...home again, home again...lickety damn!
If there's one question that we get all the time, that gives me a pang of ...well, I'm not sure what it gives me, but I think it's a mix between guilt, resentment and jealousy, it's "Can I buy your stuff at the farmer's market?"
Guilt because I know that I can't complain about sales problems when I'm not at the main spot for sales.
Resentment because everyone assumes that it's so easy to spend one day a week at the friendly, neighbourhood farmer's market, selling our wares and chatting it up with customers.
And jealousy because one tiny part of me would really enjoy that interaction (not to mention to plumper pockets) with the customers and jealousy because those who sell at the market seem to have a real camaraderie that comes with the territory that I'm not a part of, despite being a small, eager farmer.
So today, after having struggled with the sheep side of Barnyard Organics all summer (the sales, not the management), I walked into the market to be greeted with a cooler full of the most beautiful, FRESH lamb available by the cut for $6/lb. It's not organic, but to be honest, 99% of lamb eaters/buyers really don't care. That is what I was charging two years ago and what I'm going back to to try and boost my sales a bit. So as I sat dejectedly on the steps watching the kids play in the play area with the toy dump trucks, moving bushels of barley around the room, I couldn't help but feel little pieces of my drive to provide, chip away with each open and closing of the lamb cooler.
It seems a bit dramatic, I realize, to let one producer shatter my dreams, but it was sort of like the culmination of everything I'd been refusing to admit all summer and the reality that if I had REALLY, honestly been wanting to be THE lamb producer for the region, I would have been the one in there, with fresh lamb every week, a pretty display of wool products and smile for the public. As it is, I'm the one on the steps, looking pathetic and tired.
So, it was a bit ironic that tonight, Mark and I had tickets to attend the 21st Annual Lamb Dinner put on by the PEI Sheep Breeders Association. It was at the Culinary Institute which is always a nice venue and the atmosphere was very casual and light, but with very fine food. There were three lamb appetizers served throughout the reception and then a wide array of lamb dishes in the main buffet. I will admit that it wasn't my favorite meal, but I certainly didn't come away feeling hungry, so if that is a marker of success, I guess it was a winner. Mark really enjoyed everything and there was certainly an air of contentment in the room with the food, so kudos to the Culinary for pulling off another great event. (Our only negative comment was that, as per EVERYtime we've gone to something there, the buffet line takes FAR too long and the first eaters are finished dessert and looking bored before the last eaters have even gotten up to get their first plate-and then the speeches are still held up until everyone is done. But if that's the only complaint, then evidently, it was a great night.)
For being what most would consider, a fairly shy guy, Mark is really much better than I am at the small talk at those sort of events, so while he was chatting it up with the fellow table mates, I was working out in my wee brain, how I could justify keeping sheep around for basically no reason whatsoever. The realities, as far as I could see it were this: a) I don't like lamb and I can't seem to teach myself to like it. b)the 'local' market is pretty much filled and the 'organic' market doesn't exist. c) I like sheep and I want sheep around, but they are expensive to keep as lawn ornaments.
How creative could I get with marketing? Nobody wants to make the assumption between the baby lamb and the plate, so I've got to keep those explicit separate, but baby lambs are an easy sell in terms of cuteness. Too bad cute doesn't pay the bills.
So I came down to two options:
1) sell out completely. The market for ewes right now is great and I could make some money if I just liquidated and moved on. That makes me tear up to even think about, so obviously, not my favorite option.
2) switch to conventional production, increase my flock size and hope to be able to access off-Island markets, like Northumberlamb, MV Meats, etc. I'm not fundamentally against conventional production by any means, since I think that I could essentially do exactly what I'm doing now with a lot less labour if I used a de-wormer every now and then, but my biggest criticism of farmers getting into sheep is that they don't know their markets. And crossing my fingers on a wing and prayer that I can ship 20 lambs every so often 'over across' doesn't sound like a sure fire plan to me.
So what to do? Have a good bawl, sell my girls and be done with it or increase over time and hope to God that I can sell lambs on a larger market than being limited to individual customers????
I have a good friend in the market garden business who feels a bit threatened by the seemingly continuous increase of new farmers coming along to settle into the vegetable production business and everytime she mentions it, I empathize but always think, "Oh but you're such a pro at it, you've been at it longer than them, you have your customers, your reputation, you know what you're doing, you'll outlast them everytime, 10 to 1." I would hate to ever see her even have to consider doing something else due to the market being filled and yet here I am, in that exact position.
And the most frustrating part is that, there is no one to blame but myself, because it could have been me in that market this morning with a cooler of fresh lamb, cut to specifications, selling out at $6/lb.
Instead, however, I spent the morning with my kids, playing at knee-high table full of barley and dump trucks. Then we went home and made cookies and built block towers. We read books and coloured on scrap paper, on tables and ourselves. I got my hair done at Chez Lucy while Wilson played with the cat. I had lunch made for Mark and even snuck in a nap when the kids slept.
I guess, when things are put into perspective, in the long run, are there even options to weigh?