A Day in the Life of a Farmers’ Market Farmer
There’s a glimpse of pink through the gray clouds hovering over the dimly lit cornfield. Heavy dew and mist blankets the farm as I drive into the lane of McLean’s Berry Farm in Buckhorn. It’s market day. Well, almost every day from May through Thanksgiving is market day for McLean’s as they go to 6 markets a week, on 5 days. Things sure have grown since they first started going to the only market in the area, the Peterborough Saturday market, 25 years ago. Today is Thursday and the market is in Lakefield. It’s the shortest drive from the farm so it’s a late start today (by farmers’ standards).
Truth be told, Erin McLean and Ben McLean, siblings who work on their family’s farms, McLean’s and Buckhorn Berry Farms, are already at work upon my arrival. And the preparations for today’s market started yesterday. It’s early September so picking, packing and sorting starts the day before during daylight hours to make sure the produce is ready to load in the morning – especially important for the further markets that are an hour or so away. Earlier in the season, when the sunrise is earlier, some of the picking will be done just before loading. Efficiency is key when there’s so much to load before heading on the road.
Ben and Erin hustle to load today’s selection on to the trailer: corn, tomatoes, green and yellow beans and sweet and hot peppers. The dry goods, such as jam and maple syrup, plus the equipment stay on the trailer whenever possible to reduce the hauling.
Cyndi, who will work the market stall, and her son Luke, the driver, arrive at the farm. As the last of the loading is done, we see the crew head into the fields to pick produce for the farm store and tomorrow’s farmers’ market. (A luxurious late start they enjoy at this time of year.)
The last of the produce – the most tender stuff: the fall-harvest raspberries and strawberries (the day neutrals that ripen through the summer) – is loaded on the trailer and we’re reading to roll.
Luke and Cyndi in the truck pull the trailer into the parking lot in Lakefield. One other stall is set up so far. The pavement is damp and the sky is still gray but thankfully the rain is holding off – for now – and fingers are crossed the sun breaks through.
Kate, the market manager meets with Cyndi to direct her to their spot for the day.
The unloading begins tents and tables out first. Weights for the tent poles, the tents are popped up, tables lined up, tablecloths on, bins rearranged in order. It’s a quiet and efficient process – step-by-step the market stall takes shape. You can tell they’ve done this before!
The tables are ready for the stars of the show. Jams and syrups go on first. It’s sampling day at the market so there’s an extra table with McLean’s own jams for customers to try. Next, come the beans and tomatoes – heritage cherry tomatoes, and Romas and beefsteaks prime for canning. Erin has arrived to help out today and is stacking tomatoes and delivering crackers for the jam samples.
Oh, look at those strawberries. Stacks of strawberries! And sweet corn – piled high. Ten bags of it.
All of the produce is in place and ready to entice the customers. Cyndi hangs the bags from the tent poles, and adds the signs for the finishing touches. Erin takes a phone call and is managing what’s going on back at the farm while arranging backup beans in their baskets.
The bell rings, the market is open and a few shoppers arrive, with tote bags in hand, eager to get the pick of the crop. The start is slow today according to Cyndi. That’s often the case at this particular market, while others are swarmed from the moment the bell rings, and the threat of rain is likely adding to the quiet.
McLean’s first customers of the day mull over their choices and the first purchase is made. Yellow beans and a pint of raspberries will be gracing their dinner table today.
Erin heads back to the farm to keep the rest of the day’s task moving along. Cyndi chats with customers, and the vendors do their cross-table visiting and catching up. Will it rain? Will the customers come anyway? How were the other markets this week?
I talk with Chris from River Road Farms near Lindsay. He also does many markets a week and is pretty much a one-person crew. With over an hour’s drive to Lakefield, he got his start at 5:00 am today. He grows root vegetables, Swiss chard, peppers, kale and lettuce. But I don’t see any lettuce today. Well, picking early in the morning, in the dark, just before you load up has some drawbacks. That bin of lettuce Chris picked this morning so it was as fresh as possible? It’s still in the cooler at the farm. Oops. His family and neighbours will be enjoying some nice salads tonight.
What does happen with the leftover produce? McLean’s, along with many vendors, do preserving with anything that can be turned into jam and pickles, they freeze produce for sale or use later. Their farm store is still open through the day so produce will re-stock those shelves. Some farmers have wholesale customers, such as restaurants, who will buy what’s left at the end of the day. No waste is the goal.
The market is filling in with shoppers. Beth arrives for her weekly purchase of 4 cobs of corn. Shortly after that a gentleman asks for a whole bag. That’s 60 ears. Cyndi happily hands over a big, green mesh bag full of corn. The pile is dwindling nicely.
The drizzle is starting. The customers with umbrellas don’t let that phase them. A basket of tomatoes goes home with someone for canning. More corn, a few cobs at a time, baskets of beans, a few pints of raspberries. And a steady flow of strawberry purchases. I ask Cyndi what’s the most popular item today, “the strawberries for sure. It’s always the strawberries.” As the sweet aroma wafts through the damp air and those gorgeous red berries stand out on the table, it’s no wonder they’re the favourite.
The rain is getting heavier and Cyndi wisely starts to pack away the dry goods knowing that the rest of the afternoon will likely be a washout. The jams and maple syrup get packed away first, then the back rows of each type of produce in turn. Leaving some out for last-minute customers to reach, of course.
Luke arrives back at the market with the truck.
The last of the produce has been sorted and tucked back into the trailer and, even faster than it went up, the tables are down and the tents collapsed. The truck and trailer depart the parking lot and head back to the farm.
Back at the farm, the produce is unloaded and sorted. The team at McLean’s is planning, picking and sorting and getting the trailer ready to do it all again tomorrow. And me? I’m going home to plan dinner around my green and yellow beans. And have a nap.
By Jennifer MacKenzie