Commerce face to face
I've often expressed my displeasure with the hot season of the year. I love the early sunrise and the lingering evening when it's cool enough to work and light enough to see. I suspect my ancestry was nocturnal as I wish to hide from the heat of the day. The greatest pleasure of summer is what it brings from the fields and gardens with the underlying lessons of hard work and fair returns.
We just endured a six-day drought here in Iowa, and the heat a couple of weeks ago was intense. It kicked all vegetable crops into high gear and they are now reaching the first stage of maturity. The farmers markets give the first indication of the success of the season as local sweet corn appeared on Saturday and was snapped up as fast as it could be sorted and bagged. Of course, the price was high ($6.50 for 13 ears) and they ran out in about two hours. Next week there will be more and the price will be lower.
I like to see the activity that is generated by demand. Pick a commodity: tomatoes to cheese, and follow it from farm to retail sale. The first step is to develop demand by producing and promoting a quality product. The second is to be a dependable supplier. The third is to find a way to get your production to the market first and the fourth is to be there every week to sell it with a smile.
Other than corn, the top seller at these markets is tomatoes. Growers have extended their season by putting up greenhouses and growing in soil to obtain an early, yet tasty, tomato. They put out samples for tasting and show the large, unblemished fruits. They freely admit that it is grown in a greenhouse and their production is limited. The result is good prices ($3.50 per pound) and strong demand.
The field-grown crops take over in July, as soon as they reach full production. Greenhouse tomatoes and sweet corn planted under plastic can't compete at mid- season. The quality is high, but the supply goes up and the price goes down. We gorge ourselves for a few months and then Mother Nature shuts things down for another year.
The other aspect of these markets is pricing. I love to watch a consumer interface (face to face) with a grower. They ask the price of a bunch of early season carrots and the grower quotes three dollars. The hand flies back, as that is too much to pay and the head shakes as they decline. The grower has to have the confidence that another person will pay that price for the quantity offered or the product perishes. Most people in agriculture have removed themselves from this negotiation, as they accept the price posted by the buyer, with quality discounts, or they store their commodity for an extended period and wait for a higher bid. Emotion is alive in this market as that same consumer may go through all the booths and come back to buy the three-dollar carrots. When this occurs, there is a smile, a nod, even a thank you, and not scorn and strife for a generation.
Back to that cheese illustration--the dairy farmer today is struggling, as milk is highly perishable and worth far less than the cost of production. A few producers have decided to convert to cheese and are producing some remarkably tasty varieties. It takes months to reach maturity but it is now a "storable" product with added value due to ingenuity, marketing and acceptance of risk. Big wheels and little deals add up.
When the market session is over, the helpers are paid and the grower pockets the cash that has been collected. It may be large or small, and may have taken many hours of labor to achieve, but it is a direct reward for ingenuity, production and marketing.
I see a family with 10 children come to the market in Des Moines each week. They rise well before dawn to travel 60 miles to put out their produce and hope for buyers. They are jovial and outgoing as they visit with friends, old and new. They bag their home-grown products and carefully make change for each transaction. No paperwork, just a smile and a promise that they'll be here next week and put their best on the table for honest comparison to all the others that line the street. They go home to their life of family activities, church, and hard work to keep the crops growing. Who says a farm kid can't learn the lessons of life anymore?
Editor's Note: This is Ken Root's 35th year as an agricultural reporter. He grew up on a small farm in central Oklahoma and started his career as a vocational agriculture teacher. He worked in Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri as a broadcaster and was the original host of AgriTalk. He has also been the executive director of the National AgriChemical Retailers Association in Washington, D.C. and the National Association of Farm Broadcasters in Kansas City. Ken is now the lead farm broadcaster at WHO and WMT Radio based in Des Moines, Iowa. He has been a columnist for HPJ and Midwest Ag Journal for eight years.