- Making a Living $2 at a Time
- Reality Check
- The “Bad” Side of Town
- Walking the Walk
When I dreamed of having a booth at a farmers market, I imagined growing beautiful mixed lettuce, bagging it up, and having people swoon over it while paying me twice what it cost in the grocery store because it was grown organically, gourmet, and they had met the farmer personally. NOT.
When we moved from Southwest Colorado to the Spokane Washington area, part of the decision was based on growing season, and wanting to be near a larger population base. But part of it was wanting to be around people who were more working class. Southwest Colorado, bless its stunningly scenic-organic-mountain biking-river rafting-crunchy granola heart, has a lot of second homes and high incomes (it also has a lot of people working three low paying jobs to make their rent because nothing else is available). The cost of living in Durango is high. (If the national average is benchmarked at 100, Durango is 124 to Spokane’s 91. See www.bestplaces.net/col for a great tool to compare where you live to anywhere else).
When people would ask me why I was leaving such a beautiful place, I would sometimes say “because Durango doesn’t have a ‘wrong side of the tracks'”. I wanted to live someplace with industry, someplace where an average person could make a reasonable living and raise their kids without having three jobs or a PhD. Spokane most definitely IS that place.
HOW do they do this? They don’t spend $5 on an 8 oz bag of gourmet organic lettuce greens. Thirty percent of Spokanistans make less than $25,000 per year per household. (The 2011 national federal poverty level is $22,350 for a family of four.) Another 30% make less than $50,000 per year. Most wouldn’t know radicchio, endive or arugula if they saw it, and certainly wouldn’t buy it. If I were to pick one word to describe the people who live here, it would be resourceful. A lot of them know how to “make do or do without”.
I’ve spent the last ten + years involved in the local food and organics movement in one way or another. And there is a never-ending debate that goes on about how farmers markets and access to fresh organic produce is elitist and something that only the rich can afford. The other side of that coin? How farmers need to be paid a living wage for their products and revered because they allow us to fulfil a most fundamental need; to eat. Good healthy nutritional food feeds the soul, not just the body.
In Spokane, to some extent, the tables are turned. As a farmer, I garden organically, not because I think I can get more money for my product that way, but because on SO many levels, it is the right thing to do. Plus, I eat my own produce. Enough said! But if I charge organic prices for my produce, the guy two booths away, selling huge heads of non-organic lettuce for 3 for $5, sells out. The guy selling non-organic cherries who travels from the Yakima Valley 200+ miles away to get here sells out. I go home with my labor intensive bags of organic greens, and they get composted.
One of the markets I attend has recently become a distributor of Women, Infants and Children and Senior Farmers Market Nutritional Program Checks (WIC & Seniors FMNP) . This allows low-income mothers to be, or moms with infants and children under five, or seniors, to spend some of their public assistance money on nutritional food at farmers markets. Vendors who are signed up can accept the checks for their produce. (I’m working on getting signed up because I just learned about all of this last week).
So for the past two weeks, I’ve watched a parade of women and children stand in line to get their checks. There are a lot of pros and cons to this whole system and I won’t debate them all here. Poverty is a complicated issue. Do I want low-income kids to be eating healthy organic carrots instead of, or in addition to, mac and cheese that came out of a blue box? Absolutely! Do I struggle not to sit in judgement when I see a woman with five children walk by? Yes. Am I endlessly grateful that despite my families dysfunctions, I had a relatively stable home life, was never hungry, and was taught that I had value? Most definitely. Does the whole vibe of the market change when the long WIC Check line forms? You bet ‘cha.
So, the beginning of this summer’s farmers market season has been a big eye opener for me. Being in business is all about knowing your customers and adapting. People decide to spend money for three reasons: Price, Quality and Status. The people at the markets I sell at, for the most part, are making the vast majority of their decisions based on price. So almost all of my produce goes for $2. Two dollars a bag, $2 a bunch. There is a farmers market every day of the week somewhere in our area. Most of them are small. All of the ones I have visited are similar. I saw a LOT of $2 price tags. (Guess what the value of one FMNP WIC check is? Yup, $2.) Do I occasionally bitch and whine about any of the above, and throw down the “fairness” trump card? I’d like to say no, but I’d be lying.
You know that line about how when God wants to punish you, He answers your prayers? I’m selling to the people I moved here to sell to. And most of them are on a budget. I’m slowly building up a clientele (you know that other line about how 90% of life is showing up? Same is true of selling at a farmers market!) My toiletry items do well. Thankfully, I knew going into this venture that my learning curve would be steep, so I purposely kept the garden small. Do I wish I had planted more carrots and less (a lot less) lettuce? Yes. Next year I will be wiser. But next year things may change…and I’ll adapt again.
I am so grateful to be learning this. To run smack up against talk about living wages and affordable food and to actually try to make it work on the ground. I am grateful to feed people quality food at affordable prices that I am excited to eat myself. I am grateful to have sunshine and baby eggplants, just starting to form. To have a cat who literally throws himself at my feet purring in the garden as I shell and eat overgrown snap peas and throw the peels on his head. To have a full belly myself. And most importantly, to not having to rely on this farm as our sole source of income (there is a reason why most farmers have outside jobs)! A big thanks to my husband for supporting my farming business!
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2011, where when looking for quotes on Gratitude, I found the following: Only a stomach that rarely feels hungry scorns common things. ~Horace. When eating bamboo sprouts, remember the man who planted them. ~Chinese Proverb. The only people with whom you should try to get even are those who have helped you. ~John E. Southard.