For my Saturday market starting at 9am,
I would sometimes stay up
until 10 or 11 harvesting on Friday night,
and then get up at 3:30am
to harvest some more.
by Helen Chandler
I love farmers’ markets. During the summer they become the metronome of the week, and preparing for the market becomes a dance. All the crops must be harvested, cooled, washed and packed. Then the equivalent of an elegant campsite must be packed into a vehicle—leaving room, of course, for all the vegetables. Everything must be transported to the market location, unloaded, and displayed in an attractive way. And then, at the end, everything must be deconstructed, packed up, brought back to the farm, unloaded, and put away in working order, all to be repeated the next market day.
This summer I’m selling at three markets each week.
For every market, my goal is the same: to bring enough fresh, delectable produce for everyone. To keep the produce fresh it needs to be cold. Last year I didn’t have a walk-in cooler, so I accomplished this using giant 150-quart coolers (the kind you bring to a picnic) loaded with ice. I also harvested as close to market as possible for the vegetables that don’t like getting soaked or touching ice. For my Saturday market starting at 9am, I would sometimes stay up until 10 or 11 harvesting on Friday night, and then get up at 3:30am to harvest some more. But this year I built a walk-in cooler using an insulated frame, an air conditioner and something called a CoolBot, a device that overrides an air conditioner’s thermostat, allowing it to cool to much lower temperatures. For me, this is a technological revolution. Having a walk-in cooler means everything can be harvested before market day, resulting in reduced chaos.
Deciding what is delectable and how much is enough is a little more complicated, given that we all have different preferences. Most of the final decisions about what to grow are made in the winter planning months, when I am flipping through seed catalogs with a steaming cup of coffee. I look back at my water-spotted market records of what sold and what didn’t and I check my notes. In the winter I also send out a survey to my market customers, to learn their thoughts on what they like and don’t like and what they are missing. From all that, I can make an educated guess and a general estimate of how much is needed. The final decisions about how much to bring to market are impromptu.
The biggest governing factor, despite all the planning, is what is ready in the field. At the beginning of each week I look at my market sheet and see what sold out early and use that to guide my estimates of what I should bring. I will then walk the field, peeking under row cover, tasting a leaf here and there, and deciding how much and what is actually present and ready. Often, these two values—supply and demand— don’t match up. This is when I decide to have a sale, bulk tomato deals or two-for-one pea specials, or I have to choose to let a planting recuperate by harvesting less than desired.
It can be tough to decide to go light on a harvest, particularly if it is an item that people are wild about, like kale, but it must be done. Overharvesting can reduce the vigor of the plants and detract from the overall harvest of the season, not just of the week. Deciding to ditch a planting can be tough too, but sometimes it’s a relief. After months of collecting tomatoes every other day, it always feels somewhat liberating when the first frost relieves me from tomato duty.
The connection that emerges between farmers and their community through farmers’ markets is so special. I am always happy when the markets start for the season and sad when they close up. Through the season, the people at market become my family. I love seeing everyone every week and I miss them in the winter. I think this is true for most farmers who sell at farmers’ markets. I sleep the best following market days because I know I have reached one of my goals. I have provided delightful, healthy food to my community.
Helen Chandler is in her second year of running Whistling Wolf Farm in Pittstown. This article is part of an ongoing series chronicling that experience. Look for Helen’s tables this summer at the Metuchen and Chatham markets. Learn more at WhistlingWolfFarm.com.