Fresh Off the Farm

The farmers' market is an odd combination of skills -- the solitary harvest, the talkative sales. Some say that it's the key to success as a small farmer.

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At 4 a.m. on a recent Saturday, Wade and Judy Bennett are up and outside, tromping through thick mud and soggy bark to get to their fields and greenhouses in Enumclaw, Wash.

Smokey, their 14-year-old husky/Labrador dog, slowly pulls herself to her feet to supervise, always staying within a few dozen feet of Judy.

Today, it's a small harvest. The couple are getting ready for the farmers market in University Place, Wash., where they'll sell lettuce, radishes, several varieties of cucumbers, spicy mizuna (a Japanese green) and peppercress greens and jars of honey and cider they prepared over the past few months.

You might think harvesting vegetables is a quiet, solitary business. But Wade and Judy are eager to talk and quick to laugh, with each other, with Smokey and with visitors to their 41-acre farm.

That garrulous nature comes in handy when farmers turn into salespeople. Hours later, at the market, Wade gently encourages customers to taste a new type of cucumber, happily discusses recipes for peppercress and listens to their stories of home-grown tomatoes and Japanese watermelons from Okinawa.

It's an odd combination of skills -- the solitary harvest, the talkative sales. The Bennetts said it's the key to success as a small farmer.

"You've got to do that if you're going to keep an operation alive," said Wade, who has been a farmer 22 years. "There's no money in the wholesale market any more."

He said he can sell his organically grown vegetables, such as a crispy, thin-skinned suyo cucumber, to grocery stores for 12 to 13 cents per pound, and the store will sell it to customers for $3 per pound. Bennett sells the cucumbers at farmers markets for $2.50 per pound -- and they'll be cheaper later in the summer -- saving customers money and making him a better profit.

"Any chance for farmers to do retail is a godsend," he said. "The wholesale market is brutal."

Plus, he likes being able to grow an interesting variety of vegetables and learn from his customers what they want. He goes to farmers markets six days a week.

He doesn't bother bringing bamboo shoots to the University Place market. He brings round French cochon cucumbers, though, because he has French customers.

"This market is a little more mainstream," Wade said. "West Seattle and Columbia City (in Seattle), you can bring anything, and they either know what to do with it or they're willing to try." For the more diverse Seattle customers, he brings sunchokes, as well as bamboo shoots and stir-fry mix with bok choy.

By 6 a.m., Judy is bent double in a field of sweet lettuce varieties, trimming leaves with a pair of scissors and collecting them in a blue plastic cooler.

The small field of about a dozen rows is tucked against one of the Bennetts' seven greenhouses assembled from wood planks and plastic sheeting. She schleps two coolers down a bark-lined road between greenhouses.

Off to her right are the 3,000 Asian pear trees that are the staple of their business. When ripe, the sweet fruit sells out at any market; more are pressed for juice. Nearby is another 5.5 acres of bamboo. The couple rents another 20 acres for corn.

Everyone at the University Place market knows Wade, and several people come by to chat as he sets up three tables, covering them with every bit of produce he's brought, plus the honey and cider.

Between customers, Wade waits patiently. At a larger market, the crowd would be four or five people deep at his table, and he'd need Judy for help. He figures he needs 500 customers to make a profit, and he doesn't expect to get that today.

"This kind of market doesn't pay the bills," he says. "But we keep doing it, because someday it will. These markets have a way of picking up."

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