A weekly series about our food and sustainable agriculture.
The farmers market saved the farm. In this case, quite literally so.
As farmer Kathy Unger explains in the video, she and her husband Matt Unger, began selling berries to the cannery in 1984, but were hardly being paid enough to make ends meet.
Unger Farms, located in Cornelius, Oregon had been selling strawberries to the canneries and getting pounded by low prices -35 to 40 cents a pound, 50 cents if they were lucky.
According to Unger, after a few years, they planted blueberries on credit—and started selling at farmers markets, starting with the nearby Hillsboro Farmers Market. There, they were able to get $1.50 a pound for their strawberries.
Today, the Unger Farm has grown from 80 to 140 acres of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and table grapes. The family has learned that selling the berries at farmers markets is a lot harder than just selling them in bulk to the cannery. During the peak of season, they now sell at 17 farmers markets each week, and that means every day starts off before dawn, loading 150 to 350 flats (carrying six pints each) into trucks.
Most markets run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then everything has to be taken down and loaded up in the trucks again. At the same time, pickers are out in the fields getting the next day’s berries. And the next morning, it starts all over again. “I tell the kids, we’re a mini store,” she said. “But we have to set up and tear down though every single market day.”
The growth in the Unger’s business, which now includes U-Pick-Em flowers and berries plus a farm store, is directly attributable, she said, to their expansion into more farmers markets, where 70 to 80 percent of their produce now winds up. “We were struggling and they kept expanding the number of markets and we kept expanding with them and so we were able to keep this first 80 acres that we originally bought and keep farming it,” she said.
The USDA says that the growth in farmers markets that the Ungers saw in Oregon has been repeated across the country. In 1994, there were just 1,744 farmers markets in the United States. Now there are 7,864. While most of the growth has been done organically -that is to say, by farmers and communities themselves — the USDA also funds farmers markets.
In 2011, the Farm Bill included $10 million which was split among 140 locations (keeping in mind of course that the entire Farm Bill encompasses more than $96 billion worth of programs).
The biggest driver of farmers markets is the customers, who crave fresh food and a connection to the farmers.
As Unger says in the video, “Customers are looking for quality but they also want to know how their food was grown and who grew it and you can get that at farmers markets,” Unger said.