales at the market are right for their business plan. It takes a while for people to try the product, like it, and come back for more." This is an observation that I think is true, as AMI enters its second year at the market and first year selling produce, we are just figuring out the right balance of what to sell and what our market niche is.
Kids making flower art at the AMI market stand where plant starts were being sold in late June
AMI is a different kind of seller. Our primary mission is education and sales are an important, but secondary factor. Additionally, in terms of production, our first priority is feeding ourselves so we need to decide each week which produce we have surplus of. For the first few weeks of the market we sold many plant starts as vegetables were still coming in. In the last few weeks we have sold garlic scapes, herbs, peas, lettuce, fresh flowers, hot peppers and collards. We do not want to be so competitive that we make a dent in other farmer’s sales, but we do want to make some money to cover costs and teach people about plants, varieties and food that they might not otherwise try. The lettuces we sold are heirloom varieties with people asking about the colors and patterns on the leaves and items such as garlic scapes have piqued the interest of buyers and growers who did not realize the tops of garlic plants are edible. Last week, we sold bouquets of an amaranth variety called ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ and the common flower, Queen Anne’s lace. Many people had no idea what Amaranth was and did not know much about the history of Queen Anne’s Lace. Each week we try to have handouts that provide some sort of information.
AMI Market Handout given out with Amaranth and Queen Anne’s Lace bouquets at last weeks market. Handouts help teach people about uncommon plants and foods and give suggestions for cooking or storage.
As AMI continues to develop it’s market program, we will strengthen both sales and education and contribute to the growth of the Highland Market as a whole. This growth can only happen with informed and curious customers, so remember to eat local whenever you can and stop by to say hello if you are coming through Monterey, Virginia on a Friday between 3:30 and 6pm!