I've been growing a vegetable garden for years, and I've gradually expanded it to about an acre. I've looked into getting organic certification, and I've also been thinking about trying to sell my produce to restaurants or farmers markets. Do you have any advice? Also, how can I know how much to charge them?
— Ambitious in Akron, Ohio
A gardener after my own heart! (For everyone else, I still have advice, of course.)
When I was first exploring ways of selling my homegrown produce and herbs, I started with what was most familiar: the local joints where I spend so — perhaps too — much time. I talked with the owners and mainly the chefs. I sought out the restaurants I knew to be invested in local, fresh foods, and simply asked if they had any interest in buying my produce.
When I was bartending in D.C. — a gazillion years ago — whatever was growing in my garden determined the drink specials: thyme-infused vodka, cherry tomato Bloody Marys ... and lots and lots of mint juleps. Recalling those days, I found bartenders — OK, a bartender — who enthusiastically told me of his dream to make basil-something-or-other god-knows-what concoctions, and seized on my herbs to bring his mad scientist dreams to life. The chef got wind of our dealings, and started putting in his own orders for fresh lemongrass.
You have three main avenues to explore: dealing directly with restaurants, selling through farmers markets or creating your own market.
The most common way of creating your own market is through a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). These are great ventures in which individuals directly support a local grower. Usually this means you buy a "share" of the harvest at the beginning of the growing season. In exchange for this investment, you get a weekly supply of everything that's being harvested. The idea is to share in the risks a farmer faces (drought, flooding, Monsanto).
While CSAs are generally done on a fairly large scale, there's no reason you couldn't create your own version. Survey friends and neighbors, get a sense of what people would be most likely to want, and balance that with what you're most likely to be able to produce. You don't necessarily need to have people buy in before you start growing (especially as you're starting up; you may be more comfortable selling on an as-available basis and not be indebted before you're confident of your harvests). Many CSAs deliver; most have a set pickup time and place. If people know you'll have fresh produce every Wednesday that they can pick up on the way home, you can develop a regular clientele. Or, to ensure sales are regular, make deliveries and collect money on a monthly basis (presuming that folks won't always be home when you drop off).
With that arrangement in mind, think about selling to retirement communities, apartment complexes and other centralized communities. I particularly like the retirement complexes, as those folks often don't have easy access to groceries, let alone fresh, homegrown produce. And many older people miss the days of growing their own food. This is really the last generation who knows where food comes from, and they tend to have great climate- and place-specific advice.
If you want to sell to local restaurants, you'll need to talk with the owners and chefs. Start with the chefs, and find those who are flexible and willing to cook with the seasons. Selling to restaurants is a wonderful way to create relationships and strengthen your local food economy, but you'll need to be consistent — able to deliver the right quantity of the right quality at the right time. Even a "real foods"-devoted chef can be only so flexible: Adjusting menus over the course of weeks, let alone days, is one thing' running out of "Lucy's Local Heirloom Tomatoes" halfway through a shift is another.
Farmers markets are the other great way to sell your harvest locally. Having your own, or a shared, market stall allows you more flexibility than selling to restaurants. If, for whatever reason, you don't get, or deliver, the harvest expected, the repercussions are less consequential. Start by exploring your farmers markets for ideas and advice. Consider partnering; someone selling fruit might like to also offer vegetables, or if he sells tomatoes, adding your buckets of basil makes for a logical pairing. Share the cost of a stall, or sell to the grower who's already there; whatever works best for both of you. See ATTRA's "Market Gardening: A Start Up Guide" for more; it includes sections on food safety, organic certification, choosing markets, even planning and record keeping.
And, lastly, don't forget the corner store and independent market (not that there are many of these left). Selling through a small store gives you the chance to sell over the course of a week, instead of a day at the farmers market. Let the store owners set prices and the percentage they'll take; if you don't like it, suggest something else, but be prepared to go elsewhere.
Not to ignore your other two inquiries: Organic certification is generally cost-prohibitive for small growers, but that's changing. (ATTRA has information on how to go about getting certified, as does the USDA.) Unfortunately, "organic" has also come to count for less and less as industrial agriculture moves into organics. As a local grower who will have direct relationships with your buyers, no matter which avenue you take, letting them know your growing methods (sustainable and organic, of course) is the first course of action. What to charge for your harvest is forever changing; I look to the markets (Whole Foods or local co-ops), or rely on owners to set a price.
Keep growing and keep it green,
For everyone else:
You live in a consumer-driven society, which gives you a certain amount of influence. Use that power! Support the people who are growing foods in your area. You can find them through Local Harvest. Ask the owners and chefs of places you frequent if they use local sources. Let the folks at your convenience store know you'd love to be able to buy fresh, local apples from them. Make it as easy as possible; have the information they'll need to find local suppliers (Local Harvest, ATTRA). Localized economies are the foundation for all things sustainable! And locally grown is the best thing you can offer yourself and your family.