Saturday, September 28, 2013

Market Research

About 8 years ago, I started an experiment at my Farmer's Market booth. When I settled on my current popular salad green/herb display--"mix 'n' match, $10/lb., as little or as much as you want, take what you like and leave the rest"--I soon realized that often folks just wanted a few herbs, which didn't even register on the scale. So I started the "$1.00 for a small bag, whatever herbs you want to put in it."

It's been very popular, and enlightening as well. People love not having to buy more than they will use, and being able to get just the fresh herbs they need for the recipe du jour. They love not being forced to waste food. Often they are happier with one fragrant sprig than they would be with a larger package, because they don't want to waste.

There are also always a few who make their pesto (because this usually happens during basil season) in the small bag, cramming in the tender herbs until the juices run. I don't weigh the bags, but I'm sure I've seen $3 worth (by weight) of herbs in a $1 bag.

And then there are the "regulars" who put twice their usual amount of herbs in the bag, and give me $2, even though they are still only getting a few snippets of this and that. Even though I still smile and say, "That'll be $1." They know what it's worth to them. It's twice their usual.

From time to time, someone new to my booth comments on my little experiment. "Don't people take advantage of that?" No, not really. For every pesto-maker, there are many sprig-takers. It all averages out...and overall, I make more money on the herbs this way that if I sold them by weight or by pre-measured bunches.

It's a good deal for everyone...people get what they want, they essentially choose their price, they take only what they can use, and I don't have to pre-weigh/pre-bag/label/etc.

Green onions are another long-time experiment. It used to be, there just wasn't much demand for them. I bunched them in rubber bands like the store, and then took them home and took off the rubber bands to throw them in the compost (before Just Food). Eventually I got frustrated with the wasted effort and just laid them on the table in loose bunches. Figuring out how big to make bunches of anything can be a pain in the neck when the items vary in size both within the day's offering and from week to week. Every bunch required at least some small mental activity to decide what was in that particular bunch.

One day I didn't separate them into bunches. "You get to pick your own bunch," I told the customers. "How big is a bunch?"they asked. "You know how big a bunch of green onions in the store," I replied. "No, I don't." "Yes, you do" I would laugh and smile. And timidly, they would start picking up onions, looking at me for cues after the first few. "How many is in a bunch?" they would ask, hoping I would relent and spare them the responsibility. "It depends on what size they are. You might want all big ones, all small ones or some of each." I would smile and repeat myself. "You know how big a bunch of green onions is." And by golly, they would almost always pick out exactly a bunch of green onions.

This was, in part, about getting customers involved in the process of vegetables, the post-harvest handling that for conventional grocery-store veggies is often done by migrant workers living and working in grueling conditions. It was also about building self-confidence, about showing people they know something that they didn't think they knew.

Sometimes people needed a little more guidance. "It's enough that you feel like you're getting a good deal, and not so much that you feel like you're cheating me," I would tell the still-skeptical.

There are, of course, outliers in the range of green-onion-purchasers. These fall into a couple categories. One is people who don't normally shop who have been sent to Farmer's Market with lists. It's pretty easy to tell from the deer-in-the-headlights look that they truly do not know how big a bunch of green onions is. They aren't even quite sure if they know what green onions are. I demonstrate, teaching them gently for next time. Another is people from other cultures where informal direct sales venues like our Farmer's Market are common, and haggling over prices is the norm. They are inclined to make somewhat larger bunches, and then keep adding to them. I don't argue. It's just a few onions.

As with the $1 herb bags, there are also those who won't use a whole bunch. So I sell half bunches for half price. But sometimes, people don't even want half a bunch. They hold up one or two onions. "Whatever it's worth to you," I say. Often they give me the half-bunch price. It's worth it to them to not have to waste the rest of the half-bunch. And it's worth it to have the one green onion.

This year, for the first time, I planted a row of okra. For some yet-undiagnosed reason, the plants are suddenly dying, one by one. Harvest is slim, but more than I need for home use. So I take a small bag to market each week.

Today, a customer picked out the choicest small ones that she wanted. "How much?" "What's it worth to you?" I asked. "How about a dollar?" "That's fine." She paid and went away happy. Not long after, another customer looked at the remaining okra, about the same amount but coarser pods. "How much?" "What's it worth to you?" "How about a dollar?" "OK" The  customer handed me a dollar...and then handed me another one. "No, two dollars!" And walked away happy.

A little later, a customer and I discussed a small purchase while I was packing up. "A dollar or whatever," I said. She handed me a $5 bill. I went to make change. "No, keep it," she said.

A few weeks ago, a FaceBook (and long-time face-to-face) friend posted an angry comment about the high price of fresh food. She took stores to task for overcharging consumers...but also held Farmer's Market vendors accountable for charging high prices. When I responded with comments about small farmers' costs of production, and how artificially low our US food prices really are, she got angry with me. It was sad, because I'd long thought of this person as a friend and ally, and someone who (as a high-end food service professional) truly values food.

I challenged myself to reflect on whether there might be some truth to her accusation. I survey prices from other vendors, from the stores, and consider my production costs and quality differences when I price my produce. Are my prices were ridiculously high? Am I helping fuel inflation?

My market research says that for many people, my prices are just fine. And left to their own devices, my customers often would pay more than my set price.

In my friend's defense, we're both old enough to remember when gas was $.25/gallon and tomatoes were $.25/lb. (If you stop and think about it, the price of high-quality tomatoes in the store is often right about the same as a gallon of gas. Go figure. I'll take the tomato any day!) So yes, there has been a lot of inflation as the decades add up. But in the case of Farmer's Market prices, it seems to be a mutually agreeable situation.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Herding Progress

Herding training has been on the back burner with my efforts to keep up with harvesting and planting. Lambing interfered, as well, because the ewes were fierce and I didn't want Sookie to be badly scared or, worse, injured by a protective mama. Also, I haven't had the sheep out on the pasture much this year, for various reasons.

But nevertheless, we've been in the pens and lanes with the sheep from time to time, and Sookie definitely wants to work them. But how? They have learned, over the past few years, to basically ignore dogs, or to stomp them. The bottom line has been, neither the sheep nor the dog knew what was expected of them, and I couldn't figure out how to get past that. It seemed like if one or the other would do their part of the dance that is working sheep with a dog, the other would follow the lead and I could coach.

But what we had going on was pretty much just pandemonium.

On the few occasions when we needed to get the sheep to do something, it basically amounted to me stomping and waving and yelling at sheep, while Sookie ran around, breaking through the middle of the flock, circling endlessly, ignoring my "lie down" commands, etc. I would try to direct her while also yelling at the sheep, and we would all end up frustrated and confused. Yet if I left her out of the pen and tried to move the sheep myself (which Toss taught me to do quite efficiently), she would run around like crazy and yelp and carry on, creating a distraction.

Eventually, I've figured out the following:

--Sookie is very "loose-eyed" for a Border Collie--whether by nature or by nurture (not seeing sheep until she was 3) I don't know. She works standing up, close in to the flock, and without a lot of direct eye contact. Although she is learning to keep her eyes on the sheep more, she still looks back at me a lot. I need to accept this as her natural working style, and stop expecting her to act like Toss.

--Sookie is incredibly gutsy, and will squeeze between the sheep and a fence or shed in very tight places without showing fear. She also doesn't take it personally when a ewe charges her...she'll get scared and run for a little way, but then she wants to go right back in as soon as she realizes the ewe has refocused.

--Sookie is a master of the "fake grip". She likes to get in close and pretend to bite the sheep in the face or rump. Over time, she is gaining more response from the flock because she is hounding them like a giant horsefly buzzing in their face. This seems to be a sense of annoyance on the part of the sheep, more than fear.

--I need to figure out ways to clearly distinguish between the commands I'm giving to the sheep (our familiar "Come, sheep" call that the sheep have learned to associate with fresh pasture) and the commands I'm giving the dog ("Sookie, Come").

The other day we easily sent most of the flock out to pasture, but a few remained in the green calf shed. This shed has 3 small stalls with narrow openings onto the lane. There was one yearling in each of the outer stalls, and a young ewe with lamb in the middle stall.

The single yearlings both fell for Sookie's "suction" method of getting sheep out of the stalls. She runs past the doors repeatedly, glancing in. After a few passes, the sheep inside get so nervous that they want to run out into the open. Eventually, she runs past and as soon as she passes, the sheep pops out of the shed right behind her and follows her for a few moments. Apparently for a sheep, it feels safer to have her moving away from them than towards them. She doesn't try to "get" them in any way once they are out, unless I direct her to.

The ewe and lamb were a different story. When mild "suction" across the front of the shed didn't work, Sookie intensified her effort by running in and out, back and forth between the now-empty stalls on each side of the central stall. Even that didn't work. So she went into their stall after them, running in circles between them and the walls in the tiny (6' x 4') stall. I think if she had stopped at the back of the shed, they would have moved away from her and out the door, but she kept orbiting. On the other hand, stopping might have allowed the ewe to target her. She forced her way around, moving so quickly the ewe couldn't really target her. Then she got right in and fake-gripped the ewe's nose repeatedly. The ewe was rattled but not budging out of that shed.

I finally went into the stall, being careful to avoid putting myself in danger if the ewe decided to bolt out. The ewe finally left with her lamb, but wanted back into the stall after I emerged so I had to guard it.

I encouraged Sookie to drive them down the lane to meet the other sheep. I kept stopping her to allow them to move at a leisurely pace during the heat of the day.

During the driving, the little ewe lamb stopped to pee. Sookie was right beside it, and they were about the same size. Sookie stood while it peed, with her open mouth very close to the lamb's face in a freeze-frame "fake grip". Both animals were relaxed with no sign of fear on the lamb's part. As soon as the lamb finished peeing, and moved on, Sookie completed her stop-action fake grip. The lamb merely tossed its head away from the dog, as if avoiding a fly, and ambled on.

I can see that we are making progress. It just doesn't look like what I expect a herding BC to look like.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Sookie's Triumph: Staying Home

One reason Sookie needed a new home (and thus came to live with me) was her wanderlust. She would get bored, escape from fenced yards, and roam the 'hood solo.

At first, she was always on a leash here, learning to stay near me. Gradually I got tired of being tethered to the dog, and she got more used to staying around me, and the leash fell into disuse. Once in awhile, she would force her way through a gate and wander off, or I would forget and leave a gate open, but not too often, and she would come when I gave her special call. Not sure how I figured it out; it's sort of like a very loud bird-call version of her name, something that a peacock might utter. I'm sure the neighbors dislike it, but it gets her attention from a long distance even when there are trains, cars, helicopters, wind, etc. making noise.

Then Matt--who was great buddies with her--left the farm in early May. Since then she has been very bad about slipping away from the farm. I think she is looking for him...or maybe even hearing/smelling him somewhere in the neighborhood, since he has friends who live nearby.

If I notice she is missing from the farm (and I try to call her to me every little bit, to keep her on her toes and focused on me), I start calling and walking towards the driveway. Sometimes Maggie, the dog across the street, alerts me with her "tattle-tale" bark.

It can take a few minutes to get there from the farm. Sometimes she is already there by the time I get there, panting hard from her romp. More often, she comes bolting down 5th Street towards me, or is in a neighbor's yard. I worry about her getting hit by a car, so as soon as she is within earshot of regular commands and in a safe place, I order "lie down", and she does. She'll stay until  I get there, though she knows what's coming: The Transport of Shame. I pick her up and carry her home.

No "bad dog", no scolding, just a stern silence and I pick her up and carry her. No evening stroll with Mom as a reward for bad behavior! She doesn't struggle, but neither one of us enjoys it very much. (I'm glad she does not weigh more than 35 lbs.).

Yesterday, she slipped away, and as I walked through the woodlot to the house, I heard her barking (unusual--she is a very quiet dog) up along the street. When I got to the driveway, she came right to me, and I saw a woman with a big dog on a leash walking down 5th Street away from the house. I realized that Sookie must have interrupted their walk by going up to them and barking at the dog.

I decided to chase them down and apologize for my dog being at large, and her bad behavior. So I told her to "lie down" and "stay there" in the driveway, and jogged about half a block to overtake the woman and her dog.

The woman was very nice about it. She said that Sookie had met them near the farm driveway, and run along our side of the street while the woman and dog were on the other side. As soon as Sookie got to our house, THEN she started barking--she knew exactly which space was hers to "defend"! We stood and talked for awhile. I kept glancing back at Sookie. She stayed right where I'd left her for quite awhile. When she stood up, I "downed" her again, and she stayed right there. The woman was amazed at her obedience.

I feel like it was a real triumph for Sookie's training in several ways. First, that she clearly demonstrated that she knew her proper space, and didn't try to claim the neighborhood as hers! Second, that she hadn't actually gone up to the dog on the leash, but had stayed on her side of the street. She can be a real b---- with strange dogs at first, and it would be bad if she did that without me around, with a dog on a leash. Third, that she stayed put for so long in her own yard while I talked to and petted a strange dog a half block away!

Now if we can transfer that "down-stay" to when we are working sheep!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Paperwork Season

Winter is supposed to be a season of rest for the farmer, right? Just sitting by the fire spinning, or reading, or what-not?

Actually, this winter has really brought home to me the real winter occupation of this farmer, at least: Paperwork.

A farmer wears many hats: amateur veterinarian, geneticist, entomologist, marketing specialist, carpenter, electrician, plumber, mechanic, etc. And also: bookkeeper, lawyer, regulatory policy analyst, real estate developer, community planner, etc.

An awful lot of these involve paperwork. A lot of this paperwork happens in the winter, for three reasons: first, that's when we need to do crop-related planning for the coming vegetable production season; second, it's the only time I'm likely to have time to fill out paperwork; and third, everyone in farm-related businesses realizes this is the best time to get farmers to actually fill out paperwork.

And attend meetings. Trainings. Workshops. Seminars. Conferences. Etc. Each of which supplies the farmer with yet more paper, more paperwork, and copious notes.

This winter's calendar included: Great Plains Vegetable Growers Conference (in St. Joseph, MO; we went 2 of 3 days); Wholesale Marketing Workshop (KCKS); Kaw Drainage District meetings; Grow Lawrence Annual Meeting; Food Policy Council meetings; Kaw Valley Seed Fair; Downtown Lawrence Farmers Market Annual Meeting; WIC Vendor Program Meeting. And more to come. This is only the ones we actually attended; there have been all kinds of farm shows, seminars, webinars, and workshops that we were just too busy to attend.

A few events still loom ahead--including one of the funnest, the annual scale certification party at Pendleton's Country Market where the farmers get to stand around and visit and eat donuts while waiting for our scales to be inspected and--glory hallelujah!--someone ELSE fills out the paperwork, in return for us writing checks!

Forms to fill out, fees to send in (farmers markets, WIC, etc.). Renewals (meat wholesaler, live plant dealer). Memberships (Grow Lawrence). Checking to be sure we aren't planning anything new for the year that will require yet another registration/certification/training/fee. Checking to be sure no regulations have changed that will require yet another registration/certification/training/fee.

Then there's the paperwork we make up for others to fill out, like surveys and sign-up forms for our CSAs. We'll be doing two CSAs at day care centers this year, as well as one that will bring people to the farm to pick up their weekly bags of produce.

Garden planning. Seed orders. Bed maps. Rotations. Succession plantings.

That's the routine stuff, some of it stuff we've been doing every year for more than 15 years.

Then there's the big stuff. This year the big stuff has been mostly related to the new Douglas County Agritourism regulations, approved at last (after 3 years' work) on January 2, 2013. Many of our dreams for the farm have been hogtied for years--more than a decade in some cases--because County regulations just didn't accommodate the notion that people could, would, and should want to do things on farms like hike, picnic, buy farm-related products, etc. Picture those dreams as a string of racehorses fidgeting in the starting gate for 10 years, and now the gates have finally opened. They're off and running....

But wait! No! First there must be paperwork! And everyone has been so busy trying to get the regulation passed that no one has had time to design the forms to implement the regulation! County staff bent over backwards to get the forms done so we could submit our application in time for them to have a meeting to review our application and then another meeting with me to give us their approval...leaving maybe like 4 waking hours to prepare all of our promotional materials to hand out at the Seed Fair the next day. I was literally proofreading the County's draft forms a page at a time as the administrative assistant was printing them out!

Thus we became the first Agritourism site registered with the County--a status which allows you, whoever you are reading this, to walk on our farm without intent to do agriculture, and allows us to sell you items that we've made that aren't agricultural products (for example, drop spindles that we might make if we weren't so busy with paperwork), and allows us to invite other farmers to come sell things at our farm. We can offer workshops that aren't specifically about agricultural skills (for example, how to fill out agricultural paperwork).

But only if there are 100 of you or less at a time. Under the new regulations, if 101 people might show up for our Sheep Shearing Open Farm Day (March 16, 10 a.m.), we need to go through another layer of County registration which includes filling out another, more specific, application form; gaining the approval of the Board of County Commissioners; etc. Counting backwards from the scheduled sheep shearing day to the day the County would need to have our application left the County with about 3 days to create the form and get the form approved, giving us to put together a lengthy packet (including site plans) overnight.

If anyone wonders why I am not a university professor of something, it's because I hate working on deadline projects with acres of typewritten narratives, like grant applications...or Agritourism registrations. But, we got through it. Co-Farmer Matt saved the day with stellar mapping skills gained from his former Cubicleville engineering job. I, of course, gained a lot of application narrative writing experience at the environmental consulting firm where I worked for 7 years. Odd backgrounds for farming, but surprisingly handy.

We're making progress. The County Commission will decide on our ">100" application on March 13, 3 days before the event. With those applications behind us, we've moved on to getting the CSAs properly paperworked. Today was our second "info booth" event for more to go.

Somewhere in there, we knocked out the application for the permit (and $250 fee) for our new well, and met with the Health Dept. to get approval for the well site. That will be a phased project, but at some point we'll need to fill out forms for the "Ag Use Exemption from Building Permit" for the well house to keep the pump from freezing. Last time we went through this exemption process, it took a lot longer to get the exemption from the permit than it would have taken to get a permit. Things have changed for the better at the County, and so I trust this process has been improved as well.

So, it's time to pull out the next big project...a new washhouse. In addition to actually deciding where to put it and how to build it, we have to get an Ag Use Exemption for it, too. Yay, more paperwork!

The new on-farm farmers' market doesn't need much paperwork other than the Agritourism Registration, but has been the subject of many long conversations with the County to work out details of parking, paving, sanitation, etc.

Weaving through all of these projects and plans is a constant thread of sanitation. People poop, and we need to plan for that and make sure they wash their hands. Animals poop, and we need to plan to keep it off our veggies and stuff. Pretty much sums it up. The Federal Food Safety Modernization Act dictates how these things need to be done--and, of course, documented. In between the doing and the documenting lie signage and standard  operating procedures--written, of course. The self-assessment survey form that will guide us in knowing what paperwork we need to write and what we need to write it about is more than 30--THIRTY!--pages long.

I'm looking forward to spring, when we can rest from the hard work of winter paperwork by working in the garden!