Farmer's Diary: What's art got to do with it?

By John Lee

That has been a good question for many farmers for a long time and has been long ignored or set aside for more pressing issues: Am I ever going to get my tomatoes to ripen? Will these fields ever dry out? Am I ever going to get these deer/rabbits/other vermin under control?

But the question remains: If I do get a marketable harvest, what is it going to look like, how are my customers going to look at it, and will they want it if I don’t present it properly? Oh, and by the way: what is ‘properly?’ Who, exactly, is the audience I am trying to reach? What do they want and what is the ‘hook’ that will get Mr. or Ms. X to try that lustrously violet cauliflower?

This is the big issue that most of us with farm markets wrestle with: presentation. My wife and I were recently asked to make a multi-sensory presentation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) in NYC.  Don’t ask how this challenge fell into our laps. Suffice that it did and we attempted to rise to the occasion. Doing so provoked wide-ranging thoughts about what and how we market produce and related items at Allandale Farm. While it is patently obvious that marketing (read: presentation) is quintessentially important, it is also apparent that many farm markets take a completely casual view of presentation while, for others, serendipity is eminently successful.  But we are not in ‘Kansas’ here!

It is not clear to me that presentation is all that it is cracked up to be in some of the more rural areas of America. However, for our market it is extremely important. Our market, like so many, is arguably off the beaten path and does not offer, for example, tuna fish or tacos. Presentation may be the reason that our customers darken our doors (aside from demonstrably high-quality, fresh produce). The view-shed as one enters the market must entice the prospective buyer whether it is by being visually, olfactorily, or other-sensorily attractive.  What they see, hear, smell, or think when they enter the retail area must be artful, enticing, engaging, and ultimately result in a trip to the cash register.

Our adventure at the MET was the essential exploration of how we might think about engaging the senses, how one’s senses might respond to certain stimuli, and which of the senses was the most responsive to stimulation. We offered a full plate: audio, visual, tactile, olfactory, intellectual, and taste. To no one’s surprise, the sensation of visual engagement was the most significant. Second was, perhaps, the sensation of provoked thoughts, whether of memories, shopping agendas, or future opportunity. Customers are a trove of welcome and unwelcome, bidden and unbidden thoughts and memories easily evoked upon entering our establishment and encountering the experience we provide. Our ability to thoughtfully engage them is not a casual artifice.

Were one to think of their farm market as a dinner plate: is the sole next to the cauliflower and the rice (texturally similar or monochromatic) or are there purple beans next to the tossed salad, summer squash, and bluefish garnished with a few fresh herbs? Which experience is more enticing? Do customers see a menu, a panopoly of tastes, colors, and textures that entice the imagination, the memories of meals past, a more romantic, exciting, flavorful or otherwise creative dining event? If not, I don’t think we have done our job.

 

John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston’s last working farm), which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children’s program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.