Gary Godelie’s transition from traditional tobacco farming to a ‘have potatoes, will travel’ approach to farmer’s markets has given the Otterville-area producer an expanded respect for the contemporary consumer.
“There are a lot of good people out there,” said Godelie. “And they will be dedicated to you if they reach that comfort level with you.” The Godelie family’s entry into vegetable production began in the early 1990s with a roadside sweet corn stand, supporting Gary and wife Blanche’s children through high school and beyond. But it was a downturn in the tobacco industry which pushed them into more regular production. “Eventually we saw the need to get serious,” said Gary. His father had grown potatoes and they would prove the entry point, burlaps bags sold locally as well as eventually table potatoes and ‘little creamers’ for that market. The last year Godelie grew tobacco, he was down to just 15 acres in conjunction with potatoes and sweet corn. “We were forced to do that, we had no other choice.” His entry into farmer’s markets came following an information session in Toronto, and the opportunity to join ‘My Picks’ markets, designed for farmers only. “I liked that idea,” said Godelie, who signed up for two. Their 3 p.m.-7 p.m. operating window allows fresh produce picked and delivered to the consumer that day.
Godelie’s first market was an eye-opening experience, inundated by a steady stream of customers hunting farm-fresh strawberries. His cashbox float was quickly overwhelmed, and Godelie asked a chatty, older gentleman who had attached himself to his left ear, if he’d get change for him, handing the virtual stranger cash and walking him walk away. Godelie was questioning himself after the gentleman left and strawberry-hungry customers continued to press forward. “I thought uh-oh, there’s a hundred bucks gone. But it wasn’t long, and there he was with my change for me,” Godelie recalled, faith in the essential goodness of human nature reinforced.
You are selling, but you are also there to be able to get to spend a few minutes, say hello, just get to know people. The product is utmost, but it’s important to build these relationships and friendships and interact with each other
Heading home that evening after ‘selling out in no time flat,’ Godelie was ‘whistling Dixie.’ “I never would have dreamt it would have gone like that. However, after years of experience, I’ve come to realize there are many variables in markets and some disappointments.” Farmers markets are certainly not a licence to print money. However lessons learned through intimate farmer-to-consumer interaction are instructive for an agricultural industry striving to bridge a rural/urban gap of potential misunderstanding. “You are right face to face with customers,” says Godelie. “It’s all marketing, right?” he added. “You’ve got to put that extra effort into it.”
To be clear, Godelie is fully supportive and respectful of larger agricultural operations required to feed the massive appetite of big-box grocery outlets. “You need a lot of product to keep the shelves full,” he said. “We need those farmers too. “They’re not factory farms, they’re just larger farms. They are doing things right too with regard to safety and quality. It’s just different marketing.” The farmer’s market approach is one that cannot feed the masses Godelie concedes. “But there is a spot for us.” Consumer curiosity in who is producing their food and how they are doing so is paramount. “There is always questions being asked,” says Godelie, who sees them not as a challenge, but as an opportunity not only to enhance communication and understanding, but engage in crucial relationship-building. “You are selling, but you are also there to be able to get to spend a few minutes, say hello, just get to know people. The product is utmost, but it’s important to build these relationships and friendships and interact with each other.
“Saying ‘Hi, how’s it going’ - not just throwing the product at the person and taking their money.” If there is a complaint, the farmer will be there to hear it and be able to deal with it the following week. Customers will also bring up concerns or perceived issues around GMOs and pesticides, for example. Answering from the platform of a farmer they have built a relationship with rather than an anonymous social media influencer is advantageous. Godelie is able to explain his position and opinion, f inding the fact they have a certified onfarm safety program a definite plus. “It’s important the customer feels comfortable you are not misleading them, what you say you are doing, you are doing.” Godelie will confirm he uses pesticides, and outlines not only why, but the fact they are following best practices. “Give them assurance we are doing things in a responsible way,” he explains, adding the fact he’s feeding his own family members and grandchildren the same produce he’s offering at the market. “I’m certainly not going to do anything foolish when I’m growing their food.” Farmers markets operate on a tight budget, with the assistance of volunteers to operation and promote them says Godelie. More successful ones tend to emphasize the shopping experience aspect, adding activities like face-painting for kids or musical buskers to enhance a consumer outing.
“It’s a struggle, some can almost support themselves, most need a little help to keep the plate spinning.” Provincial governmental support for farmer’s markets has been ‘pulled back’ says Godelie. “That’s problematic, if anything they should be increasing support to ensure the success of farmer’s markets in Ontario,” he said, alluding to their role in not only promoting Ontario agriculture, but better farmer/consumer understanding. “If we could do more of that stuff, the would be great.” Godelie’s daughter Christine and sonin-law Jason D’Hulster are continuing the family tradition, including the on-farm outlet near Otterville and taking the business into the future. “And that’s the way it should be.” The farmer’s market experience is not for everyone Godelie says, but for a producer who is also a people person, able to not only interact with, but understand the needs of their customers, it can be both a profitable and positive two-way experience. “First, they want good produce,” Godelie concluded. “But I think they also appreciate and respect the farmers.”