Selling by variety: Does it work?

by Jeanne Boelsma, Bethel Farmers’ Market

Two main reasons customers shop at Farmers’ Markets are freshness and taste. I have found that by planting specific varieties with excellent taste and other outstanding characteristics, I can enthusiastically recommend a variety, knowing the customer will be back for more.
I like to plant the sweetest, corniest flavor  com varieties. When looking for a new variety, I look for ones with the se+ (sugary enhanced gene, homozygous for extra sweetness). They are easier to grow than super sweets, are almost as sweet and have a more corny flavor. Two favorites are Sugar Buns, a yellow corn (Fedco) and Platinum Lady, a white com. This year I plan to trial some “Kiss ‘n Tell” from Johnny’s, a promising bi-color.
I find that my customers almost all ask for  “sugar and gold”, a generic term for any bi-color. They think that a bi-color is the best tasting, regardless of variety. I have found it is generally useless to try to explain the genetics of corn breeding to them. When I have Sugar Buns, and they ask for sugar and gold, I tell them to buy a dozen Sugar Buns. If they don’t like it as much OR MORE then sugar and gold, I will give them a free dozen the next week.
The biggest problem with the corn is, that by the time I get customers hooked on a variety, it’s gone by and I have a new variety ready and have to start the process all over again. But I am finding that in the long run, customers tend to remember that the best corn they have had came from my stand, and they will be back for more.
In the height of corn season, when every vendor at the market has bushels of corn, I believe it is possible to carve out a niche for yourself by offering consumers the sweetest and best tasting corn available. Tell them the variety name, be enthusiastic about it, and don’t be afraid to guarantee it. you may have to give a free dozen now and then, but I believe the benefits of increased sales to other customers will far outweigh the few that may come back and tell you they have had better. There is always the chance of someone taking advantage and looking for a handout, but I have found the majority of people are honest and will tell you how much they liked it.
I also think it is worth it to sell some other  vegetables by named variety, but only when I find an outstanding variety and I think the customer will definitely notice the difference. A few examples I have found outstanding are Rondino carrots (try a taste test at market, side by side with another variety), in muskmelons, Pancha is mouthwatering, juicy and incomparably sweet, with just the right amount of muskiness. It is also an attractive melon and nice size.
Yukon Gold potatoes with their flavorful taste and distinctive yellow flesh. These are varieties customers liked and remember by name. Carola potatoes are a variety I haven’t tried but wanted to as it is similar to Yukon Gold, but with more disease resistance. Early Cascade tomatoes are so much a favorite among my customers, that many come directly to my stand ask for them by name. All varieties mentioned are available from Fedco Seeds and/or Johnnys.
The education of the consumer is an essential part of selling and it fits in particularly well at a farmers’ market, where the consumer gets a chance to meet the grower face to face, to realize we are real people, and we can offer them much much more than any grocery store produce counter. People shop farmers’ markets for the experience as much as the produce and we can increase our sales at the same time we are helping the consumer to become a discerning buyer.

About Leigh Hallett

Leigh has been Executive Director of the Federation since 2014. She can be reached by email (director@mffm.org) or by calling the MFFM offices (487-7114).