Business Is Sow Sow

Farmers' marketers have stopped hibernating.

Back when Robin Gammons of Four Sisters Farm first started peddling produce at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market, only about ten farmers would show up to sell in January and February. Nowadays, he says, there are about forty.

The twice-weekly market is no longer like Martha’s Vineyard, where the crowds clear out during the winter. About two thirds of the vendors now stick out the wet season, says market coordinator Penny Leff of Berkeley’s Ecology Center.

If you’re selling things like baked goods, eggs, and prepared foods, season doesn’t matter as much. But unlike big industrial farmers who live and die by single-crop economies of scale, those who live off farmers’ markets only survive the winter by following their stockbrokers’ advice: Diversify. Grape growers switch to raisins. Apple growers press cider. And farmers plant or resell winter crops. “It’s citrus season,” notes Leff. “We have kiwis and apples. We have great greens — leeks and onions and potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower.”

Robert Ramming of Pacific Star Gardens extended his own selling season to ease the stress of the summer hustle — 80 to 90 percent of his income comes from dealing tomatoes and melons in May, June, and July. “Last year we were doing 22 markets a week, but that was too many hours.” As a result, Ramming says, he broke a foot, and his son fell asleep at the wheel one day, crashing one of the trucks. “This year we’ve reduced it to the eight best markets, and we’ll sell until August and September.”

California growers, of course, can take advantage of an extremely long growing season. Four Sisters, a five-acre farm that sells at six markets around the Bay Area, focuses on greens and flowers in spring and summer months, and kiwis in the winter. “Right now we also have a few cut flowers, some greenhouse roses, and greens — chard, mustard, sorrel, parsley,” says Gammons. “All those will go through a frost.” The kiwis are being harvested now, and will keep until April or May.

Stone-fruit growers like Frog Hollow Farm can’t store their fruit that long, so the orchard has started selling conserves, jams, and pastries in the off-peak months. The growers use their own preserved fruit, some frozen fruit, and fresh organic products from other farms. “Our [winter] products have a higher price point, so we don’t sell as much of them, but it keeps us in the market all year round,” says co-owner Sarah Coddington. “The rhythm of the year has changed, but so has the bottom line.”

The Rammings are now investing in cold-weather crops, planting twenty acres with walnut trees that will start producing in eight or nine years. “Walnuts are more capital-intensive than tomatoes and melons,” says Robert Ramming, “but they’re something you can retire on. Well, almost.”


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