Selling Fresh Fruit At Farmers' Markets
Art Lange, Honey Crisp Farms, was a speaker at a recent Rare Fruit Symposium at UC Davis. Art discussed his experiences selling fruit at farmers' markets. Most of his l7 acre farm in Reedley, California is planted with peaches, plums, and nectarines. His wife, Missy, is active on the farm. She provided samples of peaches, plums, and nectarines for the conference tasting session. Their Snowqueen nectarines were hailed by tasters for their flavor. Here are some of Art's remarks on farmers' markets.
Unless you have a home garden with fruit trees in your backyard you can't get real tree-ripe fruit. We don't find ripe fruit in our supermarkets because its shelf life is very short. Most retail markets are not interested in this kind of fruit. You can, however, sell it through a few retail distributors in Los Angeles and San Francisco because they re-sell the fruit at the time it arrives or the next day, but the total demand is very small.
Still, there is a good demand for real tree ripened fruit. The demand is small in the total picture but growing (in niche markets). Farmers' markets present a good opportunity for me as a small grower. There are some advantages and disadvantages to this kind of marketing.
One of the grower's major problems is that you can't always tell just when the fruit will ripen. Sometimes the fruit you bring to market is too green or too ripe. Selling directly to the consumer has its drawbacks: it is expensive in time, labor, and transportation. We have determined that it costs us about a $l per pound to produce and sell our fruit. Consumers want fresh fruit, but they prefer to pay less than l7% of their income for food.
For me, it is impossible to be an "organic grower" because of the pests we have each year. We have found that we can spray during the dormant season and control most of our pests. This way we can avoid spraying the actual fruit after it is set. This lack of sprays on fruit is much appreciated by many people who come to farmers' markets.
Advantages of marketing ripe fruit to the consumer are good taste and the variety of choices that they can't find anywhere else. You may also get a better nutritional value, but I don't think this has been shown conclusively. Advantages to the grower are the cash sales, and the chance to meet a lot of people and watch the market. If you as a grower can gain the confidence of the customer, your business will prosper.
Some ideas and practices that have helped us :
- We altered our cultural practices. Our trees are planted close together because it saves on labor and land. We keep our trees dwarfed. We fertilize, irrigate, and thin heavily to get larger fruit. We use old high quality varieties like Hale, Elberta, and Santa Rosa.
- We are constantly testing old and new varieties. We just planted Elephant heart because of consumer interest. We have also found new varieties that look as though they have great promise. We now grow about 200 varieties of trees and vines, but sell in quantity about 20. To stay in the market from the mid-May until mid-September, we need peaches, plums, and nectarines that will ripen at different times.
- This method of marketing does not favor the large grower with one or two varieties; it favors the small grower who has 25 to l00 trees of each variety. We do have 200 trees of Snowqueen nectarines and Springcrest peaches, which are good sellers.
- We pack in the field. We do not wash our fruit. We do not size or grade so no one handles the fruit after it is picked until the customer buys it.
- We pack all of our fruit in single layer boxes and transport it to the market on 4" to 6" of Styrofoam pads. This seems extreme, but it give us the quality we seek.
- We cool our fruit from in a small cold room at 45 F. This makes it last two more days.
- Where there is competition from many local growers and homeowners with their own trees and where fruit is plentiful (like in Fresno), we are lucky to sell $50 worth, so we travel long distances. We sell our fruit away from the Central Valley in places like Santa Rosa, Davis, and Santa Monica.
- We work l4 to l8 hours a day. If you are not willing to work long hours, you may want to think carefully about selling at farmers' markets.
- We arrive at the market early to set up well in advance and we work with the market managers. We let the manager know the quality of the produce we have for sale. It is important to the market and to us that the market has good-quality produce. There are many farmers who want to sell at farmers' markets but want to sell only their culls. This does not help build markets.
- We sell our product at a high price. Price is only one of the factors consumers consider in deciding whether or not to buy. Product quality, freshness, flavor, and bright attractive colors are more important with our customers. Our peaches, nectarines, and plums are top quality. Don't be influenced by another grower who is selling at a low price. Use the prices charged by other growers as your starting point. Take into account how the quality of their produce compares to yours.
- Give out samples of your fruit for on-the-spot tasting. It will cost you money to supply this fruit, but it will educate the consumer very quickly about what they are buying.
- Besides selling at farmers' markets, we sell some fruit by mail-order. We use UPS and we pack the fruit in single layers. It costs about $l7 to ship a box of fruit back east, but we are finding people who want ripe fruit and are willing to pay the shipping costs.
Some questions from the audience:
Q: What is the minimum acreage needed for selling directly to the customer?
A: One-half acre of the best variety is all that I can handle. I try to have about 24 trees of each variety. If it is one of my best varieties, I will go up to 200 trees which is equivalent to l/2 acre of standard plantings.
Q: How long does it take for the typical farmer to make a profit?
A: In 5 years, we haven't made any money. We have, however, paid all of the help and expenses and purchased equipment. We are in good shape. This year we should make a profit.
Q: How many varieties should a farmer start with?
A: I don't think I can answer that. It is really helpful to have several in order stay in the market for a while. It is hard to establish yourself in a new market. If your customers get to know you, they will come back. If you go to a new market, it is pretty tough to sell your product the first time. The second time it is easier. So having a number of varieties ripening at different times is very helpful in establishing your reputation for good quality.