5 Tips to Thrive at a Farmer's Market, Week #1: Be Flexible

This is the first of a five week series introduced on October 15. Read along to improve your skills at the community market!

I can’t count the number of times I’ve stood patiently as a customer, suddenly off-guard and sputtering, stared wide-eyed at their grocery list as though a piercing glare might miraculously change the recommended cut inked permanently on their recipe card:

‘But…you don’t?  It says here I need a 122 Packer Brisket with the point attached…and I need 2.389 pounds to yield enough for my wife and I so there are leftovers for the dog.  Gosh, I don’t know if I can make this if you only have a regular brisket that’s 3.7 pounds.’

Here’s the secret: you can!  I’m not saying a person shouldn’t expect to get what they want from a farmer-vendor, but there is a need for some wiggle room.  In the case of beef, cattlemen and their associated small butcher shops simply cannot mimic the vast array of commercial cuts backed by the sheer volume of commodity beef that has people trained to expect immediate availability of precisely what’s featured on Food Network’s blog.  When we’re at a market, what we have is what’s in the cooler, and it may be a week or longer before adjustments can be made to a fresh batch of beef.  In some cases the sole reason a desired cut isn’t obtainable is the guy behind the knife hasn’t ever heard of it and, therefore, doesn’t know how to fabricate such a specific piece of beef.  Industrial beef can respond very rapidly when a new cut hits the airwaves; community beef producers take extra time.

Another stumbling block for many people buying from the farm is the issue of weight.  I’ve been surprised through the years how many people want an extremely specific measure of beef when they walk up to our stand.  The farmers who are breaking away from an industrialized model leave behind precision cutting offered by machines in highly capitalized mega-packers.  We’re having our animals processed the real way, with skilled human hands instead of a computer driven fabrication line.  The variables presented to small town butchers are so numerous that absolute precision from week to week is often not attainable.  When a new customer makes an introduction with the statement ‘I only eat this cut of beef, and I want it at this weight exactly,’ I know I’m going to have my work cut out for me.  The person will either leave disappointed or I’ll have to do a lot of explaining to convince the perfectionist that our beef probably will not be that exact, which, frankly, is a horrible sales pitch.

There you have it. Be flexible with your buying plans and remember that there is more than one option for each cooking method. Keep a Plan B (and even C) cut in mind so you’re prepared in the event your initial request is met with a negative on availability. Let go of obsessive weight requirements and remember what you’re getting in exchange for precision: a real product, raised by hand on a real farm. Stroll into your local market this week with your head held high, knowing you can make a difference in the food landscape across your region.