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Our third year living here we had a serious accident on our road that caused us to be without a truck for a year. While en route to deliver a flock of cochins to a small hobby farm up the road when going around a hair pin turn at a very slow rate of speed, our truck fell into a massive pot hole. Calling this beast a pot hole isn't really accurate when it takes up nearly the entirety of the lane you are driving in & is a deep abyss. There was no time to react because we couldn't see it thanks to the turn in the road. When the truck fell in, the steering column snapped. The truck was jerked to the left & went head on into a tree. The front of the truck wrapped around the tree in a violent embrace. The rest of the truck crumpled like an accordion. The crate used to secure the flock of chickens slammed against the back of the truck, busting apart & shattering the back window. The chickens burst out in a fury of feathers flying everywhere in panicked confusion. Not wearing a seat belt (this was an accident, we usually were our seat belts), John hit the windshield head first, doing a fabulous job at breaking said windshield with, you guess it, his head. When he managed to regain his senses, he stumbled to a near by house for help. The necessary calls were made & the police & paramedics arrived. They confirmed both that John was not under the influence & that the accident occurred due to the terrible condition of the road. Thankfully, they helped a very injured John catch the chickens so he could bring them home. None of the chickens were injured or lost. The truck was towed. Nothing salvageable. A few days later once the shock of knowing John could have died receded a bit, we decided to sign the title to the truck over to the tow company as payment for the tow fee.
The most likely reason the road was (some parts still are) in such horrible condition is because of the massive amount of traffic created by the huge oil & gas trucks. The roads were not designed for so much traffic or vehicles with so much weight, so the roads quite literally crumble apart. The state may or may not fix it. In this case, the road was repaired the next morning. It seems to take a serious accident or death before anything will be done around here.
So what does any of this have to do with the farmers market? The point is that this event put us off yet another year from being able to transport goods to any market. It took us a year to save enough money for a down payment on the truck we have now. We bought it used & had to take out a loan for the rest. This was the first time we ever had to take out a loan to buy a used vehicle. Farming rarely generates enough income to have a healthy savings account. Please keep that in mind before you quit your job & move to the country. We are not saying it's not worth it to move to the country. Like anything in life, there are positives & negatives to any situation. What matters is what makes your soul sing. For us, it's being in the country despite all of the hardships. It can be brutal, but it is also beautiful beyond belief.
In the meantime we heard through the grapevine from one of our farmer friends that a new person was in town & planned on starting a farmers market in our county. We were so excited! This is exactly what our little community needs! We were there on opening day as customers. We met the person running the market & explained that we would love to be vendors, but it wouldn't be possible due to our lack of a proper vehicle. When they offered to sell our goods we foolishly thought it was to do us a kindness in our time of need. We let them know that because we didn't have plans to sell at any markets that year, we weren't growing enough food to feed ourselves, our animals, & potential customers. Later as the market progressed we found out they collected a fee to resell goods. We admit, we can be foolishly naive sometimes.
For the entirety of that growing season we promoted this new local market on our farms Facebook page as well as on our own personal Facebook accounts. We also visited as many of the markets that we could making sure to buy from the vendors. The market was tiny, the customers were few, we really wanted to see this grow.
The next year we contacted the person running the market in the late winter to let them know we finally had a truck & could sell. We volunteered to help with repairs & continued to promote the market. On the first day of that markets season, we set up & were shocked to find ourselves being ignored by nearly all of the vendors we purchased from the year prior.
Almost no one welcomed us to the market. Almost no one walked to our table to see what we had to offer. This was very odd to us. These people got to know us all of the previous growing season. We chatted with them, encouraged them, joked around, & bought from them. We are not saying all the vendors were like this, just the majority of the vendors. We speak to a few from this market to this very day & enjoy their company. For those who are curious, that day for a day & a half of prepping & four hours at the market, plus the time it takes to return home & unpack we made $25. Not $25 in profit, $25 total.
When the next market day rolled around we both couldn't be there. This means only one of us was available to get everything done. Upon arrival, lugging out heavy bins, tables, live herbs, signage, etc. alone, no help was offered while struggling to set up. Don't get us wrong, no one is obligated to help. After all folks have their own displays to set up. What made this situation rather unbelievable is that while unloading the truck Jen realized she was in the way of another vendor. This vendor was a man in a huge truck who sat inside the cab & watched the entire time. When a flustered Jen was done & moved the truck, he pulled up & set up. This vendor by the way was the one we spent the most money on at every visit as customers the year prior. This vendor never even spoke to us for the four hours & beyond we were there. For those who are still curious, at that market the grand total for all our labors was $24.
During this time we were still actively promoting the market on our farms Facebook page along with another market that we would be selling at that month also for the first time. For whatever their reason, the person running our local market contacted us through Facebook to inform us that they didn't approve of what we were posting on our farms Facebook page. They told us that if we didn't remove the posts they didn't like, they couldn't promote us on the farmers market page. While they were on a roll, they also told us that we couldn't sell our chicken eggs at the market anymore because there was a vendor there (our neighbor) who sold chicken eggs. FYI, no one ever bought any eggs from us, so telling us we couldn't bring them because we were taking sales from another vendor was moot. After that we decided that we would no longer sell at our local market. There was no drama, no bickering or fighting. We simply stopped going. The person running the market never inquired about our lack of attendance or if we would be back. It was as if we were never there in the first place. Considering how we never felt particularly welcomed at this venue, this really wasn't much of a surprise.
We still would love to see this market grow, but the person running it created more rules making it more difficult & costly for vendors to sell there. We know this because some of our farmer friends who sold there stopped once a bunch of paper work & fees were required. As of this year, there is now a new person running this market. We hoped this person would do things differently, but this doesn't appear to be the case. In the spring we received an email from them with all the same rules, costs & regulations that chased off last years vendors. This little market is not thriving & isn't likely too without positive changes that benefit rather than burden our farmers.
Next was the "big" market. The one everyone buzzes about. Very early in the misty morning we were directed where to set up our tent for the first time. We discovered we had a view from our spot at the market of the person that ran our local market (they were a vendor at this market) as well as another vendor from our local market (also vendors at this market). Aside from that we knew only one other vendor. Here we are, nervous & excited. We know virtually no one & all we can say about that first year is, wow what a difference! We were warmly welcomed by many of the other established vendors. Some even gave us tips about how the market works. Things like when there tends to be a lull, when it is usually the most busy, etc.
When the market opened the customers were so friendly & full of smiles. The atmosphere was amazing. We loved that first season. We weren't making a lot but it was so wonderful to be around so many like minded people. We made many new friends, had the opportunity to shop for fresh foods, sundries, plants & more. We only missed two markets that first season. The first was when the truck had to go into the shop. The other was when we let the board of directors know we would be vendors at the West Virginia Fiber Festival.
That first season, there was no paperwork to sign. It didn't cost anything, all we were asked was to show up on time & stay for the duration. We had to make sure we had whatever paperwork was required by the state, not for the markets board of directors, but for the inspectors that would show up so we could show we were following the state laws that applied to us.
Our biggest problem that first season was having our crops wiped out by deer. We were doing fine until we had to re-home our livestock guardian dog due to aggression towards humans. In less than two weeks after re-homing him, the deer moved in. We had so many folks telling us we had the best green beans at the market, but couldn't keep up with demand as the plants were none too happy about the deer chomping on their foliage. We vowed we would get deer fencing as soon as the money became available & would have plenty of produce the following year for the market.
Next we participated in the winter market for the first time. This cost a $25 table fee & was worth every penny. Selling indoors was great, no wind to blow our goods around & no fear of flying tents or bad weather. The indoor market was more of a craft market, where you had crafters, farmers, & farmers selling their crafts. The indoor market was once a month & had a theme for each month. It was a lot of fun & always great to catch up with our fellow vendors & customers.
The next season was just like the first regarding the rules. We also had our deer fencing up, so we could really concentrate on growing lots of fresh produce for the market. When we acquired a Jersey Heifer who we were bottle feeding, we knew we took the final step in having more work than we could handle. We let the board of directors know we would only be able to attend the market when both of us could be there. Trying to go solo meant stumbling around in the mornings dark, (yes, you read correctly, the dark) trying to take care of all the animals & ourselves, getting produce cut, getting the truck loaded, getting cleaned up & getting off the property in time to drive an hour away to then get everything set up alone on time & try to make to the bathroom. Solo, no way! We barely accomplished this when it was the two of us. We burned out pretty fast & as the season progressed & sales were not what we'd projected, we started to cut our losses & reduce our labor bit by bit.
That second season was a disappointing market in many ways. We stopped calling it the farmers market & just started calling it "the market". There were hardly any farmers, mostly food trucks & artsy craftsy vendors. We would watch from our tent as lines formed from the cake & ice cream truck. They would quickly sell out of each type of sweet treat while our produce slowly wilted in the heat. This is not to say we never had lines, but fresh produce just can't compete with fatty sugary treats, hot greasy food trucks, & the like. Look, we get it - salt, sugar, & fat sell. They sell because they are delicious. We love the stuff too. But lets keep it out of our farmers markets & promote good wholesome foods instead, okay?
Our thoughts throughout that season constantly returned to a vendor who told us, "We actually thought we'd make money selling produce!" Then they gave a disgusted laugh. That vendor no longer sells any produce. They sell pantry items now as it makes them money. We were where they were a few years ago. Selling produce doesn't pay. You work from sun up to sun down. You are dirty, bug bit, & exhausted. You work the fields every single day & you make less than minimum wage. Standing under that hot tent we would joke around saying we need to totally revamp ourselves, get rid of the organics & the produce, make new signage tilted "Sugar N Shit" We were sure we'd be rich.
We weren't the only vendors who were unhappy with the direction the market was taking. The general feeling was that vendors weren't making enough money to justify the hours upon hours of labor put in to attend. We were already brainstorming what we would do for the next outdoor season because as mentioned, selling produce wasn't cutting it. The market added things like book vendors, coffee vendors (now that's local! Who knew you could grow coffee in WV let alone in the USA!), prepared food vendors, more food trucks, jewelry vendors, etc. Every year the market grew in size, but folks only have so much money to spend. Do they get cake, ice cream, soda & hot dogs that they can eat right away? Or do they get watermelon, green beans, eggs, & herbs that they then have to go home, get in the kitchen & prepare? In our area, the majority go for the fast food. Maybe you our dear reader, have a more health conscious area & folks go home with the good stuff; the fresh stuff from real honest to goodness farmers.
Before we knew it the indoor market had rolled around. Same rules, fee & schedule as the prior indoor market. By now we were making goats milk soap & much to our delight, we found our calling! Folks loved it! We developed repeat customers by the third market. We were thrilled. We were addicted - to soap making that is! We had trays & trays of various soaps curing for a month at a time, bringing what was ready to the winter market. We had so many requests for various types of soaps using our goats milk. We knew what we would be doing for the next outdoor market, goats milk soap! We figured we'd still bring produce, but only what we had extra of rather than growing extra. We would still bring eggs, but our focus would be our goats milk soap, lotions & lip balms.
Around this time we had a bit of an upheaval with John's job. The company did a "management restructure" across all their stores in the United States. What this means is that John along with countless others lost their positions & had to find new lower paying positions. It also meant a schedule change. John would only have one Sunday off a month. This meant that Jen had to do everything solo. We decided that bath & beauty really would be it, as it was just too much work for one person.
At the third to last indoor market we were approached by the same individual who ran our local market (the market we left two years prior) with a packet of paperwork to fill out & return. In this paperwork, we learned that the board of directors added additional members & a brand new role called Compliance Manager. Guess who that was? Yep, the person who ran our local market was our all new Compliance Manager. We briefly glanced at the papers, but were still setting up for the market, so didn't give it much thought. When another vendor joked with us about the paper work asking us if we wanted them to get their lawyer to review it for us, we joked back thinking it was all in good fun. We knew we had until the last indoor market to have the paperwork signed so we sort of forgot about it.
At the second to last indoor market the Compliance Manager approached us for our paper work which we explained we didn't have yet. We also let them know that one of the things they were demanding didn't exist. As in it wasn't required. When we tried to explain the Compliance Manager named dropped, (we probably rolled our eyes, seriously name dropping?), then they turned their back on us, showed us the back of their hand & said, "Whatever, I'm not arguing with you, just have the paperwork filled out or you can't sell here anymore." Now we were pissed. We discussed things while setting up & decided to speak with the head board director & see if we could have this resolved. We pulled up the information from The West Virginia Department of Agriculture website showing, no, proving that this permit was not required. Before we spoke with the head board director, the Compliance Manager got a hold of their ear for a long while. There were a lot of angry looking nods & crossed arms. So naturally when the head board director came to speak to us, there was attitude. This was very shocking to us & confusing. We never had any issues or been spoken to by this person in this way. We thought we surely must be reading them wrong & kept smiling & smiling & smiling, but the smile was not returned. When we showed the head board director that the permit wasn't required we were told that they understood that that was what we believe. Yes, you read that right, what we believe. We knew right then at that exact moment that it was over. How could we ever work on real issues if we couldn't even work out this very minor issue? This wasn't our opinion or belief, it was fact!
After this market we actually sat down & read every paper word for word & were floored by the audacity of the board of directors to create so many unnecessary rules & burdens upon their vendors. A true farmers market first & foremost should be about connecting the farmers with the consumer. The true purpose of a farmers market is to give consumers a choice other than the grocery store. The real purpose is to get folks back into their kitchens to cook real wholesome foods. The purpose is to connect with your farmer & know where your food comes from. The purpose is to put money back into your local community. The purpose is to regain your health. It is about reducing waste & going green. It is not about upscale fancy packaging or prepared foods.
My my my, how things have changed from the days when folks read books like The Omnivores Dilemma, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, & Fast Food Nation.
A market shouldn't have thought police telling vendors they must perform to their satisfaction or that they must maintain a positive attitude or dictate what vendors may or may not put on their signage. If a vendor is not compliant they can remove you. Scratch that, they can remove you for any reason even if you comply with all of their burdensome rules & ideas. You even have to give them the right to access your farm so that they may inspect it if they deem your farm needs inspecting.
As if the government doesn't make it difficult enough for small local farmers to connect with folks interested in real healthy foods, now the very farmers markets themselves that were supposed to help are now creating more burdens than the government, yet the folks running these markets are just regular folks. They are not government officials. So why the power grab? Only each individual can answer that. For us, we want no part of it. The situation at our markets reminds us of many situations laid out in the book Folks This Ain't Normal. If you haven't read this book, we highly recommend it.
Why would we ever willingly hand over, give up our rights to the board of directors or anyone for that matter?
When the head director contacted us about selling at the outdoor market, we very nicely said that it wouldn't be possible this year because we have too many projects that we are behind on (all true). We started to let the head director know what we were up to, the head director cut us off & said they had another call coming in. So we said good bye. The call didn't even last a minute. So much for caring about local farmers.
A few days later one of the board of directors contacted us letting us know that they were sorry to see us go. They complimented our farm & wished us well. We were shocked & warmed that there are still some decent folks on the board of directors. This gives us hope for the future of all farmers markets everywhere.
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