A few months ago, I had the privilege of sitting down to chat with Jeff Dabbelt, Executive Director of Lexington Farmers Market (LFM). Jeff was gracious enough to share his experiences at one of Kentucky’s older markets. The market, which operates as a cooperative of farmers, has been around for 37 years.
Jeff previously worked on a small, non-profit farm in Chattanooga. His job description included selling wholesale to restaurants and florists, as well as selling retail at a farmers market. This experience translated well to his work with LFM.
SK: Tell us a little bit about Lexington Farmers Market and its history. Explain how it is different than a market that is non-profit or perhaps put on by city government.
Jeff: We are an agricultural cooperative, member-owned. Our board is elected by the membership, representing the membership and the interests of the market as a whole. All policies, all rules and regulations, everything you can think of that I’m charged with enforcing goes through a democratic process.
But the most important thing I think is that our members are paying all our bills. They’re paying me to sit here and talk with you. The phone, the bills, and everything associated with the market [is paid for by our members]. Not that we don’t need or want outside moneys, but we are not a charity in the truest letter of the IRS laws. So if you write a check to us, we have to pay taxes on that and you’re not going to be able to write that off on your taxes as a charitable donation. So that makes it difficult for us to receive those dollars, but is an important demonstration of sustainability from a business standpoint. We are self-sufficient and that gives us a certain amount of freedom and it also limits us in many ways, such as with grants and charitable donations.
The market truly is great. It’s an economic engine, a cultural engine, there’s energy, but mostly it’s about our farmers interacting with customers. The market is a service organization. We provide services to our farmers in the forms of markets and other back end stuff. But it’s really a service to the community as well. To be able to have the resources to keep this market consistently operating, promoted, so that our farmers can come in and set up and sell and go home.
SK: You allow your farmers to carry a small amount of resold product. Tell us a little bit about that policy.
Jeff: It’s 75/25, so you can have 25% resold product, but it’s not really easy to enforce, because it is hard to quantify. It’s a percentage of what? Is it physical units? Is it dollars? Is it weight? Is it a day? Is it a month? Is it a year? And we’ve gone from 60/40 to 75/25 and we know loosely that people are in compliance. We certainly have the wherewithal to go figure it out. But it’s such an expense to the business. We’ve had 75 members the last two years; we’re at 66 right now. Twenty different counties [are represented at our market]. Even if we visit everybody once, it is just a snapshot.
But more importantly, what we have is a signage system, that is being improved upon as we speak, that clearly labels where the products are from … Our new signs have two boxes at the bottom. You check this box if it was grown and produced by you, and you check this box if it was not grown and produced by you. Not only can you read where it’s from, you can go and look based on a checkmark.
But I still encourage dialogue. Signs are great retail and they’re very helpful to answer questions when you’re in a busy environment. It’s certainly good for the display, but most important, it’s asking those questions. Looking your farmer in the eye, knowing them and asking, “When did you harvest this? What is that?” That is really important.
It’s very difficult and we’ve tried to eliminate and mitigate that, but some of our customers, not all of them, want those products. They determine what’s on the tables just like there are some farmers that are into non-sustainable ag. So if you want your farmer to be sustainable, chemical-free, and so forth, hand them the money, thank them, and come back—that determines truly what comes to market.
I have seen bananas on the market, a few, in the spring and the fall. Also, oranges around the holidays. I use this example a lot because it’s an extreme product choice which is very largely consumed in the United States. So if this person brings a crate of bananas and they sold out in an hour, next week they might bring two. But if they brought one or two and didn’t sell any, they probably aren’t going to make that decision again. Independent of what they’re growing in the fields, they are really just trying to make some money. So if it’s a clear choice, and people are educated…
I hear both sides of it—adamant opinions about why it should all be local and adamant opinions like, “Who cares? I can read! I know it’s from Florida. I know who my grower is.” Because again, if I’m paying you for oranges, you are keeping a larger portion of that dollar than [a grocery store chain] is, and that dollar is going to circulate in your economy multiple times whether it is Lexington or Casey County. If the prices are competitive, if the farmer is charging the same or less than national grocers, then you truly get a chance to give them some extra income. They’re going to benefit from that, and you’re getting the same product. I use those examples because they are extreme, but there are other reasons as well.
We do get into other positive benefits of reselling. Let’s say that you and I are both Kentucky farmers. I’m a member of the market, but for whatever reason, you don’t want to be. But you sure want to move your product. So you sell it to me, I give you a cut, maybe you stand in the booth with me (it doesn’t happen a lot but it could). So, in other words, two farmers are being represented by one membership in the LFM, and accessing that whole market. A number of our farmers represent beef and pork, and even other vegetables that they don’t raise. And that makes their offering that much better in their mind. Our market has permitted that, and in some cases they pay to have that sort of outside product, outside non-member product in our market.
An extreme example of this is if we are really worried about health and all that happy stuff, then we want people to eat fruits and vegetables, no matter where they came from. And then we can work our way back to what we can dream of as being the best. It’s not easy for even the choir to continue to buy local and afford it—I understand the limitations, I deal with them as well. Time constraints, everything you can think of as an American, we are all dealing with. You can’t just throw it out there as a philosophical idea and expect it to stick just because. We can identify the limitations there, especially as you get into socioeconomic issues and awareness issues that really limit people’s ability to buy into this whole system.
SK: Tell us some of the work associated with running the market.
Jeff: There’s a lot of work to do at market itself. There are electric cords to set up and things that just happen, cars that are parked in the wrong way, or trash cans in the wrong place. If there’s someone there that can at least watch the shop, while you have to run and deal with it. And sometimes it’s just shaking the right hand, not missing an opportunity to walk across the market and say “Hey, thanks for being here.” [It's all] really important stuff, but no dollars in my pocket, no dollars in the market’s pocket, but maybe. And those people will feel good. Everybody feels good to be appreciated.
SK: What is one of the tough things about running a farmer’s market?
Jeff: I tell you what, getting up every weekend, from April through November, arriving at 5 a.m. if all goes well. There’s plenty of time I could be in the office at 3:30 or 4 depending on what preceded Saturday morning—that could be my last chance to catch up. Which is a sad state of affairs but that’s not for everyone. It’s hard to complain about, and I don’t because I know [the farmers] are doing it. If you’re driving in from Jackson County, what time are you getting up to show up at market at 5? And what were you doing yesterday? How late were you up? Those are difficulties in hiring staff as well. We’ve been lucky for sure that we’ve been able to identify people that will do that, but that’s certainly a limitation as you try to grow services to our members. The work pool is tough and working every weekend let alone the time. You think weekend, you think off, most people do. But we have to make hay, literally, rain or shine, snow or shine… All the things that can make it difficult on a cold, rainy day, when people do show up, when they do transact, it’s even more valuable that they took that time to come on down and make their efforts known.
SK: LFM holds several fun events throughout the year. Tell us a little bit about those.
Jeff: The Farm Tour, in essence, started out as a fundraiser. It allowed people to go on a self-guided tour. Let’s say there were ten destinations—you get your map, and if you want to go to all ten you better get going, because it’s from 8 to 2 so zoom zoom zoom. If you get to one, and you want to stay there for four hours, it’s up to you. But those farmers allow people to come on their property, whether it’s a beekeeper or out in Jackson County doing chickens, beef cows, and all that stuff, to interact with eight, ten, or a hundred people. Like our goat dairy, she can’t keep them out. So those relationships are formed where the farmer and the customer connect into a lifelong relationship. They truly identify that person and what they’re doing. Even if they think they know and are buying it at the market, to go see it in action, at any scale, at any level, it’s priceless. Truly, you can’t quantify the value of that.
As for the Taste of the Farm in the City, the first dinner was a very big success. It sold out. But it was tough to pull off—cooking in a rented kitchen, getting all the food to the site, etc. Like any good business, all the problems were behind the scenes, and customers don’t know about it. This past year, Sullivan University had a certified kitchen, so we were able to deliver food early, cook ahead of time, so I wasn’t shucking corn at 3 in the afternoon like I was the first time. It just turned out to be a much smoother event. Again, that relationship building [was an important aspect]. Our customers are coming down to dine in the pavilion so it brands the market at that location even though there’s no indication of our logo on the pavilion. To eat our member’s goods, prepared by professional chefs. There are a lot of values that are hard to quantify but really have far reaching impact.
Veggin’ at the Pool is another event, which is a cookout at Southland Pool. Burgers and dogs from our vendors, blueberries and melons and tomatoes and onions, all this now prepared by Good Foods, another community partner. It’s a different price point from the farm dinner—ten bucks, plus free pool admission, and a free herb plant if you were one of the first fifty to buy a ticket. It just furthers what we’re trying to accomplish and it breaks down barriers. It shows local food can be affordable, and it certainly tastes good!
SK: As consumers, what can we do to support our local market? What are some best practices for us to consider?
Jeff: I won’t attribute this quote to myself, but it’s one of my members, and maybe he didn’t come up with it, but it’s probably one of the most important things you can do:
- Come in the rain and/or come in the bad weather.
- Make us your primary source for local food items.
- Be thinking about the seasons, be thinking about how to set that food back. “So I got four quarts of strawberries yesterday. Great, now we’re going to eat them all, but some of them are going to get soft, how are we going to freeze some of these without doing jam… do we want to jam?”
- Stretch your dollars.
- Know that price comparisons in the grocery store are just not applicable—that tomato is not the same as what you are looking at now. Even if they are, the production cost for agribusiness versus your local person is just not the same. In other words, farmers have to charge more, and you should want them to charge more. You should want to pay whatever they’re asking because they need to make profit so they can keep coming back to market. If they don’t make money, they go away, their farm goes away, so you can’t say, “I support you” and then not. That’s all with the caveat, money is tight, time is tight, and no one wants to pay more for something than they should. But it does come back to the accurate comparison of what the cost of production is for our farmers, the scale, doing it by hand, and everything and knowing that they may not even be making money at the prices they are charging.
If you ask a farmer, “Do you pay yourself? What are you costs?” Without them giving you true numbers, almost to a tee, “If I pay myself, I lose money. I don’t even want to know!” Well then why are you doing this? Why are you charging what you are charging? No other business does that. There are loss leaders and a few exceptions where you will sell something below cost, but [in most businesses], it’s not going to happen. A banker is not going to give you money at zero interest forever, they’d go out of business. Customers have to know that and do their due diligence to ask the questions. Ask what makes sense to them. If it’s chemicals, or when it was processed, if it’s recipes, what county are you from, and who are your people. But take that time and come back.
- Bring a cooler! Bring an insulated bag with some ice! Because you never know what you might stumble on. So you hate to miss a sale as a farmer because the customer didn’t’ bring a cooler, so they are not buying ground beef, they’re not buying eggs and cheese, they’re not buying a few other things. Even tomatoes or flowers for that matter. Knowing that you are going to have different products that you’ve got to get home.
- Asking questions is really important. It just gives such a great opportunity to that person. I think it seals that deal of validating why you might want to give that person your money and pay what you might think is kind of a higher price.
- Truly shop the market, unless you’ve whittled it down to who you’re going to. But I hate to hear “We just paid two fifty, we could have got it for two,” because that leaves just a small bitter taste. It’s really the customer’s fault they didn’t walk the whole market and see what they want to buy. But it’s really a good practice to see what you want, then go back and buy it. Unless there’s only like one or two on the table. But by and large, you want to make sure you get what you want and you haven’t missed an opportunity. So shop the market, come in the rain, bring a cooler, and ask questions… all pretty strong factors in a good relationship.
I’d like to extend my thanks to the amazing people at Lexington Farmers Market for agreeing to an interview. In Lexington, find them at the following locations:
- Tues & Thurs: S. Broadway & Maxwell 7 pm-4 pm
- Wednesdays: Alumni & University 3 pm-6 pm
- Saturdays: Cheapside Park 7 am-3 pm
- Sundays: Southland Drive 10 pm-2 pm
Other Kentucky markets featured in this series: