Farmers' markets on the rise

2013-11-17T00:00:00Z Farmers' markets on the riseBy Dan Sorenson Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The local farmers market is growing not only in numbers but in kind, with a new seven-day-a-week farm store and a new every-weekend meet-your-farmers market in Marana.

Twenty-some Marana-area farmers and secondary producers (think pies from locally grown pumpkins) will be represented at the every-Saturday-and-Sunday market at what is being called Dad’s Farm (farmer-proprietor Dan Arnold says everyone thought he was saying “Dad’s farm” rather than “Dan’s farm,” so he crowd-sourced the name). It opens next weekend.

And the new co-operative’s products will be available, minus the other co-op farmers, seven days a week at a store that once was a greenhouse at the farm, 13300 N. Postvale Road. It opens Friday and it’s just off the west side of Interstate 10, near the original cotton-and-produce-farming town of Marana.

Besides offering produce and products from co-op members, Arnold said the greenhouse-store will have an aquaponic tomato plant exhibit.

Arnold, a longtime farmers market regular who had grown his produce in Cochise County, leased 26 acres of an old Marana farm. The farm had some greenhouses, including one relatively large, modern, climate-controlled greenhouse that looked like a store to Arnold when he started rethinking the farmers market concept.

Arnold says he learned from years of attending farmers markets that consistency is critical to keeping customers.

“One week and you’ve lost them,” he says of customers he lost to other producers after not being at just one of the weekly markets he’d usually attend. And he said missing a week isn’t the only fatal failure for farmers market vendors. Running out of product will also send customers to another vendor, and “they won’t come back,” Arnold says.

And that’s why Marana Farmers Co-op chicken man Andy Sessano is concerned about having enough eggs for the new market and store. Running out, he knows, can lose him customers. But getting more product is easier said than done, when you — rather the chickens — are the factory. Farmers aren’t making nuts and bolts; they can’t just speed up the assembly line or put on another shift.

He typically sells all he has — about 90 dozen eggs — in one day at the St. Philip’s farmers market. You would think Sessano would be overjoyed. But he said the business at this level is barely profitable. He’s scaling up to meet anticipated demand.

He gets $6 a dozen for chicken eggs, more for specialty items such as duck eggs or the popular pastel-colored shell eggs from certain chicken breeds. But even so, he says he’s not clearing much over $1 a dozen. It takes a lot of chickens, a lot of work and a lot of money. For instance, he now has 300 adolescent chickens he raised from chicks, but that are not yet laying. But they are, Sessano says, eating more than 110 pounds of feed a day. He’s buying food in bulk at this point, but says he’s still not breaking even overall. “It’s not profitable, yet.”

Arnold says the everyday store should provide for increased and steady demand, making it easier for customers to buy local farm produce and products. It’ll also help the farmers lower their cost of doing business.

“I went to farmers markets where there were 10 guys from Marana,” Arnold says of his years of working the local markets. Sometimes, he said, several of them would be selling the same crop. “That’s 10 times $40 (the fee for a booth at some markets). That’s $400,” and doesn’t makes sense, Arnold says. The co-op already deals with that problem. “We send one guy,” Arnold says. Beyond that, he decided having a regular market in Marana, which has a growing population and raises much of the products sold at area farmers markets, made even more sense.

Besides increasing efficiency for the producers, he said the Marana farmers market and everyday store will do something for the customers.

“Come out and see where your vegetables are grown ... and meet the farmer,” he says.

He said many markets have few, if any, farmers present. Most send their products with someone else, or to be sold by group vendors. He understands farmers are busy; growing the stuff is job No. 1. But he says people really do want to meet the farmers. Often, he says when he does appear in person, “our booth gets flooded with questions about gardening.” With a local farmers market on a farm, and near many of the farms represented by the co-op and store, “just come out and see how it’s done.”

Arnold has big plans, or rather many small components that he hopes to develop and make part of the co-op store and all-weekend market.

On the short list for the market is a food court. He has some vendors lined up, but has a rule, “No carbonated sweetened drinks.”

And although not all crops sold will be grown there, there will be plenty of plants and animals to see up close.

His “experimental garden,” where he grows small quantities of produce he’s considering adding for future seasons, includes tarot root (for poi), long beans, red beans, and some oriental vegetables that he thinks will be popular.

“We’ll have an aquarium feature with live tilapia we’ll kill and dress for you right on the spot,” Arnold says of the plans for the retail part of Dad’s Farm. He says the tilapia will be from Marana co-op member Maggie’s Farm, a longtime fixture in the Marana farming scene.

Also on the radar are free-range organic turkeys, though not for this year. “I don’t have any left for Thanksgiving; I only have two left on the farm.” Arnold’s planning to let customers come out and pick out a baby turkey in the spring, probably March. Arnold will feed and raise it, and slaughter it in time for the customer to pick it up by Thanksgiving 2014.

Speaking of turkeys: A pair of bronze (that’s the breed) turkeys that follow him around his orchard/petting zoo next to the farmhouse either haven’t heard about the holiday or are trying to suck up to Arnold. Every time his cellphone rings, which is fairly frequently thanks to the burgeoning co-op business, they begin gobbling and pull in close to him as if they’re joining the conversation.

Meanwhile, the orchard’s giant African tortoise, a pair of fluffy angora goats, a few small brown spotted pigs, white and black rabbits, a few flocks of chickens and their respective roosters also come up to Arnold, hoping for a snack or some attention. He dishes out a handful of kale, the fate of produce that doesn’t sell at the previous day’s farmers market, and the African tortoise — about the size and shape of an overturned wheelbarrow — turns into a food processor.

Arnold has already hosted school field trips, setting up straw bales for a classroom under trees in the orchard and petting zoo. He figures the petting zoo will be another attraction for customers.

Things are happening fast. He says it was just Tuesday that he obtained permits from the town of Marana for the operation.

The co-op is at “about 20 members” and growing, Arnold says. But this doesn’t mean the end of Marana co-op members’ appearances at other Tucson-area farmers markets. “We’re still attending other markets.”

But he thinks the seven-day Marana co-op store will be a hit, particularly with parents of children attending the Marana schools just across an adjoining field.

“They’ll be able to stop, get some exotic coffee and shop,” he says.

Dan Sorenson is a Tucson-based freelance writer.

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