Winning at Farmers’ Markets – Secrets of Success

You’ll see the signs at farmers’ markets each week — eight on Saturdays alone — over a big chunk of Northern California, from south of Monterey to east of San Francisco: “Stackhouse Brothers — Tree-Ripe Fruit.”

Rodney Stackhouse says it costs more to pick fruit and place it into trays in the field — the pickers sort as they harvest — but the higher quality commands top prices. (Photo: David Eddy)

“Family and flavor,” says Rodney Stackhouse, “we try to keep it simple.”

He and Don are the brothers. They farm 240 acres of fruit and nuts in Denair, CA, complementing each other well. “He likes machines,” says Rodney. “I like trees — and people.”

Most of their land, 170 acres, is in almonds. Another 20-plus is in cling peaches — decades ago all of the family’s land was devoted to growing peaches for canning — and the remainder is devoted to what Rodney is passionate about: fresh stone fruit. Not just any stone fruit, though, but super-sweet peaches, nectarines, and a broad range of interspecific plums.

Peaches and nectarines might be what most people think of when it comes to summer fruit. But plums are getting more popular all the time, especially with the advancements Zaiger Genetics has made in recent years, combining them with apricots (think Pluots), nectarines, and cherries.

Stackhouse grows four plum varieties from Zaiger that have some cherry in them. Two have been just so-so, but two have been hits, and one, “well, the flavor will just knock your socks off,” he says. That particular variety fetches the most of any fruit he sells, a tidy $4 a pound.

“They provide me with a vast reservoir of varieties,” he says of the Zaigers, who are located in Modesto, not far from where Stackhouse farms. It’s rare when either he or his foreman on fresh fruit, Javier Aguilar, misses one of the Zaiger weekly fruit-tasting tours.

Plums have other advantages over peaches and nectarines too. While a peach might only stand up for a week, he might be able to hold a plum in cold storage for up to six weeks. Another plus is that if it’s a good variety and grown properly, you usually get uniformly good fruit so you can target huge yields.

“You can load up the trees,” he says, “as sizing isn’t the factor it is in other varieties.”

Not Just Growing
Growing great fruit is only half the battle, though. The timing has to be perfect. That’s why Stackhouse grows more than 200 varieties, because there can be no gaps in the steady stream of mind-blowingly flavorful fruit he sells at all 25 farmers’ markets. These are popular, successful markets, and the competition among growers to get a space at them is keen.

Over the past 35 years Stackhouse has been selling at farmers’ markets, he has developed a finely tuned strategy. He makes no sales close to where he grows the fruit in the Central Valley, as he can sell more and for a higher price in the cooler areas where they don’t get enough heat to produce these stone fruit varieties. “It’s the best of both worlds, because there’s a bigger population base there,” he says, “but they don’t have the fruit.”

One advantage to interspecific plums is you can set a heavy crop and still get maximum size. (Photo: David Eddy)

And fruit is what these coastal foodies, who have a higher average income — another plus — are after. He sees it even in the Monterey area, where a lot of chefs for high-end restaurants are big buyers.

“I’m not saying there’s no difference in the quality of vegetables (available at farmers’ markets),” Stackhouse says, “but with fruit you can really tell the difference.”

Stackhouse makes it a point to work at least one of the markets personally each week, because there’s no other way to get that intel. But it obviously takes a lot more people than that, as each stand requires two to three people. His grandchildren do some of the selling, but most is done by his 10 full-time employees — overseen by his foreman, Guillermo Sisuentes — and their families.

“My guys do both farming and selling — that’s one of my pluses,” he says. “You can’t get any closer to the field than buying from a picker.”

Over the years, certain employees have come to be the representatives at certain markets, so regular customers are greeted by familiar faces, another big plus. They know what varieties will sell best at certain markets. For example, in areas where there are high concentrations of Asian Americans, bigger, crunchier, lower acid fruit will generally sell better.

“Anglos — palefaces, especially old ones,” says the 76-year-old Stackhouse, his eyes twinkling, “like soft fruit with the juice running down their chins.”

Appearance is really important to Stackhouse — this juice runs a beautiful crimson — but flavor always comes first. (Photo: David Eddy)

He also sells flavored almonds, about eight types, from garlic-flavored to orange-honey to Cajun spice. They sell well at just about every market. But Stackhouse lets his guys make the call as to what to sell, as they know best.

“I never mess with my guys and their markets, I don’t tell them what to do,” he says. “It’s not high-tech, but it’s high-intensity — there’s a lot of people work.”

His guys also understand how critical it is to present the fruit as perfectly as possible. The fruit is picked and placed into trays in the field — the pickers sort as they harvest — and it’s never touched again until it’s put on display at the farm markets.

“Sure, it costs me a lot more to pick it that way,” says Stackhouse, “but it’s worth it to get the high prices.”

Not For Everyone
A lot of farming, and business in general for that matter, is cyclical, but Stackhouse thinks selling at farmers’ markets is different. People need to eat, after all, and on top of that they are becoming more conscious of what they are eating, both for health and enjoyment, and both favor farmers’ markets.

But not a lot of growers can do it successfully. If you’re going to try, Stackhouse recommends getting involved with a successful market, and that can be tough because the best ones have waiting lists. About the only way to pierce that barrier to entry is to offer something distinctive, whether a new variety of fruit, or a new way to present it, such as unusually flavored almonds.

But keep in mind that growing fruit is tough enough, now you have to transport it to an urban area and sell it.

“It’s a 12-hour day, not including loading the truck — you get pooped,” he says. “It’s definitely not for everybody.”

 

Calling All Small Farmers

Editor’s Note: Small farms are the backbone of America’s fruit industry, as well as the subscriber base of American Fruit Grower® and Western Fruit Grower® magazines, which were founded in 1880. It’s fascinating to see the magazines from those early years. Far from being trade journals, or, as they are referred to today, business to business or B2B magazines, they were really general interest. They show how being a small fruit grower back in the late 19th century didn’t necessarily mean farming was your vocation; virtually all households grew at least some fruit.

We bring this up only to point out how seriously Senior Editor Christina Herrick and I take this history, and how we realize how special the role of the small farm is in America. Because of that, we’d like to hear from more of you. We recently reached out to a few growers who indicated in our annual State of the Industry survey, which we conduct each fall, they would like to be contacted. We’ve included a couple of their responses to our questions below.

In the next several weeks, you will get a letter from me inviting you to participate in the annual State of the Industry survey for 2018. In the past few years we have been gratified by the response as hundreds of you participated. That’s terrific, but this year we hope even more of you growers will not only participate, you will indicate you are willing to be contacted by Christina or myself for the stories we will be writing in 2018. Take care, and we’ll be in touch soon.

What sets your retail operation apart from others? In other words, what are you greatest strengths as a grower-retailer?

Shawn Broderick, Eugene OR: “Quality and knowledge. In a small operation such as mine the folks with the most experience and skills are not very removed from the daily tasks of the farm. I have 40 years’ experience growing, harvesting and selling with a focus on quality. Since I have stayed small I still get my hands in most every step in the process and directly train any workers. I am also very present to our customers to answer questions and to receive feedback. In most of the larger operations I know the more experienced folks are more removed from some of the growing/harvesting steps and are not as present for customers. The workers at the farmers’ market with these bigger farms often do not even work on the farm. I would not man a farmers’ market booth without at least one experienced farm worker present to answer questions. I personally sell at one farmers’ market per week to stay connected to the local customers and facilitate connecting them to our farm.”

 

 

 

Ethan Stuckey, The Market at Pickwick Place, Bucyrus, OH: “High quality with value. Our mission statement is ‘Serving local quality with heart,’ and is the driving force for how we conduct our business. With the produce and other local items we offer we put quality first and then work out a fair price. We take a relatively small margin on our fruits and vegetables to provide the high quality ‘market produce’ at a price that is competitive with anyone. While we rarely will be the cheapest, we meet the difference in price with unparalleled quality and our customers really recognize that. Side note: our prices also stay consistent throughout the season. So we might be break even at the beginning of the year but we take the average with the higher margins when produce is abundant in August. In other words, when we price something we try to stick with it so that our customers have consistency.”

Topics: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Farm Marketing Stories
Farm Marketing
August 31, 2017
Winning at Farmers’ Markets – Secrets of Success
Small farmer Rodney Stackhouse cashes in at 25 farmers’ markets a week by growing 200-plus varieties of stone fruit and empowering a crackerjack staff. Read More
Citrus
June 28, 2017
Last Chance for New Operations to Sign Up for Ag Census
The Census of Agriculture, which takes place every five years, guides federal, state, and county level decisions on policies affecting growers. Read More
Farm Management
December 12, 2016
Atypical Marketing Strategies To Consider For 2017
Everyone’s No. 1 marketing strategy should be to know your market. Even if you don’t care to admit it, your customer Read More
Apples & Pears
November 2, 2016
Market In Wisconsin Gets Confused For iPhone Dealer
The Apple Store in Green Bay, WI, fields calls about technical support or new releases. Read More
Citrus
October 27, 2016
$45M In Grants Available For Value-Added Producers
Funding allocated for growers interested in developing new products, expanding business opportunities. Read More
Farm Marketing
October 14, 2016
Smart, Easy Ideas From Quarry Hill Orchards
A new generation is taking the reins at Quarry Hill Orchards in New Berlin, OH, and they're bringing a lot of fresh ideas on how to draw more customers with them. Read More
Farm Marketing
October 13, 2016
What Next? What To Do After A Natural Disaster At Your Farm
Between drought in the Northeast, forest fires in the West, and Hurricane Matthew in the Southeast, many growers and marketers are trying to figure out what their next steps should be. Read More
Farm Marketing
October 5, 2016
Consider Adding A Teal Pumpkin Display This Year
You’ll want to get in on this big 2016 Halloween trend! If you sell pumpkins this fall, make sure you Read More
Farm Marketing
September 30, 2016
Insect Issues Making The News In September
A number of stories have hit the news this month, from trying to control spotted lantern fly in Pennsylvania to calling researchers relying on mud daubers to go where they can't in a search for an invasive spider. Read More
heartland-events-corn-maze-feature
Farm Marketing
September 29, 2016
Kids Up For Adoption Get A Boost From Heartland Maze
The Heartland Maze has gone the extra mile and created a maze design that promotes a cause. Together with a Read More
Farm Marketing
September 29, 2016
Coalition To Presidential Candidates: Reform America’s Food System
The coalition Plate Of The Union would like local farms to play a more central roll in U.S. food policy. Read More
Farm Marketing
September 25, 2016
New York Governor Signs Additional Legislation To Bolster State’s Craft Beverage Industry
Bills allow farm wineries, breweries, and cideries to sell New York-made farm beverages by the glass. Read More
Farm Marketing
September 15, 2016
8 Pumpkin Decorating Ideas Seen On Pinterest
Pinterest Inspired Pumpkins   Pinterest is where those in a decorating frame of mind go to get ideas. And if Read More
Farm Marketing
September 15, 2016
Show Off Your Corn Maze Design
Farm marketers have amazing imaginations, if their corn mazes are anything to judge by. Share your own design, and we'll include it in an upcoming slideshow. Read More
local-food-restaurant-dinner-free-from-pixabay
Farm Marketing
September 15, 2016
Is The Local Food Movement Over?
Writer Kristen Wile wrote a series of articles delving into the local food movement, and says the word "local" is overused, to the point that many chefs avoid using it. So American Farm Marketer asked her about her views on if local food and farms, and if she thinks that the farm-to-table movement is over. Read More
The Latest
Farm Marketing
September 2, 2017
We Want to Hear Your Family Farm’s…
We’re launching a new feature on American Fruit Grower and Western Fruit Grower’s Instagram page, and we want you to share your family farm’s story. Read More
Farm Marketing
August 31, 2017
How to Create Social Media Magic with Yo…
Small farmers typically have direct contact with consumers, so it’s important to focus on efficiency with your outreach efforts. Read More
Farm Marketing
August 31, 2017
Winning at Farmers’ Markets – Secr…
Small farmer Rodney Stackhouse cashes in at 25 farmers’ markets a week by growing 200-plus varieties of stone fruit and empowering a crackerjack staff. Read More
Citrus
June 28, 2017
Last Chance for New Operations to Sign U…
The Census of Agriculture, which takes place every five years, guides federal, state, and county level decisions on policies affecting growers. Read More
Farm Marketing
January 20, 2017
Direct Marketing Revenue Topped $8 Billi…
USDA has released its first-ever survey on direct marketing, and it shows that the local food industry is huge. Read More
Farm Management
December 12, 2016
Atypical Marketing Strategies To Conside…
Everyone’s No. 1 marketing strategy should be to know your market. Even if you don’t care to admit it, your customer Read More
Apples & Pears
November 2, 2016
Market In Wisconsin Gets Confused For iP…
The Apple Store in Green Bay, WI, fields calls about technical support or new releases. Read More
Citrus
October 27, 2016
$45M In Grants Available For Value-Added…
Funding allocated for growers interested in developing new products, expanding business opportunities. Read More
Farm Marketing
October 14, 2016
Smart, Easy Ideas From Quarry Hill Orcha…
A new generation is taking the reins at Quarry Hill Orchards in New Berlin, OH, and they're bringing a lot of fresh ideas on how to draw more customers with them. Read More
Farm Marketing
October 13, 2016
What Next? What To Do After A Natural Di…
Between drought in the Northeast, forest fires in the West, and Hurricane Matthew in the Southeast, many growers and marketers are trying to figure out what their next steps should be. Read More
Farm Marketing
October 5, 2016
Consider Adding A Teal Pumpkin Display T…
You’ll want to get in on this big 2016 Halloween trend! If you sell pumpkins this fall, make sure you Read More
Farm Marketing
September 30, 2016
Insect Issues Making The News In Septemb…
A number of stories have hit the news this month, from trying to control spotted lantern fly in Pennsylvania to calling researchers relying on mud daubers to go where they can't in a search for an invasive spider. Read More
Farm Marketing
September 29, 2016
Kids Up For Adoption Get A Boost From He…
The Heartland Maze has gone the extra mile and created a maze design that promotes a cause. Together with a Read More
Farm Marketing
September 29, 2016
Coalition To Presidential Candidates: Re…
The coalition Plate Of The Union would like local farms to play a more central roll in U.S. food policy. Read More
Farm Marketing
September 25, 2016
New York Governor Signs Additional Legis…
Bills allow farm wineries, breweries, and cideries to sell New York-made farm beverages by the glass. Read More
Farm Marketing
September 15, 2016
8 Pumpkin Decorating Ideas Seen On Pinte…
Pinterest Inspired Pumpkins   Pinterest is where those in a decorating frame of mind go to get ideas. And if Read More
Farm Marketing
September 15, 2016
Show Off Your Corn Maze Design
Farm marketers have amazing imaginations, if their corn mazes are anything to judge by. Share your own design, and we'll include it in an upcoming slideshow. Read More
Farm Marketing
September 15, 2016
Is The Local Food Movement Over?
Writer Kristen Wile wrote a series of articles delving into the local food movement, and says the word "local" is overused, to the point that many chefs avoid using it. So American Farm Marketer asked her about her views on if local food and farms, and if she thinks that the farm-to-table movement is over. Read More