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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”