Aside from providing me with a product that I know beyond a shadow of a ginger tea bag made me violently ill, there aren’t many absolutes. Just one, actually, and it’s really quite easy: Use the social media outlets for your business to vent and mock your well-meaning customers. Repeatedly.
I’m not making this up, and it’s not just been one isolated event or offender – thus the reason I feel compelled to say something – in the spirit of really, really wanting local businesses and farms to not just succeed, but flourish. I’ve seen it elsewhere, here and there, but the overwhelming majority that has had me really scratching my head (and clicking “unlike” in a few instances) have come from local farmers’ pages on facebook, so that’s what I’ll address.
I get it. Actually, I know that I don’t get it. I know that what you do all day, every day, from before sun-up to well after dark is exhausting, and as someone currently so deconditioned as to be intimidated by “seniors’ functional fitness classes”, I genuinely cannot comprehend how anyone does what small farmers do for any sustainable period of time without just collapsing or tilting over in a heap of “DONE”. I know that the actual agriculture work taxes you mentally and physically, in equal measure… and then, there’s a business to run. I know that you worry constantly, and that despite all the best planning, maintenance, protective strategies and defensive contingencies, the success or failure of an entire season (or even year) can be determined by a handful of elements entirely beyond your control. I know that you genuinely care about the animals you raise, and are emotionally invested in their health and happiness. And I know that you’ve been watching an art, science, legacy and way of life that you justifiably revere come under economic and cultural assault for at least as long as I’ve been alive.
Further, I know that the combined factors of general cultural ambivalence towards the treatment of the plants and creatures that become our food in this country and beyond; an economy that has faltered in ways not yet experienced by most people still alive and shopping today, and that has remained substantively stagnant or worse for many, including those who may never have considered their household food costs as closely as they are now required to do; and now decades of creeping adjustment to ever-shrinking factory-produced prices and quality – they’ve all teamed to create a perfect storm against you. A conspiracy of coincidence in which the market for your products has dwindled; many of those within that smaller market who formerly considered you a pantry staple are being forced to make difficult decisions between other necessities and your products; and the remaining folks who aren’t already sold on the difference and justification of value between your products and those at the big box around the corner are becoming increasingly difficult to convince from an economic perspective alone.
I know that I can’t possibly understand how hard your jobs – your lives – are; and that I’m a person who does think about it, and care, and wants and tries to understand. But encouragingly, we’re growing in numbers, and more and more people who may not have given two hoots about the source of their eggs or peppers or artisan loaf ten years ago are becoming more and more informed and impassioned than the mainstream has seen in quite some time, dedicating fewer resources and making bigger sacrifices you than would have been required those same 10 years ago in order to prioritize sustainable, ethical, local foodstuffs. We’re definitely still a minority, and we’re not all purists, but we’re growing exponentially in number and devotion, as you’ve no doubt seen demonstrated in increased crowds and vendors at the markets.
That’s where you have an amazing opportunity – in my opinion, both an urgent historical calling and a vital health and environmental obligation – to assist and educate these new patrons (and potential allies) as much as they’ll allow, and with as much dignity and respect as you can muster on an early weekend morning.
As a long-time champion of a tiny, uphill-battle, “why should I care?” niche cause, about to embark on further advocacy for an even smaller niche therein, I cannot for the life of me understand why, when presented with comparative hoards of people genuinely thirsting to learn about and support not just your passion but your livelihood, you would indulge any harbored, frustrated desire to dismiss or denigrate them. I have been asked, objectively speaking, literally some of the stupidest imaginable questions (and follow ups) about my disease and cause – some of them upwards of 100 times. And *every* time, so long as I am approached with sincere curiosity or even skeptical ignorance, and not rhetorical mocking, I answer as kindly, thoroughly and enthusiastically as I can manage.
It’s not always easy, and sometimes that “kind, thorough and enthusiastic” response is short and sweet because I don’t trust myself to go much further without getting snarky. I’m hardly saying you need to be a 24/7 walking patron of organic education. But I am saying that if I can manage to be succinct and polite about a cause that costs, not makes, me money, and do so most frequently when said cause is the precise reason I feel too terrible to be the walking patron I wish I could?
Come on. You can dig deep and wo/man up for a few hours at a time when selling your wares, perhaps bringing along someone a little more fond of and adept at doing so if necessary – seriously; I get that a lot of people who love agriculture love it because animals and plants trump people equally or more often than not (see: Cast of Characters, Faja). But beyond that? You can certainly count to 10 and check yourself before choosing to post anything at all, on your own time and volition, for posterity on an important face of your business, mocking the people trying to pay your bills.
I know that every industry, or lifestyle even, has its own “insider” knowledge, and jokes that lighten the frustrations of the work – especially in those that revolve around servicing others. Servers usually know to steel themselves for a long shift, unturned table and some complex math when a table of 8 women come in for an 11:00am lunch. Retailers can veritably guarantee that within 13 seconds of perfecting a display, someone will come along in need of the one at the bottom of the stack or back of the shelf, kindly refusing your enthusiastic offer to help, thinking they’re doing you a favor. I’ve seen pharmacists physically brace themselves before relaying the news (beyond their control) that a patient’s insurance denied coverage of an expensive medication, or that a staple drug has been put on manufacturer backorder and won’t be in for three more days. And I totally understand, have participated in, and have a great appreciation for the stress-reducing value of joking and venting about these circumstances, privately, among other “insiders”.
That’s where you use your (very private) personal facebook page, if need be.
A sampling of posts I’ve seen in the last few days alone, all from pages of farmers participating in my local weekly market, and all of whose pages I “liked” in order to learn more about them and their offers, as I would any other business:
“I love the people that come by at 11:00 this time of year expecting eggs. All of the “good” eggs are sold out by 10:00.”
“I keep a photo album on my table at the farmer’s market which shows my animals and my crops from the beginning. But where do the customers flock? They go to the next table with all of the” pretty” GMO corn!”
“…What really amazes me is how uneducated the general public is about food. Many of them think that if it is sold at a Farmer’s Market, then it’s *good.* Wrong! I see too many farmers trying to compete with grocery stores with what they offer and when. Seasonal people!”
All of these things – that supplies are limited, and certain things go quickly; that contrary to most food porn and organic grocery ads, sometimes the “most” organic products aren’t the prettiest, and even crops legitimately raised by the vendors aren’t necessarily environmentally or nutritionally very different from mass-market ones; that unfortunately, some vendors are essentially just middle-men for the same factory products available at the big box around the corner (sometimes actually buying their products there), and unscrupulously trade on consumers’ understandable assumption that farmers’ market products are in some way meaningfully connected to the vendor – are important things for customers to know, regardless of whether or how it ultimately affects their purchasing decisions. But constantly barking at your customers to “do research!” and “ask questions!” means nothing when these are the frustrated, dismissive attitudes encountered when
they we do.
Farming at all is hard. It’s painful. It’s draining. It’s thankless. Further choosing to sell your own wares, thus spending a lot of your limited free time as a jack-of-all-trades salesman and industry ambassador, instead of on your front porch with a well-earned cold beverage, is commendable and requires a skill set and stamina that many people just don’t have.
But it is a choice. And fortunately for us consumers, and the growing trend back towards eating real foods with clear sources, there are more and more people choosing to take on the challenge – people who are kind, and thorough, and enthusiastic about educating their customers. And I count myself as incredibly lucky, because for all the other legitimate reasons I may have to be completely and utterly underwhelmed by this little zip code, the vendors at my market who do participate in social media are overwhelmingly in this later camp, and almost balance the scales against my ever-simmering resentment about having to leave town for anything more adventurous than sesame chicken or enchiladas.
These are people who understand that with time and respect, “fans” can become “regulars” who become “allies” and then “advocates” – that making the effort to teach and inspire small batch of chatty loyalists will ultimately be far more efficient and effective than repeatedly grumbling your seemingly paranoid admonition to “ask questions!”… of those other farmers.
So sincerely, to those of you who drag your aching, muddy carcasses to a keyboard now and then to post a quick Q&A you think matters, or add that exclamation point or smiley face to the picture of the tomato haul you’ll have Saturday morning? Thank you, and know that I’ll keep doing what I can to support you and spread the word about your existence.
And all you generational farmers and long-time vendors, who now have competition that offers local eggs and kindly customer service, and whom I genuinely do not want to see edged out and shut down due simply to world-weary cynicism, please try to heed this warning, and step up your game or step away from the keyboard. Save your venting for your friends and family, just as servers know to rant in the kitchen, and retailers cool off in the stockroom. It’s not just bad business, it’s bad karma, and there’s only so much apathy and entitlement most of us will take before switching to someone else – yes, even if we prefer your product.
Not up for social engagement, but understandably convinced you still need to be on facebook? No problem. A basic captioned picture here and there (ie, “today’s harvest” or “happy hens”)? Maybe an occasional “what we’ll have this week” update or “what I did today” line if you’re feeling a little braggy? That’s all it takes, really, and we’ll all just assume you’re busy taking care of the very reasons we wait all week to seek you out.
After all, I would think most farmers have spent enough time around rabbits to know Thumper’s basic, golden rule: “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” (You raise them – clearly you must understand their language on some level, yes?)
So, I’ll see you this weekend, with an enthusiastic stupid question or two, a large reusable bag or two, and a jacket pocket stuffed with cash.