farmer's market

Branching Out

Even when you’re firmly rooted in the perfect location, you still get the urge to branch out. Our farm has remained a focal point for both our family and our business, but that hasn’t kept us from stretching our boundaries from time to time.

In our early market gardening years, we were forced to do quite a bit of branching out. Most people had no idea we were out in St. Albert growing vegetables. Since they weren’t coming to us, we decided to go to them.

It was our second summer of growing vegetables, and we had an exceptionally early harvest. We had been able to work the soil in March and by mid-April had already done a lot of our seeding. The weather was perfect that year, and by late June we realized we were about to be up to our knees in vegetables.

So we took out an ad in the paper, sat back, and waited for the customers to start flooding in. And we waited. And we waited.

In those days, people didn’t even think of market gardens in July. Because August and September were the traditional harvesting months, that’s when folks expected to buy local produce.

With carrots and beets piling up around me, I realized the time had come for drastic action. I loaded the pickup with vegetables, piled the kids in the cab, and drove into Edmonton to sell our wares.

I pulled up to the Bel Air apartment complex, marched into a building, and knocked on the front door. A slightly startled housewife answered, and I asked her “Would you like to buy some fresh garden vegetables?”

She followed me out to the truck. A minute or two later, a neighbour wandered out to see what was going on. Before I knew it, I was surrounded by women. As they bought up all my vegetables, they kept asking me, “When will you be back?”

For the next few weeks, I kept making return trips. By August, however, I had to give it up. My regular customers had finally begun to show up at the farm, and I couldn’t be in two places at once. I felt bad about abandoning my new Bel Air friends, but fortunately, some of them managed to find me.

A few years later, we tried branching out again when a neighbour suggested we set up a stall at the City Market. Ted and I were far too busy, but we asked our boys, who were not quite ten and eleven years old, if they would like to tackle the project.

Bill and Jim knew it would be a lot of work. Still, they were proud that we would give them that kind of responsibility and independence—and the incentive of a little pocket money didn’t hurt, either! Most importantly, the boys felt they were contributing to the family business.

Each Friday evening, they went out to the field to pick vegetables. Then at the crack of dawn, they dragged themselves out of bed to pick a few more. Ted helped them load the GM half-ton, then drove them to the market. By 7:30am, the boys were set up and ready for business, and Ted headed back to the farm.

We weren’t surprised when the boys, left on their own, learned a business lesson or two. Early one morning, Bill was thrilled when a customer walked up and offered to buy all the peas. The man asked for a discount, which seemed only fair considering the size of the purchase. He hauled the peas away, and Bill proudly counted the money. My son began to have misgivings, however, when he saw the man park the crates behind another stall down the row.

Sure enough, by noon every vendor in the market was fresh out of peas—except one. At that point, the man pulled out the crates, and proceeded to sell our peas at twice the price he had paid.

As the weeks went by, the boys’ self-confidence grew. One customer asked Jim how much peas were, and Jim answered, forty cents a pound. “I’ll give you twenty cents,” the man said, walking off with a bag of peas. Jim, just ten years old, ran after him and grabbed those peas right out of his hand.

Bill and Jim also had to endure a fair bit of resentment from the other vendors—including some who had been very encouraging at first. Because the boys brought smaller batches of vegetables, picked as recently as possible, their produce was much fresher than everyone else’s. In the eyes of their competitors, Bill and Jim were upsetting the “natural order.”

It wasn’t long before the boys grew tired of the brutal schedule and the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the market. At the same time, Ted and I had come to realize just how much we relied on their help around the farm. For the good of our family, and the good of our business, we decided to once again focus all of our efforts at home.

In the process, though, Bill and Jim did a lot of growing up. They began to take a much more active and direct interest in the business and were always ready to voice an opinion—even when we didn’t ask for one. They were still our children, of course, but we began to see them as partners as well.

Since then, we’ve continued to branch out, through the Garden Centre, then through books, catalogues, speaking engagements—even a website. And our roots remain as strong as ever.

-Lois Hole, I'll Never Marry a Farmer