“Y’all selling these tomatoes?”
The man was thin, wearing a mask, and old. Seventy-two, I think he told Jenn. He was walking by the gate to Dew Point Farm, as a lot of folks do in a neighborhood that has nearly as much pedestrian traffic as cars.
Yes sir, we’re selling the tomatoes. When we get the questions — What’re we growing? Are we selling? Where are we selling? — we usually offer to pick whatever it is they’re after, assuming we’ve got it in the ground and it’s ripe. And we’ll tell them to come see us on Fridays at the medical center that hosts a little farmers market, where we’ll have lots more.
There’s a certain look most of those walkers-by get on their faces. It’s not a single distinct emotion. It’s kind of like confusion which drops away into a sort of crestfallen expression. We realize with some shame that not everyone can just get somewhere, even if it’s only 2½ miles away, by opening a car door and moving down the road.
Not everyone has a car. Not everyone is capable of driving.
And those two-plus miles to MercyMed can be a blistering, urban, and untenable trek to folks on foot. I think it was that 72-year-old visitor from the block up the street that pushed Jenn and me over the edge.
We decided to pop up a second market, every Wednesday morning, right at the gate of the farm.
Holding a market is not an especially easy task, even by farmer standards. It’s a top-tier logistical challenge.
Not only do you have to marshal all of the crops you can to prep for sale or take inventory of what’s in the field, but you have to load up a truck with a table, a tent, a scale, display baskets, coolers, tablecloths, sandwich-board sign, and on and on. You stand in the heat for a couple hours, sometimes in the hottest part of the day.
The first Friday in June was the first market where we set up a table at MercyMed, and we had a pretty paltry showing. There was no tent, no farm sign, and probably just a dozen pints of sungold tomatoes, some cucumbers and a few bunches of basil. We weren’t even sure how to sell the cucumbers, in either pound allotments or per each. We sold out quickly (no big feat, but still we were proud) and we immediately went home and ordered a pop-up tent — thus spending the entirety of what we’d just earned.
But that didn’t matter, because, man, when you start seeing those hopeful faces walk up and survey your offerings, throwing money at you to take home that stuff you grew? That’s a refreshing ice-cold cocktail of pride and purpose. You can see that the customers are smiling through their masks. Hopefully they can tell that we are, too.
In the seven weeks we’ve staged a Friday booth at MercyMed, we’ve only packed up with unsold produce one time. And that was when we had a glut of sungolds due to a COVID scare that kept us home the previous week.
By the time we’re loading the truck back up, we’re exhausted but jubilant. “It’s like a soul hug,” Jenn says.
And that’s what we want to bring to our little MidTown farm neighbors.
Step right up
We want to be a part of the community in which we’ve established the farm.
We chat almost daily with the people who live in the apartment complex that backs up to us. There’s Dean, who’s angry that she can’t eat those beautiful red tomatoes she sees growing in our lot; she’s allergic. There’s her mom, Sandy, always shushing their little dog, Key, who yaps at us whenever we walk by, and there’s her uncle, Daryl, who gives me a dollar sometimes for a big green tomato that he wants to fry up. Across the street is Dean’s cousin, Candy, who once locked our gate for us when we forgot to do it ourselves. Her husband gave me a small stack of trash bags on the very first day I started cleaning up the lot, last August. When the weather’s cooler we see several regular walkers who’ll stop and chat. Even the city’s garbage truck driver and yard waste truck driver have stopped to chat at the progress they’ve seen as we whittled back the overgrowth and built the fields. They honk and wave without fail, even if they don’t have a minute for a catch-up. We trade sungolds for eggs with the neighbors who live behind us, and it’s surely their honeybees that are doing the lion’s share of the farm’s plant pollination.
It feels wrong to just pluck those pretty tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green beans and okra off the plants and shuttle them out of reach of all these new friends. It feels like we we’re saying, oh, we’ll use this here land next to you to grow our food, but see ya later on Fridays.
It felt like we were helicoptering in.
To date, we’ve popped up a Wednesday market on the farm twice, and sales have been slim. We’re relying on those walkers to see us, as well as a few drivers, and some people who’ve seen the fliers we tacked around on telephone poles for a couple of blocks in each direction.
Those that do come are getting a good deal on naturally-grown, chemical-free produce. We can’t offer double-SNAP dollars like the MercyMed market can, but we’re giving them a big break on the retail price instead.
So, only having a few neighborhood customers is fine with us. We’re there working on Wednesdays anyway, so to set up the market-front and break it down again really only adds about an hour of work time. One of us staffs the booth while the other does the work that has to happen in the fields that day.
We don’t need our neighbors to buy from us. But we want them to know they can. We’re there for them.