Market Rules: A Fiber Farmer’s Struggle

UPDATE: We are ecstatic to now be a member of the Lexington Farmers’ Market in addition to our 3rd year in the Downtown Richmond Farmers’ Market! Even better: other farmers have told me that after sending this post to markets they had been denied from, they were granted access!!! It makes me so happy to know these words have opened doors for others! 

This little ditty is part rant, part appeal to those in charge of farmers’ markets, and mostly to educate our customers on what it takes to grow sustainable, quality, high-performance clothing.

Back in the day, farmers’ markets had no rules. You hauled your harvest to town and tried to sell it. OR you peeled stickers off someone else’s harvest that you bought at a produce auction. No rules. Patrons could buy the exact same imported tomato from the grocery store for half as much, while actual local farmers watched silently, losing sales, taking the high road by not bad mouthing their neighbors. 

Times have changed, and farmers’ markets are now organized entities with a board and rules to support real local farmers. Some markets even go to the extent of making site visits to validate applicants are actually growing what they say they are growing. We think that’s wonderful! Market patrons can know with certainty they are supporting real local farmers. 

But with the rules come unintended consequences. I am a fiber farmer. I grow clothes. A tomato is picked, washed, brought to market, and sold to you. What I do is different. Let me take you on a summarized journey of how clothes are made:

I shear the fiber off the animal, then its sorted, picked (picking out poop, hay, burrs,…), washed, carded (brushed), spun into yarn, washed, then knit, crochet, or woven into a garment (and that is a super simplified explanation). While I can do all this myself, it would take me around 26 hours to make ONE pair of socks from start to finish. So assuming I only paid myself $8/hr, I would have to price those socks at least $208. PS: do you know how long it would take me to go through 80 alpacas’ worth of fiber? 

But wait! That doesn’t include how much it cost me to CARE FOR THE ANIMAL! Of coarse each alpaca grows more than one pair of socks worth of fiber, so if I divide out one year’s worth of caring for an alpaca (assuming they don’t get sick or otherwise need vet care), that adds another $10. So $218 minimum price tag for a pair of socks. Alpaca socks are pretty amazing, but that’s outrageous.

My next option: pay a manufacturer to make my fiber into clothes. However, here’s another kicker: in order to achieve economy of scale, I need 500 POUNDS of the same lot. That means I need at least 100 alpacas that are the same color and grade, growing fiber that is the same length. Alpacas come in at least 5 color lots, 6 grades, and length varies from 3″ to 8″. I have 80 alpacas…I don’t come close to meeting that minimum. Farmers’ markets are meant to support small farms. The only farms that can compete at that scale are commercial farms. I cannot grow to that level if I’m not given an opportunity to sell at market while I’m the little guy.

I can still pay a manufacturer to make socks, but I have to pay for that service up front (& I don’t have that kind of money) then sell you socks for at least $50/pair. AND I wouldn’t get those socks back to sell to you for ONE YEAR AFTER MY HARVEST. 

Why does it take so long you ask? You know how when you brush your hair, hair comes out onto the brush? You know how before using the same brush on someone else, you’re supposed to clean it? Textile manufacturing equipment works the same way. Every time you send a different lot through, you have to clean the entire line. Except instead of a hairbrush, its an entire manufacturing facility. 

So: one year for the animals to grow fiber, then one year to make the socks. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t have the money to pay to keep the animals & my family alive for TWO YEARS with no possibility of making money. Still outrageous.

So how do I solve this? I sell raw fiber to manufacturing companies that use economy of scale to produce socks MUCH more efficiently. Then I buy socks and other products back from them to sell to you at a reasonable price. In addition, they are professionally manufactured with quality assurance. I cannot say every pair of socks I sell has MY fiber in it. Because I’m honest. BUT because it is someone else’s company that manufactures the socks, some farmers’ markets don’t understand why I have to do it this way and refuse to let me sell at their market.

However, do you know what they will allow? They’ll allow someone who knits, or crochets to go buy cheap, import acrylic (read: plastic) yarn at <insert big box store name here>, make something, and sell at farmers’ market. THEY’RE NOT EVEN A FARMER! And because they only paid $5 for enough yarn to make a sweater, they can afford to sell you a pair of gloves for $10. Sidenote: this is also why I don’t have prices on our products. Because crafters can do what I explain above, the only way I can compete is if you come over and feel the difference. Once you feel alpaca verses acrylic, the difference is obvious. But if you saw the price first, you’d wonder why I’m charging more “for the same thing.”). 

Another work around: private label. I basically do the same as peeling the stickers off of produce by putting my own label on the manufacturers’ products. This is completely legal if the deal is worked out with the manufacturing company. They would be the exact same socks I’m selling now, just with our ranch name on them. If that’s what it comes down to, I guess that’s what I’ll do. However I don’t feel that’s the most transparent method.

I’m not hating on the people making the rules. I fully understand and support the spirit of why the rule exists! But its time for farmers’ markets to assess how they can massage the rules to support small fiber farms and still operate under the initial spirit of the rule. 

So to the board members of the markets that have turned my fiber products down, here’s an open invite: Come visit my farm. Come learn what it takes to grow sustainable clothing. I normally charge for the tour, but for you it’s on me. Sustainable agriculture is about more than food. It is a system approach and our clothing is part of that system. Please give us an opportunity to provide locally grown clothes!

To our local supporters, please email your farmers’ market to ask what their policy is. If it sounds like what I’ve described above, please ask them to appeal it! In the meantime, come learn for yourself by taking our tour; while we might not be at your market yet, our gift shop is just 5 minutes off I-75 😉

SPECIAL THANKS TO THE DOWNTOWN RICHMOND FARMERS’ MARKET!!! If it wasn’t for the support of DRFM and our customers there, we wouldn’t have made it this far!!!