Like we didn’t already have a heaping platter of unchewed work in front of us, Jello Mold Farm launched into selling retail this year. Whee hee! We started a CSA bouquet program and have been selling in two farmers’ markets. There is some method behind our madness. Last year I grew tired of having a too-often-pretty compost pile, being at the whim of our wholesale customers’ buying habits and probably the recession as well. It seemed like good stable business sense to add a retail leg to our selling options.

The CSA program has gone very well. We divided our growing year into three seasons: spring, summer and fall. Each season contains eight weekly deliveries to a couple of neighborhoods in Seattle. We charge $320 for a season if the customer picks up at a drop spot and $400 for doorstep delivery within those same two neighborhoods. We’re talking small scale here, starting this spring with seven subscriptions. Even so, the influx of several thousand dollars in the spring has been very helpful for managing cash flow. Also, the process of scouring the farm each week for the newest floral offerings has brought me more in tune with our crops and the beauty we live around every day.

Thanks to generous postings on the ASCFG Bulletin Board, we’ve been able to cut down on some of the learning curve for selling at farmers’ markets. Still, our two markets, both young—one in an arty and well-to-do Seattle neighborhood, the other across the lake in downtown Bellevue—have shown themselves to be so distinctly different from each other that I decided to call around to some of our members who are more seasoned at this game and see what their experiences have been, how this year is stacking up when compared to last and just to hear their tidbits of wisdom.

Kathryn O’Brien of Cedar Moon Farm sells at her local Saturday market on Whidbey Island. Whidbey is both a middle class rural community and a vacation getaway spot, Seattle’s Martha’s Vineyard in a way. I would have thought it’d be a fairly affluent market and it is for Kathryn: on any holiday weekend when she can easily sell in excess of $600. Other weekends, though, it’s a challenge to make half of that. Partly, it’s been the weather this spring, redefining cold and dreary even for the Pacific Northwest. To help boost her sales, Kathryn has been “wildcrafting” roadside greens and grasses such as wild huckleberry and salal to bulk up her bouquets. Also, since she doesn’t grow many peonies, she is considering buying some in next year from a fellow ASCFG member, a practice allowed with disclosure at her market. She also diversifies and extends her season by making wreaths and selling herbs.

Nick Walrod of Dancing Moon Farm (I called all of the moon names first) in Hood River, Oregon, has experience selling at both rural and big city markets. When I checked in with him last winter, he was discouraged by slumped sales at the main Portland Saturday farmers’ market. This spring he is upbeat. Sales are way up. Nick’s low water mark for acceptable sales at the city market is $400 and he likes to see it quite a bit higher. He attributes this year’s increased sales to improvements in the economy with more families attending the market, fewer flower vendors selling and improvements to reduce congestion made by the market staff. Nick also remarked that he gets a lot of business from being listed on the Portland Farmers’ Market website. 10,000 people attend that market each week, whereas just 700 on average show up for his local Hood River market. There, he sells a mixture of vegetables and flowers.

Paula Rice of BeeHaven Farm has been sending her two daughters to sell at market in Sand Point, Idaho. When I spoke with her, the market had just started and she’d just given birth to a healthy baby boy. They’ve been having the same cold, wet weather we’ve had in the Puget Sound area, only colder. In the third week of May they were still getting frosts to 25 degrees and she didn’t have a lot to sell at that first market. Still, she’s optimistic about the coming season. She likes the market in Sand Point because it’s in a park with live music. People can sit down on the grass and it creates a good mood for selling flowers. She doesn’t bother to sell at her local market in Bonner’s Ferry. Too much pavement and not enough customers.

For Paula, a good market brings $400-500, but she likes to see it at $1,000. She says, hands down, “quantity sells!” If she packs the truck light, she sells less. If she brings more, it’ll sell. Her #1 sign for selling flowers at the market says, “Where are you going tonight that you can take flowers?”

Marc Kessler of California Organic Flowers has been selling at their local market in Chico for years. He says, “Farmers’ markets for us are up about 15% this year, which continues a trend that has been occurring since the downturn in the economy began. Our biggest challenge this year is bringing enough flowers to meet the increased demand!” Go Marc!

In the realm of great market tips, Andrea Gagnon (LynnVale Studios in Virginia) has been singing the praises of PAYware Mobile, an iphone application with card slider which allows market vendors to take credit cards wirelessly. I purchased this “payment solution” for $150 at our local Mac store. It’s paperless and will e-mail a receipt instantly to your customer if they wish. If you sell at markets, check it out! At our Thursday market last week one customer bought flowers just to see the new technology in action.

Already, I can tell that our Queen Anne/Seattle Thursday market is going to be a keeper. People are loving all of our unusuals and willing to pay our asking price of $2-3 per stem for peonies. The market staff are keeping the number of flower booths to just two in a market with 45 vendors. Our customers have been discovering that I am the crazy gal who attached 500 jello molds to a Seattle building twenty years ago and they love that. Even more they love that their kids grew up to Dennis’ songs as part of the children’s music group Tickle Tune Typhoon. We’re having fun and we’re selling plenty of flowers.

The Bellevue Saturday market is more challenging. Although it is in a downtown location, the clientele seems to be mainly from the suburbs, and more conservative. The market manager is crackerjack smart and loves our botanical diversity. However, in a market of about 45 vendors, there are six flower sellers. Last week, with the first nice weather in ages, most folks were happily buying the $5 twice-the-size-of-a-basketball H’mong grower bouquets. We made just $188. We had a few garden-savvy customers very excited to see us there, but we’re wondering how steep the slope will be until we can make $600 at this market, whether it is a wise business choice for us to invest that time and whether we can really shine in this different environment.

There has been a dynamic thread on the Bulletin Board recently, titled “To Specialize or Not,” discussing the merits and drawbacks of selling retail versus wholesale, whether to do both and if so, how to strike a balance at it. I’ve enjoyed reading different flower growers’ viewpoints on this topic, and talking with the growers who shared their experiences for this article. For us so far, our foray into retail has proven to be a work in progress and basically a good idea. The compost pile is looking quite drab and we’re planning to keep it that way!

Diane Szukovathy

Jello Mold Farm

Diane Szukovathy Jello Mold Farm Contact at [email protected]