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Why Rain and Cold Can’t Stop Our Family Farm

Selling food in the freezing rain is not my favorite thing. But seeing my customers come out in the bad weather reminded me of why of do this work.

Rainy day at the farmers market

A rainy day at the farmers market. Photo by Colleen McMahon / Flickr.

The rain was slapping down on the windshield with an uncharacteristically heavy splat as we pulled out of the farm driveway on the way to Saturday morning’s farmers’ market. The edges of each drop on the glass were beginning to gel and freeze, an ominous sign about the day ahead.

Bob and I had left Mom, Dad and the girls back at Sap Bush Hollow. They confronted the labor of herding the flocks into the barn so the shorn sheep could escape the unnatural weather, and so they could begin administering treatment to a suddenly growing number of hypothermic lambs.

If I can’t celebrate my fortieth for another three to five years, well heck. That just means I get to stay younger longer.

We hoped the losses wouldn’t be too great, but as we piled winter parkas, blanket-lined work pants, extra hats and gloves into the car, our pity for that day’s on-farm drama was mitigated by our own heavy hearts as we faced the coming six hours. The girls would be able to stay in by the wood fire. Mom and Dad would be able to take breaks to come in and warm up. But Bob and I would get to remain out in our market booth, trying to sell meat to what would likely be a nonexistent crowd of market-goers.

It was Memorial Day weekend, the second Saturday the Pakatakan Farmers’ Market has been open this season, and one of the most important days for all of us vendors. Our farmers’ market runs for 22 weeks each growing season, and a full 30 percent of our annual sales happen on four holiday weekends: Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Columbus Day. With the opening weekend of summer ornamented by nonstop near-freezing rain and temperatures hovering below 40 degrees, all of us were going to take a financial hit.

I put the Eagles’ song "Peaceful Easy Feeling" on the car stereo and stare out the windshield. I hear the words "I wanna sleep with you in the desert tonight," and silently reach out to take Bob’s hand as he drives. I turn 40 next year. I’ve been hoping to celebrate my landmark birthday by hiking in the Moab desert with him. Even though the trip is still a long way off, Bob and I have already priced out the cost of train tickets and a cabin rental. Money has been supremely tight lately, and we know the only way we’d afford the adventure is if we have an unusually good year at the market, or some other windfall.

As we head down the road facing the sleet and rain, I wonder if I’m torturing myself even thinking about such a trip. These days, we seem to run faster and faster just to stay in place economically. Forty percent of our income is required just to pay for the health insurance, the dentist, the chiropractor, the insulin, the eye doctor. Each year, the cost of those fees goes up. Meanwhile, our prices for our products reflects our costs of production. They don’t reflect our cost of living.

One couple comes by carrying their groceries in a basket Bob wove for them, praising how well it works.

Our ability to pay our bills is tied to whether everyone else can afford our lamb chops and steaks, so we need to be careful with what we charge. And today, it will be dependent on whether folks want to leave the warmth of their houses, bypass the comfort of the grocery store, pull on rubber boots, dress in layers, and come stand in the freezing rain to buy their groceries from the farmers.

The Eagles song finishes. I play it again. At least the desert is dry and sunny. I’d prefer to think about that, instead of the rushing waters flowing through the creek beds as we make the drive.

As we pull in and begin to unload, our mood is lifted by the camaraderie that comes from joining all the other vendors who face the same grim odds. We all know it will be bad. We all know it will be cold. But we show up anyway. Ours is one of the longest-running farmers’ markets in New York state, and experience has taught us that you never, never bow to the weather.

We’ve had opening days in the snow, we’ve shown up after hurricanes and floods have destroyed the surrounding villages, when rains and washouts have closed all major routes. If a vendor fails to make this commitment and has too many absences, perhaps deciding that bad weather will render his or her day too unprofitable, he or she is asked to leave the market. Our policy is that, if we want our community to commit to us, then we need to commit to them. We are open every Saturday for 22 weeks straight, no matter what.

And so Bob and I set out our roasts and sausages, arrange our yarn in the cubbies, open up boxes to display our handmade soaps, salves, and candles, straighten up our jars of honey, and set the wool blankets from our sheep out on a table. I pull on snow pants, squeeze a down parka over my winter vest and several wool sweaters, find a chair out of the wind and rain, and settle in with a novel—ready to make the most of a day that is likely to be a wash.

And the first customer comes. It is our friend, Axel. He comes every week to buy a dozen eggs. He sasses and teases us, we return the favor, and by the time he has left, my glum mood has lifted. Slowly, a few more folks trickle in. One man comes to find us, led by his young daughter, who has been pestering him nonstop for our lamb.

A few more weekly regulars pop by to pick up their pre-orders. One couple comes by carrying their groceries in a basket Bob wove for them, praising how well it works. Several families show up for the first time this year. They greet Bob and me with hugs and news about their winter. Some people don’t need to buy anything this week, but they come visit the booth just to put their arms around us and say “hi” before heading home. I lose my place in my book. We get so busy, I forget to eat lunch. I forget the cold. I forget to look at my watch.

And suddenly the day is finished, and it is time to pack up and head home to our wood stove. We are pleasantly surprised by the sales figures. It isn’t our best day ever, but we’ve brought in what we needed to keep the business on track.

We listen to different music on the way home. I still keep thinking about that trip to the desert, but as we steer through the nonstop rain and talk about different ways to improve upon our family business, keep afloat during hard financial times and ponder how we can keep the farm resilient through all these climate fluctuations, I’m reminded that my life has been a series of choices.

Perhaps I could have had work someplace where I’d have easily afforded a trip to the desert to celebrate my fortieth birthday. But I chose to work here with my family, surrounded by daily pleasures. And every Saturday for 22 weeks, Bob and I get to show up at a farmers’ market where we are greeted by customers who want us to be there, who want us to be doing what we are doing. I reckon it’ll take us a few more years before we’ll have the funds together to celebrate my fortieth the way I’m hoping. But if I can’t celebrate my fortieth for another three to five years, well heck. That just means I get to stay younger longer. And doing what we do for a living, encouraged by the folks who support us, that’s pretty easy.


Shannon HayesShannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.

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