Farmers’ Market Troubadour #2; Kemptville FM; Story Time “Distribution Blues”

Hi Folks!

Welcome to Farmers’ Market Troubadour #2, the newsletter where I am documenting my summer of regional farmers’ market musical adventures.

I describe myself to the world as a chef, author and musician–this blog is a chance to share all three of those passions in one place.  I hope to see you all at a market somewhere soon!

This week:  HOME! Aka, the Kemptville Farmers’ Market

The Market:

This week I played music at my home market where I was doing double duty in my role as the Community Liaison, a volunteer position on the Board of Directors for the 2019 season.  That means I book all the music for the market, as well as the community table, business table, help plan special events and basically whatever else needs doing if I am able…

with Mayor Nancy Peckford at the market

Kemptville Farmers’ Market started in 2006 in the parking lot of my restaurant, The Branch (which we sold in 2016).  The market started with about five vendors selling out of back of their pickups and has evolved to over fifty seasonal and occasional vendors this season– it is currently located on the B&H Grocery parking lot (200 Saunders St., Kemptville) at the invitation of Jim Beveridge, the store owner, our landlord and champion.    

There is ample parking in the B&H lot — it is a ‘downtown market’ there is a small grassy area, but the vendors set up on a paved lot without much natural shade, to compensate, the market provides a fair amount of tent covered seating near the music, which is housed in a cool cedar sided trailer contraption that is well positioned on a corner facing the market and covered in case of the wet stuff.  Washrooms are available in the adjacent building and dogs and kids are welcome if they are leashed and well behaved (the dogs are the ones needing leashes most of the time, kids only occasionally…)

The Vendors:  

KFM offers a full range of food products and crafts, all locally produced or made.  I could probably name them all in my capacity as board member, co-founder, and incredibly dedicated shopper, but that also means I’d likely forget some and hurt some feelings, which is not what I want to do here– so for this time, I’ll just list the products–

–Concessionaires include Thai Food, Mexican Food (new vendor!  dee-lish!) Indian, Middle Eastern and Perogies…

–Veggies this week:  Asparagus! Greens! I got some wild leeks, fiddleheads, green onions as well, I saw some greenhouse sweet peppers, cukes and tomatoes… my fridge is full!

–Meat vendors were offering chicken, pork, lamb, grass fed beef, duck… I loaded up on duck eggs, two types of sausages (no hormone/antibiotic) some “Korean cut” beef ribs, and pork hocks (of course) from a new pork producer

–honey and maple were on full display, including an actual bee-hive!

–there were pastries and breads in abundance as well, but Dr. Nicole is advising me off of those things at the moment…

— there are a number of crafters making cool stuff… I always forget to look more closely…

–Apples!  Pickles! Jams! Get thee to a cannery!  

Ok– you get the idea… The point is, it’s pretty easy to spend my music earnings in a single trip around this market…

The Music:

As this was the kickoff event, I was able to line up a couple of ringers to play on the day  in addition to my set in the middle…

–Opening the event was ‘Fiddlehead Stew’ — a slightly altered version of the increasingly well known Kemptville based world music fiddle band, ‘Fiddlehead Soup’– this time featuring core members Doug Hendry and Glenna Hunter, but minus lead singer Ursa Meyer, and adding Shawn Yakimovich on fiddle and Elizabeth McNally on vocals to flesh out the usual FS sound with a cool mix of Ceilidh jigs and harmony folk rock… Great fun!  

–Doug Hendry stayed on to join me for my set adding tasteful harmony and his ethereal 12-string open tuned tones to my tunes… we have done the duo show a couple of times now and have developed a few tricks by now that we can spring on the unsuspecting listener…

–Headlining the event was our most famous (sort of) local, Keith Glass (of the Keith Glass Band and 6 time Juno winners Prairie Oyster) playing a solo set that wowed the crowd kept every toe tapping.  I know he is best known for that band he was in, but man do I love his recent originals… his new cd ‘The Easy Way’ has some knockout song craft on it and is available anywhere you find your music.

My music notes from my set:

–adding Ob La Di Ob La Da to the set… how have I not played this perfect farmers’ market song at a market before??

Harvest Moon must have gone over quite well– no less than three souls walked across the lot to tip us during the performance…

–A little girl started dancing her hiney off during Walking Sam, so we kept the spirit going by segueing into the song I wrote for my little dancer Abigail — the song is called “Yes She Does” and basically requires dance moves to happen.

–Doug’s harmonies inspired a very Beatles heavy set… never a bad thing… my favourite was probably ‘Help!’ because we landed the tricky chorus harmony every time (without rehearsal!)

–Someone requested Murray McLauchlan’s ‘Farmer Song’ as another good FM song… will check it out…

The Coffee Situation:

Dire.  We lost our local roaster/vendor a couple of seasons ago and have been waiting for a new recruit… In the meantime, we have Geronimo a few blocks away in one direction and Brewed Awakenings a few blocks away in another–both make excellent organic and fair trade coffees and are both locally owned by swell folks, so I won’t make a vote here.  But if you are like me and too busy to leave the market to get that incredibly important afternoon cup, then KFM– we have a situation.

Story Time:  ‘Distribution Blues’

A few years ago, I took a job as the general manager of a food hub.  Many of you know this and many of you know the name and all that stuff– The 100 mile view is that it was ambitious, really cool, really hard, it had some incredible successes and in the end, well, it didn’t quite work.  I am not writing this to lay any blame– in fact, I think if anything, there are a lot of great things that came out of it– and, in fact, one of the best things, the shared commercial kitchens, is still alive and apparently doing well, which warms every single one of my heart cockles.  Whatever the heck those are.

But local foods distribution–my baby, the biggest part and probably the most important part, like I said, it just didn’t work.

Before taking the job, I was a chef and local food buyer for nearly two decades between my work in California and my time in my own restaurant (I’m still a chef, etc, but I digress…)  In California, I worked for a top tier high end organic foods restaurant — and we were ‘all in’ on getting the freshest and the best… I often visited the farmers on their farms– I met them at the markets, they brought food to our door, we met in the middle… whatever it took — Getting our hands on the best products was our competitive advantage and we absolutely competed to make sure we got it first and often…

After relocating to Kemptville in 2005 to open my restaurant, I kept up that same intensity– before I had even had a house or a restaurant here I had started a rolodex of organic farmers– hitting one or two farmers’ markets every weekend when we came up for a summer before moving here for real.

When the restaurant opened, I drove around to the farms I had discovered and drove weekly to the organic market in Ottawa to stock up for the coming week– networking as I went.  After our first winter, we greeted Spring by starting an impromptu market of our own– offering beer and food to farmers and producers that wanted to set up in our lot on a Sunday afternoon– mostly in a shrewd effort to save dollars on gas and time by having the farmers come to us…

Over time, we got busier, and even as the market we had helped to start grew; with the primarily “hobby” sized farms in my neighbourhood I found I was having an increasingly more difficult time filling my shelves– and the time it took to drive everywhere to fill in the gaps was getting to be out of the question.  

Luckily we discovered a local ‘Mobile Market’ specializing in local food aggregation and distribution– the timing was perfect for us and they were essential in helping us maintain our core brand value while we were outgrowing our neighbourhood farms.  As our buying power grew, so did our reach and our footprint– we were at the farthest tip of the mobile market’s distribution area and many of the new producers we were buying from were as much as an hour or more away from our back door.

Around this time I joined an Ottawa based organization that was concerned with finding solutions to the same kinds of problems I was encountering– albeit with a slightly different mix of stakeholders.  Chefs and farmers were certainly bringing ideas to the table, and talk was emerging about starting a network of some kind to pull regional product into the city– meanwhile, the other seats at the table were filled by folks who brought in other (important) issues ranging from food security to climate change to tourism…

Not much came of the regional food distribution system– the organization did have some major wins, however, especially at the farmers’ market level– building a secondary level of producer only markets and eventually requiring clear signage distinguishing local sellers from resellers at the entrenched, more difficult to shift older city markets.

In time, I heard of a new project that was emerging near me, a ‘food hub’ was coming.  Word was that there was a chef helping to run it, and that there were some serious local food people on the board.  As I learned more, I came to trust that it was a real ‘active’ project, less like the Ottawa effort, and more like our farmers’ market had been. ’Boots on the ground’, as I liked to say.  I was excited, I looked for a way to get involved– honestly, at the time, it looked like a real solution to me. A more local version of the mobile market I loved, possibly something that could tie together that company with the buyers in the Ottawa project I was a part of, who I knew were looking for something like this to bring them more and better local food.  As long as, and I knew this was the hard part, they could figure out how to make it work.

So I came to a board meeting.  It was interesting, but after having felt like I’d been spinning my wheels in the project in the city, I’ll admit that there were some issues I saw right away and I pointed them out.  I don’t know exactly how what happened next happened, but within a few days I was being offered a job…

After some soul searching, and after some serious thought– I decided it was the right thing to do.  I handed off most of my duties at the restaurant, and for the first time in several decades, I moved into an office full time.  To be fair, the office was right in the middle of one of the biggest kitchens I’ve ever been in, but that’s another story…

Over the next few months I set my eyes on the prize– I met with the folks who owned the mobile market and with very little prompting began a project to help them expand their territory to the city… I met with the Ottawa group with a bit less success, but at least we agreed to a bit of a detente until they were closer to their goal of full scale distribution.  I dove in a tried to learn everything I could about distribution, especially local foods distribution up to and including attending a food hub conference in Atlanta.

I learned about industry margins and benchmarks and used everything I had learned in running my restaurant to make our business sensible and conservative and ultimately, I hoped, successful on behalf of all the local producers and buyers we intended to serve.

We had good things happen — the mobile market offered us a deal to merge our businesses and we began moving all of our efforts in that direction.

We had bad things happen — that deal fell apart unexpectedly and we had to find a new truck and driver to continue our service to our emerging and growing clientele.

Good things — in short order, we built a solid core customer base that brought in regular revenue.  

Bad things —  we plateaued. After a long period of growth, we hit a long period of stagnation… there was a lot of hand wringing and extra effort, but it seems like we were just hitting a natural saturation point for what we had to offer and those who were interested in it.

Good — our efforts in developing new clients opened up a window into a a major new client base– over months we completed all the prerequisites to begin selling to two major large scale institutional buyers…

Bad — to meet the demand of the new client, we needed new investment and began to discover our fatal flaw.

Good — a partner with know how and potential capital emerged at the moment we needed the investment.

And Bad — the partner fell through in 11th hour.

Part 2, The Fatal Flaw:

When the partner fell through we had to make a decision very quickly– a quick review of our outstanding payables and receivables had always shown a pretty even split, we were not ‘technically’ losing money.  Our ‘receivables’, or, money owed to us was mostly from buyers who were ‘running late’ on payments, or, perhaps, were used to working with much more generous terms than we, as a small, not-for-profit company, were able to provide.  Our ‘payables’, or money we owed, in this case, were the very farmers we had set out to altruistically serve. Although we were ‘whole’ on paper (minus some start up costs we were yet to recoup), until we got paid the money owed to us, we could not pay the money we owed…

Most companies in our position would have made the sensible move of securing a line of credit and catching up on payables to keep the capital in motion, so to speak– we, however, were a not-for-profit company.  As a condition of this status, our bank, and, to my understanding, any other bank would not give us a line of credit. Which meant our farmers, our most important stakeholders, were left holding the bag.

The merger with the partner would have solved this.  In time, our increased sales from the new clients we had opened up would have solved this.  In the short term however, our ‘altruistic’ decision to do business as a not-for-profit company had become our fatal flaw.

The board carefully considered all the options and did what had to be done.  Operation was suspended, the staff was laid off, the truck returned to the leasing company… A bookkeeper was tasked with collecting the money owed to us and in turn, paying the money we owed.  I was among those laid off, but to my knowledge, the farmers were all paid. The board, sadly, was not. They had all invested a bit of personal money to keep the project afloat during the leanest times, some more than others, and when the decision was made to wind down the project, the board’s investments were last on the list.  

I am over a year away and I am still disappointed– not because we did not make it work, but because we did… The demand was there, the supply was there, we had a strong and loyal client base and we had a host of new clients coming in who were poised to help us expand to become the very distribution network that the area both wanted and needed.  

If only we could figure out how to make it work.