Farm to Market

Edible Baja Arizona • Written by Megan Kimble • Published January/February 2016

From farmers’ markets to wholesale markets, local food producers are seeking stability in sales and access to reliable distribution channels.

Just before 8 on a Sunday morning in June, white canopy tents edge the narrow band of shade below the Rillito Park pavilion. Savvy shoppers arrive early, while the produce is still perky and plentiful, before local eggs could be fried on local sidewalks.

It’s a 10-minute stroll from one end of the farmers’ market to another. There are eggs from Elfrida, cheese from Bisbee, beef from the San Rafael Valley. There are locally baked cookies and kale chips; locally roasted coffee and chiles. And there are locally grown vegetables—purple onions, shiny and piled on blue wax cloth; bright red tomatoes placed carefully in wicker baskets; grass-green fennel fronds spilling from wood crates. Customers chat with their favorite vendors. Crumpled dollars unfold from sweaty pockets and press into latch-lock cash boxes.

Farmers’ markets are the frontline of local food, where farmers and food producers build their brands and business identities—where they connect with and get feedback from customers. Farmers’ markets are where eaters come to learn about all things local—about local farmers, regional seasonality, and face-to-face commerce. And over the past 15 years, farmers’ markets have exploded across the country, increasing from 2,863 in 2000 to 8,268 in 2015, according to the USDA.

But for all that farmers’ markets provide to their communities, they are still not where most people buy their food. And so, even as the number of Tucson farmers’ markets continues to increase—as evidenced by the clusters of white canopy tents sprouting up around town like dandelions—farmers’ markets are increasingly not where southern Arizona farmers are earning a living.

Why not? Customers are fickle, so sales are unpredictable. There are too many markets, farmers say, which dilutes the sales potential on any one day. And farmers say that they spend an unsustainable amount of time and energy hustling their product.

“That’s the challenging part of driving everywhere to hawk your produce at different markets,” says Cie’na Schlaefli, the farm manager at the San Xavier Co-op Farm. “You don’t know if you’re going to sell it. It’s exhausting. You’re spending more time and energy and money trying to sell that food than you are growing it.”

“I realized that during the summer at the farmers’ market, we could sit there for 40 hours at five markets to sell the same amount of eggs and honey that we could give to the Co-op in about three hours,” says ReZoNation Farm’s Jaime de Zubeldia. Even so, he estimates that he spends more than 400 hours a year on the road, delivering and selling the eggs, pork, and honey he and his wife, Kara, produce on their 10-acre farm. “That’s a lot of time to spend, which translates into money, and things not being done on the farm,” he says.

Schlaefli says that it’s important for farmers to factor in their own labor when doing their financial planning. “If you don’t figure the cost of your time into it, you wear out. And your energy should cost something.”

But seeking sales, farmers are forced to stretch their energy. On a day that might start at 6 a.m., “I don’t usually break down until well after 12 o’clock,” says Sleeping Frog Farms’ CJ Marks. “Every sale counts. If everyone who liked us on Facebook was part of our CSA or came to buy a $3 thing, and we sold out every time, we’d be in a much stronger position.”

tep past the line of shade at the Rillito Park Pavilion, walk 15 minutes down the river path, and you’ll see another spread of white canopy tents. It’s surreal—it’s déjà vu. Didn’t I just buy eggs and tomatoes?

In the summer of 2014, Heirloom Farmers’ Markets moved their Sunday morning market to Rillito Park, and Food In Root took over management of the St. Philip’s Plaza Farmers’ Market. At St. Philip’s Plaza, Willow Spicewood of Spice of the Desert jokes that it’s like they’re one market, just separated by a long walk.

But of course, they are not. Although some do, most customers don’t go to both markets; already labor-strapped producers are forced to choose between sticking with one market and missing out on potential sales, or splitting their time and resources to set up and stock two booths, one at each market.

“Farmers really can’t afford to send someone to all those markets—they need to be farming,” says Tina Bartsch, the former owner of Walking J Farm. “From my point of view, if farmers’ market managers really wanted to support local agriculture, they wouldn’t create more farmers’ markets. They would create one good one and have all the farmers’ come to that one. And they would be stringent about who they let in.”

Midway through the meandering St. Philip’s Market, three adjacent tables brim with colors—sunshine squash, forest broccoli, crimson peppers. I duck below a banner that says, simply, PRODUCE, and ask the man behind the table where their farm is located.

“Oh, we get our stuff from all over,” he says. “Some of it is from the UA farm, down the street.”

“What about these mangos?” I ask.

“Sometimes from Peru, sometimes from Mexico.”

The apples—green and red—wear stickers with Price Look-Up codes, evidence that they have already wound their way through an industrial system.

Many states have passed laws regulating who can sell at farmers’ markets—in 2014, California passed a law funding inspectors to ensure vendors at certified markets were actually growing what they sell. In Arizona, it’s up to each farmers’ market manager to decide who is allowed to sell what. At the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market, run by the Community Food Bank, vendors are required to be certified under the Arizona Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, which mandates that at least 80 percent of a vendor’s product was grown by that vendor or on one neighboring farm.

But in a town where a farmers’ market can now be found nearly every day of the week, market managers face the challenge of simply filling their markets with vendors.

“The concept of a farmers’ market, at least to a lot of people, is farmers,” says Clayton Kammerer, who co-founded Food In Root in 2012. “The reality is that we do live in the desert where the small growers are more scarce. It’s a difficult challenge of making a market something worthwhile that people can participate in; otherwise, they’ll continue to shop at Trader Joe’s.”

When the first Heirloom Farmers’ Market opened 14 years ago, Manish Shah says there were only two farms selling local vegetables. To support a viable market, the market manager allowed brokers to resell produce from places like California and Mexico. “Those brokers helped fill in the gaps,” he says. There are fewer brokers today, he says, “And they’re not selling the same stuff as the producers. Tomatoes, maybe. But that’s it. The brokers are selling pineapple, or out-of-season carrots.”

But local producers say that is precisely the problem—that farmers’ markets are projecting a false sense of seasonality, not to mention undercutting their prices.

“We have people coming to us in the middle of winter and asking, Do you have avocados?” says Dana Helfer, who owns Rattlebox Farm with her husband, Paul Buseck. “Some people don’t have a clue about what grows here, and if there are avocados at the market, there’s just no opportunity for them to learn.”

And, she says, allowing brokers to sell in the same space as farmers “really affects local producers’ ability to sell their product. You can’t compete. We’re 60 miles from a major port of entry. Our community is flooded with cheap produce. People come to the market and they only have so much money in their pocket. There goes half of that $20 to buying strawberries that got shipped in from somewhere else, that they could just buy at Safeway.”

“Customers still want to be able to buy pineapple at the farmers’ market,” says Shah—so, he says, let there be pineapple. “I think if your interest is eating local, you’ll ask.”

The issue is that many customers don’t know they’re supposed to ask. There are so many microclimates across southern Arizona that it’s conceivable that one farm could still be growing beets while another farm has moved on to summer squash. And it’s in the name—at a farmers’ market, we come assuming that the food was grown locally.

Helfer says they’re hoping to expand within the next couple of years, from one acre of mixed vegetable production to two or three. “But as we expand, there’s only so much foot traffic that the farmers’ market can manage,” she says. “So we either expand our CSA or we diversify our market—probably both. The infrastructure that would help us grow is not more farmers’ markets.”

Nationally, less than 20 percent of local food is sold in the direct-to-consumer setting—at a farmers’ market or through a Community Supported Agriculture program. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, of the $4.8 billion earned in local food sales in 2008, only $877 million—18 percent—was generated by farmers selling directly to consumers, while selling to intermediate channels generated three times more value than selling directly to consumers.

“Small farms in particular rely heavily on direct-to-consumer sales outlets for their income, and the income from these outlets can be quite volatile—which puts farmers in a tenuous position, especially if they don’t have a more secure economic buffer of a larger or consistent buyer,” says Kara Jones, the farmers’ market manager for the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona.

And so, as farmers wear out—as they calculate the cost of their time and energy—they’re rethinking how direct-to-consumer channels like farmers’ markets fit into their sales strategy. Farmers’ markets are still an important cornerstone of local food, but what many producers in southern Arizona say they’re seeking is the economic stability offered by those alternate “intermediate channels,” including partnerships with institutions or access to wholesale markets.