A Bittersweet Love Letter November 16 2018, 1 Comment
This Sunday will be the last King Farmers Market of the year, and my last farmers market ever as a vendor.
Oof, that's a strange thing to write. Even as I sit down to write this, a sense of indecision courses through me. It's been the defining emotion of this year for me, at least when it comes to Plum Tree Jam. I don't feel indecisive about ending my time at the farmers market as a vendor, but I do feel unsure about how much is appropriate to share. I want to be sure that I am sharing with you because I want to be open and honest, and not because this is the internet and you're supposed to overshare. I should clarify first and foremost that we're not going away—we're just stopping all farmers markets.
I think I'll start with the why. Portland Farmers Market—which is an umbrella organization that runs many neighborhood farmers markets around Portland—and the Hollywood Farmers Market were both wonderful organizations to work with and be part of, but I only ever made money as a vendor if I worked the booth myself, and even then the money was quite minimal. That meant Saturdays, Sunday, and sometimes weekdays with the bulk of the day devoted to standing outside in all weather hoping that enough people bought enough jam that I'd be able to pay my booth fee and walk away with a bit of profit. Sometimes that happened. Sometimes it didn't. I worked the markets in freezing temperatures, gusting wind, torrential rain, blazing sun. I heard the rudest comments, felt guilt about the price my jams, watched people make "yuck" faces when having a sample, and, wonderfully, I was sustained time and time again by sweet, thoughtful and just downright kind comments. But, more on that later. Back to why I've decided to leave the markets when I love them so dearly.
After having my baby last December, my feelings about the value of my time shifted dramatically.
Babies! They change things! Why didn't anyone tell me this?!
My husband works a traditional job, and I do the bulk of Plum Tree work in the in-between times—weekends, naps, nights—while shlepping our baby along with me when I am able, or leaving him with his Dad when I can. I am grateful for what we have worked out, because it means that I am able to be with our son every day. But we quickly ran into the feeling that not having a day to be together as a family was taking a toll. My weekends were just insanity, and it was tough to allow for that insanity—producing jam, and doing the farmers markets—when it didn't bring in much money (or, sometimes, any).
Here comes the overshare: in 2017, pre-baby, I worked 7 day weeks (as most of my fellow small business owners do!), often 12 hour days, and paid myself about $4,000 for the year. It was my 4th year in business and it was the most I'd paid myself since starting Plum Tree. *pause for cringe*. It probably goes with out saying that I do not have a background in business.
Plum Tree Jam was not built with huge profit dreams, it was built on the following two wishes:
1. To support local, small farms doing good work and to pay farmers a fair price for their produce.
2. To make a truly good, small batch, pectin-free handmade jam that celebrates and honors the beautiful fruit—specifically berries—that we're so lucky to have here in the Pacific Northwest.
"No one is doing this!" I thought. "Someone needs to do this! We live in Oregon, berry heaven! Why is no one making truly great berry jam?"
Four years in, I have slowly come to the realization that maybe no one was doing this because it is possibly a completely, humorously crazy thing to do. Berries are expensive—as they should be! Pectin is a cheap way to make your fruit go a lot farther, so if you are going to make berry jam and try to turn a profit, you should definitely use pectin. Even though (to my taste) it yields a less richly flavored delicious final product. Lastly, you should probably not try to make a pectin-free berry jam in small batches by hand. Hire a co-packer so that you can scale up. But of course, that's another reason to add pectin to your jams—ensure the set. You can't very well tell a co-packer to "eyeball it" when watching for a set, or to adjust cooking times based on how the berries are with each season, with each picking by simply watching the jam closely as it simmers and checking the set when it looks like you should check it. I don't think co-packers are willing to work by "feel"—though in fairness, I haven't looked into it.
In summation, his whole endeavor is a bit nuts. Adding a baby to the mix put me over the limit. Something had to give, and sadly, it has to be the presence of Plum Tree Jam at the farmers markets.
I've never made much money doing this, and that's always been OK! But to spend hours and hours over the weekend standing in my tent when I could be home with my kid, with no promise of money at the end of it just became unsustainable for me.
Oh man. This is getting long. But please read on!
This is where the boring stuff that you already know about how hard it is to be a working parent (a particular cheers to all my working nursing mamas out there—you are divas and hustlers and superwomen)—ends and the love letter begins.
Here is something I hope you know, but I'm going to say it in case you don't:
Our Portland-area farmers markets, especially the little neighborhood ones, are places of true heart.
Let that sink in. How many places can you say that about? It has been an absolute honor to be a part of the fabric of these special, warm, unique communities for the past three years, and I will miss it fiercely. I've made some incredible friendships, especially at the King Market, which (as you all surely know) is my very favorite. I'm probably not supposed to say, that but I'm already saying way too much so there you have it. It's where I met my best farmers market (and now real life / life long) friend Joanna, from SMALL Baking and so it'll always be my favorite. It's also just a perfect market—small, but big enough that you can do all of your shopping there. True community. Heaven.
Our farmers markets brim with gorgeous produce, but they are also an incubator for little businesses like mine. If you want the best of the best, if you want to support local small businesses, and particularly women-owned small businesses, shop at your local farmers market! Every week, without fail, I knew that if I could just drag my tired patootie to the market, I would leave inspired and refreshed.
Food-making goddess-diva-geniuses (and fellow market vendors) like Nikki from Hot Mama Salsa, Lola from Umi Organic, Caroline and Julie from Ground Up Nut Butters, Sarah from Marshall's, Joanna from SMALL Baking enriched my life on a weekly basis with their delicious, soulful food and their kind, strong, fierce spirits.
The farmers market community of food makers is truly one of collaboration and support—kind people, with a lot of heart and a lot of hustle, making and growing the very best food they can, honoring our home and land and trying hard to stay true to their ideals.
I will forever feel grateful.
For a while—I counted myself among these incredible superhero women. And even though I won't be standing next to them as a fellow vendor, I will be supporting them as a shopper week in and week out, and I encourage you to do the same. Good food is not cheap. It shouldn't be, it can't be. but it IS worth your hard earned money. As Wendell Berry so famously said in his essay The Pleasures of Eating, "eating is an agricultural act". It truly is! As a consumer, you are a participant in the food system of our country. You have power and choice! If you're able, choose to shop at your local farmers market. I promise you will be richly rewarded. You'll make friends, you'll eat with the seasons, you'll pay more attention to your meals, you'll cook more, you'll eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, you'll learn about new foods—it just feels good.
Lastly, you may wonder what this all means for Plum Tree Jam in general?
I don't know yet, honestly. Here's what's true: I am still making jam. You can buy it here on the website, and in a wonderful few shops around Portland, like Powell's and Tender Loving Empire. I will miss seeing you all at the markets as a jam-seller, but I'll hope to see you there as a fellow shopper. Thank you for sharing this journey with me, and for loving good food. Happy Thanksgiving, jam lovers! See you at the market.