I still remember my first farmers’ market day ever. I had to leave quite early in the morning to make it to the Beaverton farmers’ market two hours away. I wasn’t in the least bit sleepy, though, as the thought of this new venture bred butterflies in my stomach. This nervousness grew stronger with each turn leading me closer to the market.
I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that I was petrified of speaking to new people and wasn’t sure how I would be selling my artichokes. After all, I was only two years removed from college, where my mother one state away had to send cookies  to bribe me to get the nerve to call and ask a girl for a date.
Pulling into the market didn’t help my confidence. I saw many elaborate displays and setups. I saw enough dreadlocks and organic vegetable displays to wonder if I showed up to a hippie conference. Little did I know this was just a foreshadowing of my next seven years at the Eugene farmers’ market in Eugene, Oregon, hippie capital of the U.S.
After finding the market manager, I was reassured I showed up on the right street. My spot was pointed out. I pulled my black Ford Ranger—with a broken taillight—into the end lot in the corner and staked my claim. It wasn’t exactly the most desirable spot; it is the same spot new vendors are sent today.
I didn’t have much to set up—only 10 banana boxes of reject artichokes. At the time, I was in a partnership raising 50 acres of artichokes for the wholesale vegetable market and there was only a ready market for about 10 of them. We needed a place to sell our seconds—artichokes with worm holes or leaves flared out. I wasn’t even prepared enough to have price signs. I was able to find a partial role of duct tape behind the seat, though, which make great price signs in a pinch.
I set my first box on the pavement and was quickly scolded by my neighbor for selling before the bell rang. When the bell did finally sound, I was mobbed by Oregonians who had never seen a fresh artichoke before. In an hour and a half I was sold out. There was still four and a half hours of the market and I was ready to go back home. I threw my banana boxes back in the truck (it took me a couple of weeks to figure out how to keep empty boxes from flying out the back on the way home) and made my exit. Remember I was in the end lot—I couldn’t figure out why I was getting so many glares by other vendors on the way out. Perhaps because I sold $800 dollars worth of reject artichokes in an hour and a half? A phone call in the middle of the week told me otherwise—Rule #2, don’t drive through the market until the second bell rings.
The next week I showed up with 20 banana boxes of artichokes. The third week I added a market. By the fourth week we were traveling to three markets (remember we had 50 acres of artichokes with a market for only 10 of them). People began asking for the “artichokes from Tillamook,” hence the name “Chokes From Tillamook” was born. I was lucky enough to pick up an artichoke caricature on free clip art from Microsoft Word. Within a year we were selling “Chokes From Tillamook” t-shirts and sweatshirts for Christmas gifts. By the third year we were traveling to up to 12 different farmers’ markets each Saturday.
I found I really enjoyed the market. In fact, I frequently experienced an adrenaline rush when hawking my chokes and flowers. I was good at fishing for customers. I hooked them with a smile and a light joke and they were mine for the season. I tended to get a little more desperate as the day wore on. “My wife told me not to come home until everything is gone.” or “I need to start paying for my daughter’s college tuition,” were common lines.
In my 10 years of selling at farmers’ markets, many things changed. My metabolism changed the most. My communication and person to person sales skills improved greatly and along with that so did my confidence. I now believe I can sell snow to Eskimos, a far cry from my first day at market. Butterflies flopping in my stomach while pulling into the market never subsided, though, and neither did the adrenaline rush I experienced while selling that last artichoke.
We quickly graduated out of banana boxes into artichoke green tote tubs and professionally laminated signs (still carry the duct tape, however). My black Ford Ranger—still with a broken taillight—was joined by an 18’ Isuzu and a hodgepodge of other vehicles that networked throughout the Northwest. This fleet was quite the sight after everything was loaded.
Throughout the years I received many strange looks from other drivers on the road while driving my Ranger to Eugene loaded with $2,000 worth of chokes and flowers in the back. The truck was built for only half that, and I suppose it wasn’t every day that someone sees a small-sized pickup overloaded with artichokes and yellow calla lilies. I’m truly surprised the truck is still going.
One Saturday night I came home proudly revealing to my wife I wanted to do farmers’ markets until I was 90 years old.  She proceeded to tell me that she didn’t want to do her market anymore at all. I was like a puffed up balloon that got deflated with a pin hole. It wasn’t more than 2 years later and we’ve quit doing the markets altogether. My last year of market I joked with my customers that my wife gave me the choice—either the market or her. I didn’t have much of a choice. In
fact, she is much happier now that she doesn’t have to track down another salesperson after someone called to cancel Friday night at nine o’clock. A happy wife is a happy home.
There were many factors involved in this move. First, at the beginning we had mostly family doing the markets—myself, my wife, and my mother and father. After a few years my parents wanted to move on and it wasn’t long after my wife grew tired of waking up at four a.m. to lug heavy artichoke totes around. It became a real struggle getting good reliable help that could sell, and was honest.
Second, when we began there were perhaps 15 markets in Oregon.  Within 10 years that number had mushroomed to over 300. We experienced not only much more competition within a market, but also many more markets for people to choose from. The dollars people had to spend were being shared with lots of other people.
Third, in order to be successful long-term at farmers’ markets, it is important to continually change your product line to keep things fresh and new to the impulse buyer. Once you lose that impulse purchase, you lose your profit. We found we weren’t willing, or able, to change the core of our business in order to keep within the demands of the fickle public. We just had to work harder and harder to make the same amount of money or less.
And last, what used to be a good day’s pay became three days of lost time. Friday was spent getting ready for the market, Saturday we were gone at the market, and Sunday we spent time unpacking after the market and recovering.  I came to the realization the last year or two that the money I was making at the market, at least personally, was costing me money from the work that wasn’t getting done on the nursery.
As apprehensive as I was for my first market day, I was quite apprehensive about not doing the farmers’ markets anymore. It was a big part of my life. In fact I joked with customers that Saturday was my day off, even though I drove 3 hours both ways to get to and from Eugene. The market became the single largest social function in my life. Other market vendors were like family to me. You know what I mean?
Spring has come and along with that the start of the markets—without us. I must admit, life is good without the market. No more frantic Friday evenings getting ready. A full day of work on Saturday without employees to worry about (to die for). I can even catch my daughter’s soccer game. No more unloading on a Sunday after a rainy Saturday.  I even have enough energy on Sunday morning that I can drive out to the beach at 5:30 for a two-hour run. My family and I have been on two three-day vacations since the start of market this year. It’s really like having my life back. I didn’t realize how much of a slave I was to the market.
I do have a couple of regrets. I really miss my extended family at the market and the social interaction with my customers. Additionally, I always dreamed of dressing up in an artichoke suit (like the caricature in my logo) to match those that you see in the “Fruit of the Loom” commercials. I was known throughout the market as Mr. Artichoke and I wanted to live the part. I regret to say I never got around to it.
Yes, Saturdays without the market are REAL and they’re GREAT! Maybe now I’ll take the time to fix that broken taillight.