November 21, 2011

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go: Flea Market!

OK, maybe this weekend wasn't the best to take pecans to the flea market. It was the one weekend a month Memphis has their huge flea market. We didn't decide to start selling in time to get a booth there. But we figured maybe the country folk would want pecans for Thanksgiving pecan pies (wish mine were as pretty as the one in the pic), so we rented a booth at a year-round, rinky-dink little market on a major highway out in the boonies. We've been by there on the weekends and usually the place is packed. We figured we would be far enough away from the Memphis market.  (Turns out we weren't, but so what? This was a test run anyway.)

Although the idea had been kicked around for a couple of days, the decision wasn't made to actually go until Wednesday evening. Only two days before the sale. (I tried not to panic.)

But, as with everything here on the farm the decision to go to market wasn't reached quickly or easily. No, we had to have several Famous Farm Confabs about it. Anytime one of us had a new comment or idea, we'd call a meeting to discuss it. Which kind of booth - covered, with tables; uncovered, with tables; a bare piece of ground? (Covered, with tables. $20/day.) What quantity and stages of nuts should we take? (As many as we can - cracked and finished.) How much are we going to sell them for? (Finished go for $7.38 for 10 oz. at Walmart. And they're old - anywhere from 3-5 years in storage. And they taste like crap. Our finished halves are priced at $7.00 for 16-18 oz., bits & pieces at $6, cracked at $5, and whole in the shell for $4. We'd market them as pesticide-free, 2011 crop, heirloom trees "Stuart" variety, planted in 1960.)

Speaking of confabs, Dad panicked on Friday - he'd just realized we needed change. (I'm way ahead of you, Dad. Jeff and I are old hands at this selling stuff. We've been to numerous craft shows.) I told him Jeff was going to get the change when he got off work. "Oh, goodness, what if he has to work late?" Dad - I have my car, I can run to the bank, no problem. "Oh, good!" Then, "How are we going to handle the money??" Dad, I have a cash box. I carry part of the bank in an apron pocket to make change. The cash box stays hidden and locked up in the truck. "Oh, OK. But what if somebody wants a receipt??" Dad, I have a receipt book too. ", OK." (I think at that point he kinda gave up on micro-managing, since we seemed to have the business aspect under control.)

On Thursday we took inventory. Oh, no! We had almost no clean halves to sell. Let the mad scramble begin.

Pecans have to go through several steps to get to the pretty halves stage. There's cleaning up under the trees; shaking the trees; harvesting the fallen nuts (aka "picking up") which can be done with a mechanical harvester that leaves the nutshells REALLY dirty and picks up everything under the trees, or picking up by hand, which takes forever but allows us to skip using the cleaner because we're only picking up good nuts. See my previous farming posts).

Then comes running them through four different pieces of equipment: the cleaner, which does an excellent job at, well, cleaning - it gets rid of leaves, branches, "pops" (which are empty or very light pecans), dust and debris. We had two or three huge burlap sacks and 8 or 10 5-gallon buckets of whole nuts that were already clean either because they'd been run through the cleaner or picked up by hand. We decided not to worry about the 1-1/2 burlap sacks that need to be driven up to where our cleaner is temporarily out on loan. We decided we had enough nuts to sell. Check.

The whole nuts for selling had to go through the cracker, which is under a lean-to in the barnyard. I *love* this machine. The nuts go into a hopper on top and Ka-POW, pause, Ka-POW, nut at a time gets whacked on both ends without crushing the nut. (Like I said, it's magic - the nuts vary in size and I don't know how that machine can tell.) The nuts then fall into whatever container you've stuck under the machine. This one takes a while to process the nuts. Somebody has to stand there and watch to make sure nothing goes wrong 'cuz sometimes a nut will get stuck. The guys love this one - other than toting the nuts to and from the machine, there's very little work involved. Dad and Doug started on the cleaned nuts on Thursday. Remember, hubby Jeff has a day job.

Then there's the sheller. See the hopper on top? The squared-off-cone thingie, not the round thing.  I'm not sure exactly how the sheller works - that's all guy stuff.  The sheller magically removes almost all of the shell from the cracked nuts. All I really know about it is you dump the nuts into the hopper, and there's a special stick (I think it's a pecan branch) that you have to use to stir the nuts to keep them going through one at a time. Yep, one at a time - just like the cracker. Takes a while. The guys love this one too - other than poking the nuts with a stick (which to a guy is a fun thing to do), they get to stand there and watch. I haven't figured out yet why it takes two people to stand there and watch, but that seems to be the Southern way. Dad and Doug got a lot of nuts through the sheller on Thursday and Friday.

It and the picker table (oh, and a sorting machine that hasn't been used in about 10 years but should "fire right up!" Yeah, OK, Dad...) are in the barn. In what was a really filthy room - layers of dust, the room stank of farm chemicals stored in one corner, you don't want to know about the rest of the stuff that was in there. Blech. It had taken Jeff and Doug a whole day to clean up that room and sanitize the machines. After discussing it with me because apparently I'm the Queen Bee of Cleaning. (Not - my answer was "bleach-water everything!")

I guess you've figured out by now that my 86-year-old father hasn't done any selling for years. When he has a good crop, people come out of the woodwork and pick up on the halves. (Half for them, half for Dad.) Dad's huge commercial freezers are full of nuts from two years ago. And he gives away most of his share, or they sit in the freezer too long (over 2 years) and he throws them away. Waste, waste...

Finally, the nuts had to be picked. (Are you confused yet? "Picked up" is different from "picked".) On Thursday, Dad and Doug had run a bunch through the mechanical picker. Jeff and I spent 4 hours that night hand-picking finished pecan halves and bits & pieces out of the picked nuts. We got 19 lbs. of halves and pieces. Remember those numbers: 8 man-hours for 19 lbs...

It was now Friday afternoon and the remaining nuts had been cracked, but not picked. Jeff had to work late, Doug was having some health problems, and Dad just works too slowly. Jeff and I made the command decision to just bag up the cracked nuts and call it good. It took us about 6 hours to bag up 63 pounds of cracked nuts. Dad was horrified that we were sorting out the bits of shell and only bagging the cracked nuts. Apparently the way it's usually done is they're scooped out of a huge bag or bin and weighed - shell pieces and all. Well, that's not good enough for Lancaster Pecan Farm. (Yep, he's decided to change the farm name.) We want to give our customers the highest value for their money.

Saturday dawned sunny but cold and windy. We went to market. I'll bet you guessed that after all our hard work the flea market sales sucked. We sold $101.00 worth of pecans, but we found out something really valuable - people don't want to buy cracked nuts. Of course they want the finished halves or bits & pieces. We sold out of bits & pieces, and 9 pounds of finished halves, plus 5 pounds of cracked nuts. That's it. (sigh) 

The stuff on the left table is bath salts and other homemade things we brought to sell.

And I spent 'way more than our share of the sales at the flea market, but that's OK - I got a great Christmas gift for our triplet nieces who are turning 1 year old just before Christmas. (I won't say what it is because I think their Mom reads this blog.) And some pipe insulating wrap 'way cheaper than in the store. And a pretty beaded necklace w/earrings for $1. And we bought lunch. And I found some reference books I couldn't live without - how to run electrical wiring, basic woodworking, etc. And some more hot rocks for our hot rock kit. If you've never used hot rocks on sore muscles you should definitely try it! (sigh)

Dad popped in and out of the booth during the day, (Jeff and I were manning it - Doug had the day off) and in the early afternoon he had a brilliant idea: he has a small electric nut cracker and why couldn't we set it up and run pecans through it at the booth? Hmmm. Well, electricity costs extra, doesn't it? Dad toddled off to find the flea market guy, couldn't find him, and asked a vendor who was using power. $3.00 extra - no big deal. OK, well, there just aren't many people shopping here today, Dad, so - is it worth going home, getting it, setting it up...? It was to him so he said he'd bring it back after he ran some errands.

I guess he forgot, or ran too late with his errands, because he didn't bring it back. It would have been nice to have something to do while waiting for people to walk by, but I was afraid the other vendors would complain about the noise. (Ka-POW, pause...) We tried our best to stay out of the burlap bag of whole pecans we'd set out for visual appeal, but I caved. Towards the end of the afternoon I was just sitting there, cracking nuts by hand and eating them. They are SO good!

When Dad did finally come back, we had to talk about whether we wanted the booth for Sunday, too. Gee, Dad, they're saying it's going to rain. "Well, we could put up tarps along the sides." Yes, but, where are the tarps? "Oh. I can't think where they are off the top of my head. I could go buy some?" Well, if you really want to, but it's definitely going to rain. People don't shop open-air markets in the rain..."Yeah, that's true, they don't. Well, why don't we wait and see? I can call A.J. (the flea market guy) tomorrow morning and let him know." Good idea. We all agreed to wait.

But just in case we were going back on Sunday, we needed more finished nuts. The nuts that had been shelled on Friday needed to be picked. Dad felt strongly that we should use the mechanical picker to get ready for Day 2 at the flea market. We should have remembered how much we got finished Thursday (because the nuts had been run through the picker), because an argument could have been avoided. 

 We agreed that we could use the mechanical picker. It's a cool little number too. The nuts are vibrated to knock almost every bit of shell off. But it takes at least 2 people to operate because it's set on its highest speed. This is the "Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory" scenario. The guys hate this one because you really have to grab the nuts off the conveyor fast or you lose them...and that's too much like work. (Supposedly you can put a different widget on a whatchamacallit to slow the thing down, but nobody's had time to look it up.  Plus, Dad hasn't located the manual yet.)  In this pic, Doug is in the foreground and Jeff is in the background.  They don't have the picker turned on 'cuz I guess they can't keep up.  They've run a few nuts through, then turned off the machine so they can pick through them.  Hey, whatever works, right?

Anyway, for Day 2 of the market I was all for using the picker at first. But not because it's efficient (that's another story). The three of us dipsticks ganged up on Dad and said it was easier on our backs to just do the finish picking by hand until the picker table could be either raised or lowered for the two tall guys. It's at just the wrong height. And, one leg is about to go through the barn floor so it isn't level - we need to put plywood down.  That barn was built in the '20s.  Plus the picker runs FAST, so if we don't want to go through all the shells to find the nuts we missed on the conveyor belt, we've lost them.

Oh, the arguing! (Dad's really a "It's my way or the highway" kind of guy, though he's getting better.) Finally it was settled - Dad was overruled - we idiots would finish-pick by hand. (I wish I'd known what I was in for: My fingers hurt - those !#*A!? shells are sharp!)

By 6 p.m. Saturday night we'd sat down to pick the shelled nuts by hand. Nothing like waiting 'til the last possible minute, huh? It took three of us (and several beers for the guys) 6 hours to hand-pick 17 pounds of halves and bits & pieces out of a big plastic tote full of shelled pecans. Remember those numbers above? 8 man-hours for 19 pounds after the nuts have been through the mechanical picker. So let's see, Friday night was 18 man-hours for 17 lb. finished. Duh. Like I said, we're dipsticks.

Selling the finished halves at $7.00/lb. makes no economic sense whatsoever considering the expenses involved, but we look at it like this: what else do we have to do? Well, a lot  actually, but none of us are able to stand by and watch this bumper crop of pecans go to waste.  All the nuts I'm talking about here, and including several 5-gallon buckets people picked up on the thirds, came off of 4 (four!) trees.  4 down, 194 more to go... 

Oh, and here's what could be excellent news: Dad decided to go visit the big Memphis flea market on Sunday to check out any competition. He didn't find a single vendor selling pecans, but he found 4 (four!) companies who make things with pecans. They've been buying their pecans at Sam's Club or Costco, and they're not happy with the price or the quality. We might not have to go to flea markets and such - we may have some year-long customers lined up. I'm to call them today and arrange to take them samples. Then we'll haggle price. Awesome!

Meanwhile, hubby took the day off from his day job today (Monday). I put an ad on Craigslist yesterday morning and I've already had 3 responses to purchase pecans, and one lady who wants hers cracked and shelled.  Jeff and Doug are out in the barn right now, running those 60+ pounds of cracked pecans through the sheller and the picker. My job for the rest of today, tomorrow and probably Wednesday (because of rain): hand-pick and package finished nuts. It's OK, it's raining cats & dogs. The dishes and laundry can wait another day or two.

Then this coming weekend, if it dries up enough, we go back to harvesting.  Starting Friday.  Thursday we're smoking a couple of Cornish Game Hens and I'll be fixin' the trimmings.  Hey, all work and no play makes us really bitchy...

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