On a recent trip to “my” farm, I was having an interesting conversation with “my” farmer. He told me: “I had arranged a drop point for turkeys nearby. Sometimes people who’ve ordered don’t show up, and sometimes people bring a friend and say, ‘She wants one too.’ They don’t understand that I’m not Walmart.”
Then I thought…most people probably don’t know much about buying directly from a farm. They’re used to grocery stores where the store simply has what they want available, and they don’t have to plan or order ahead of time. Many people may be intimidated by buying from farms because of they just don’t know how it works. So today I’ll help you out a little bit.
It’s true: farms are not Walmart or any other grocery store. They are not stores at all. Instead, they are working, living places where what is available is fully dependent on what that farmer chooses to produce, what local demand is, what the season is, what the weather’s been like, whether they’ve had enough help, what the butcher’s schedule is, and more. They don’t always have everything you want. It’s hard for people new to farm-direct buying to understand these things, so let’s look at them more in depth.
This is especially true for produce, but also for animal products. Product availability varies by season. In the winter, in cold climates, farmers don’t produce vegetables or fruit (generally). Chickens lay less often; cows produce less milk. This may mean they have less — or even none — available. And you should not expect them to. They are at the mercy of the weather around them. You may have a harder time obtaining eggs or milk in the winter, or even be unable. Look forward to when you can have them again the spring (and copiously)!
It’s also true that even during warmer months, certain foods come in at certain times. Where I live, strawberries and lettuce come in in May and June; tomatoes, corn, and potatoes come in in July, August, and into September. Apples are in September and October. You shouldn’t expect your farmer to have strawberries in August or apples in May. It doesn’t work that way. People who are used to the grocery store, where everything is available year round, may find this frustrating at first. But over time many come to appreciate how foods change by season.
Most farmers specialize in something. It may be grass-fed beef; maybe chickens and eggs; maybe produce. If you get lucky, you might find a farmer that does multiple things (like mine, who does lamb, pork, chickens, eggs, beef, milk, and turkey). But farmers produce what they know how to produce, what they have the land and resources to produce, and what is in demand around them. They may even produce things because their family simply prefers it!
Don’t expect that your farmer will have everything you want; it’s not one-stop shopping. That’s why we have farmer’s markets now, so that farmers with all different offerings gather in one place. (Many towns now have them in the winter, too.) If there’s not one near you, you could contact different local farmers to see if you could start one. And if your farmer does have a wide range of products available, count yourself lucky.
For farmers, it’s not about producing what they want to produce. It’s about meeting demand. If organic farmers (especially those who are not certified) do not sell what they’ve produced from their own farms or at farmer’s markets, they have to take conventional market pricing, which is far below what their food is worth. They don’t want to do this, so they don’t overproduce. This may mean that they under produce, especially if demand increases suddenly.
Understand that if your farm does not have certain products available, it is likely because no one in your area (or few) wants it. You may need to find a different farm or other source for it.
It is also true (unfortunately) that people do not understand what naturally-raised products are really worth. People say, “But you didn’t use pesticides, which are expensive to buy, so shouldn’t your products really be cheaper?” They don’t understand all of the advanced farming methods and hands-on time that managing a well-run natural farm really takes. They don’t value the enhanced health benefits and taste of well-produced food. (By the way, thank your farmer for this next time you see him.) We need to keep educating people on why naturally-raised food is so important, which will help to increase demand.
Changes in Demand
I mentioned this in the previous section, but it’s very important to mention again. If a farmer suddenly has an influx of new customers, they may run out of certain items faster than before, meaning that things are temporarily out of stock. But farmers can’t just call up a supplier and say, “Hey, send that next shipment sooner, and make it larger this time.” They have to wait until the next crop ripens, or the next animal matures and get scheduled at the butcher.
People get irritated when farmers run out, but balancing having enough inventory without having too much inventory is not easy. Farmers also don’t know if the higher demand will hold out, so they don’t automatically adjust their schedule to send an extra animal to the butcher, even if they have that option (and depending on the size of their operation, they may or may not). They also can’t plant more crops halfway through the growing season, so they may remain short for several months.
This is also why it’s important to honor your order. If you place an order with a farm, show up on time to pick it up and get what you ordered. Also, don’t just bring a friend unexpectedly and think the farmer will have enough for him or her, too. That may not be the case! Call ahead of time and ask if your friend would like to order, too. Most farmers are happy to help, if they can.
The Butcher’s/Helper’s Schedule
Many smaller farms do not do their own butchering; they rely on local butchers. That means that if the butcher gets backed up (common through the fall for holiday butchering and deer), they may not get their meat back as early as they expected. And that means they might run out.
It’s also possible if a farmer has family or interns who help on the farm, but are unavailable for a time (due to illness or other reasons), the farmer may not be able to harvest the crops on time, or prepare orders, or even respond to communication. Farmers are completely dependent on their support, so delays can happen for a number of reasons.
It may be that there was an unusual drought, so many crops just didn’t produce. Or, it may be that the animals got sick and either died or could not be sold. This is the nature of the business: farmers are at the mercy of nature. If something goes wrong, they have to roll with it. They may lose crops or animals and have an undersupply.
People who buy from farms need to understand that sometimes, things that were supposed to be available, just aren’t.
Of course, the opposite can be true — a farmer can have an excellent growing season and have tons of something available and offer it for a low price. One farmer I buy from offered tomatoes for $1/lb. for awhile because he had so many! Product availability just can’t be fully predicted, no matter how carefully a farmer plans.
How to Buy from a Farm
So, with all of these warnings, is it really worth it to buy from farms? Yes! Most of the time, these things won’t happen. Most of the time, the farmer will have most products available as predicted. Plus, the quality, freshness, and pricing of the food just can’t be beat! It’s absolutely worth it. I’m spoiled and if I can’t get eggs, milk, and most meat from my farm, I just do without (I usually pick other products from the farm as a temporary sub, like ground pork instead of ground beef).
How to order?
- If the farm has a website, check product offers and availability. Many farms these days do have websites. Since certain products are only available seasonally, and popular products may run out, make sure you check what is available before placing an order.
- Make sure you communicate with your farmer about your order. Call or email to let them know what you would like. This gives them the chance to verify that these products are all available (maybe the website wasn’t correct or maybe you ordered more than was available) and hopefully give you a total. Package sizes are not exact like they are at the store! If you order 1 lb. of meat, you may end up with 1.03 lbs. Plan for this.
- Verify a pick up time and location. Are you picking up at a farmer’s market? Directly at the farm? Know where you’re going, and get directions if they are rather out of the way. Also, know when to go. Farmers aren’t stores; they don’t have regular 8 – 5 style hours. They usually do pick ups by appointment only, so if you don’t set up a time to go, they may not be available to help you. If they do have a store with regular hours (some bigger farms do), it is okay not to plan ahead on timing.
- Show up on time to your pick up. If your farmer is making a special meeting time with you, that means he has to be available, not out in his fields or doing messy work. Show up on time so that he can help you and get back to work. Farming keeps him busy!
- Bring cash; plus a little extra. Since package sizes are not exact, you may need to bring a little more money than you think. You could get 1.05 or .95 instead of 1 lb. Certain meats may be packaged only in 2 lb. or 3 lb. packages (like steaks, roasts, or chops), so even if you want “1/2 lb.” you will not get anything that small; it isn’t available. Ask in advance if you are unsure or if you don’t want so much. Also, your farmer probably does not have a credit card machine on his property, and probably doesn’t prefer checks. Ask about this, too, but cash is always safe.
- Don’t change your order last minute; call ahead if you need to. Don’t show up and say “Oh, I don’t really need X.” or worse, “Oh, do you happen to have Y?” Especially if the meeting is not on the farm, the answer is likely “No.” If you realize in advance that you need to change your order, call your farmer and ask if changing is possible. If he’s busy and he’s already pulled your order, it may not be.
- Don’t offer your farmer’s products or services without his permission. If your farmer has a website, feel free to point your friends or family members to it. But don’t promise that he will have any product available for them, or that he will do anything (like butcher an extra animal) for them. You can give them his contact information so they can ask, or you can ask him for them and report what he says. But he is not a store and he may or may not have things available for new customers (especially if you are talking about herd shares or CSA shares or something larger).
- Don’t haggle with your farmer over prices. Your farmer is not a flea market. He deserves to be paid fairly for the work he does. He has set his prices at a level that is fair. If you don’t agree, choose a different farm to buy from. Don’t argue or haggle over prices. This devalues the work the farmer has put in.
- THANK your farmer for all the hard work he does! Farming is highly undervalued in our society. Our farmers work long, hard hours in hot sun and bitter cold to bring us our food. Farmers who are committed to natural methods work even harder because they are so hands-on with their animals and crops. We need to thank them for all that work they do, so that we can eat excellent food!