A few weekends ago, at Minneapolis’ always busy Mill City Farmers Market, our Bossy Acres booth was located just opposite two very established and respected growers and for about the millionth time this spring, I had to take a deep breath and trust that, somehow, everything would work out fine.
Our presence at this very robust and well-known market had been months in the making, and thankfully, was made smoother by some “practice” at winter farmers markets that helped us iron out the many kinks that come with setup, product selection, customer acquisition, and even tiny details like weighting a tent and buying the right size tables.
For our very first market ever, done last November in the week just before Thanksgiving, we worked all night on harvesting and packaging, and tweaked our table’s look by setting everything up in our living room. At about 3am, we started making up silly songs about the farm, and by 5am, with everything done, we enjoyed an entire half hour of sleep before loading it all into my mom’s SUV.
Setting up at that market, surrounded by growers I knew from shopping at their farmers market booths, I felt so new, like it was my first day of school. Everyone seemed to have their systems down for speedy setup, while we tried to remember how nicely things had looked at home. Since we live in Minnesota, the market was held inside at a community center gym, which enhanced that new-girl feeling and made me briefly flash on some sour gym class memories. (If you’re reading this, middle school gym teachers: please discontinue square dancing lessons.)
As the market began, we quickly discovered that we’d made a poor choice of packaging. Offering mainly pea shoots and hoophouse-grown baby greens, we’d opted for biodegradable plastic bags. Although this was a lovely eco-friendly choice, the small amounts of gourmet greens looked a bit minimal in the opaque bags.
Still, we ended up selling out an hour before the market ended, and despite our newbie status, we felt like it had been a major success. We’d launched Bossy Acres to the general public, handed out tons of CSA flyers, and talked with customers who have ended up following our adventures and coming back again and again.
After the holidays, we signed up for several other winter markets and each one helped us to see what worked and what didn’t. Now, with the summer season approaching, we’ve just started our first regular market and have acted as fill-in vendors at other high-profile markets like Mill City.
The profusion of markets that we’re taking on now—and the ability to do winter markets at all—was made possible in large part by Karla’s foresight in growing hoophouse-friendly greens like pea shoots, sunflower shoots, and especially, microgreens.
Our microgreen mix includes 20 different varieties, including beet greens (the red pop of color is very enticing to customers), radish, mustard, and other spicy varieties. We charge $9 for a densely-packed Mason pint jar and offer samples at the booth. The latter is essential: I’ve seen those little sample cups turn a non-believer into a steady customer many times. Plus, we let them know that the microgreens keep for about two weeks in the fridge in the glass container, and kapow, suddenly we’re making change from a $20 bill.
When we first started growing microgreens, it was just a fun winter activity to keep Karla from getting more restless as the seed catalogs kept arriving. But now, in the early part of the season, they’ve become a major specialty product for Bossy Acres. At every farmers market, we sell out of them by 10am, and we’ve had people show up to the market as soon as it opened because they wanted to make sure they bought a jar. Seriously, nothing beats seeing a customer make a beeline for your booth as you’re still laying out the tablecloth.
Another significant plus for us in these early farmers markets has been a formidable social media campaign. Karla is extremely adept at Twitter (she has about 13,000 tweets, and I have less than 100), and the booth is regularly visited by her Twitter friends. We also heavily promote the markets on our Facebook page, and comment like crazy on the pages of other farmers, our customers, and the market’s main page.
But with all that said, it’s not like we don’t get nervous, especially me. A few days before each market, I look around our humble, rented greenhouse space—with its leaky roof, weedy dirt floor, and hand-crank windows—and I think, “Well, this can’t possibly be enough for market…we’ll never make it…” In other words, I’m the Piglet farmer, always fretting and fussing, while Karla is the Zen-like Pooh, always finding more honey at the bottom of a seemingly empty pot.
So, at Mill City, after taking that deep breath and having faith that our jars of microgreens and heirloom tomato starts would sell, I began chatting with customers, and an amazing thing happened: everything worked out fine.
A unique blend of urban and rural farming, Bossy Acres is based in Minneapolis and run by farm ninja Karla Pankow and her well-meaning partner Elizabeth Millard (who can’t quite plant a straight row yet, but I’m trying!).
We started the farm last year, but this will be our first full season of production, after prepping our two acres of rented land throughout the fall and spring. We’re focusing on organically grown vegetables and herbs, and have a CSA chock full of supportive members who are willing to take the first-season plunge with us. For starting our transplants, we’re renting space at a cooperative greenhouse in St. Paul, where there’s an 85-foot compost pile inside and we mix our soil in a kiddie pool. For the upcoming season, we’re excited to smooth out all the knots that a CSA can bring, and also balance a farmers market and wholesale/restaurant accounts with our member shares.
Karla leans toward permaculture management techniques, so we’ll be playing around with companion planting, attracting native pollinators, using biodiversity, and attempting natural weed and pest control. Come and follow our adventures on Bossy’s season!