Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm have been setting their farm stand at the Hillsdale Farmers Market on Sunday mornings for the past 15 years. The tables set in front of their forest green Sprinter van are filled with of heirloom corn and beans, rare berries, preserves and varieties of roots, fruits and vegetables many have never even heard of. Everything is grown on their certified organic farm in Gaston, 25 miles away.
On Sunday, December 20, they will set up their market stand for the last time.
Q&A with Anthony Boutard: why Ayers Creek Farm is leaving The Hillsdale Farmers Market and what they have learned over the past 15 years
We asked farmer Anthony Boutard a few questions about their history with the farmers market, what’s changed over the years and what the plans are for 2016 and beyond.
How did you originally choose the Hillsdale Farmers Market?
In April 2002, a friend approached us about a new market in the neighborhood where we had lived before taking on the farm. We had many friends in the Hillsdale neighborhood. At the time, organic Chester blackberries were our primary crop; we were selling about 100 tons annually to Cascadian Farm with a temporary staff of about 300 people. Six manic weeks a year.
For some reason which, in hindsight, is hard to fathom, we decided to extend our work week to Sunday. Actually, at that scale, we harvested just three or four days a week, so we had a bit slack in our schedule. The market allowed us to scale up the home garden, and supplement our developing restaurant trade. About the same time, New Seasons opened its first store at Raleigh Hills. We continued to work with Cascadian until 2007. At that point, we decided to throw our lot in with the fresh market fruit.
Why have you stuck with the Hillsdale Market? Did you ever consider other or more markets?
Under the leadership of Hallie Mittleman and then Eamon Molloy, Hillsdale operated akin to a Montessori school where growth and experimentation are valued rather than a parochial school where rules and structure dominate. We appreciated that emphasis. In July of 2003, Hallie asked us if we would consider growing for a winter market. We thought it was an excellent idea and threw ourselves into the project. As gardeners we had always pushed the seasons’ boundaries with roots, chicories and other greens, and it is even more interesting when you can make money in the process. That first year, there were just two produce vendors participating, but over time more local growers have risen to the challenge of winter farming. The extended season made life more interesting.
The beauty of the single market approach is that our fruits and vegetables are harvested for that day exclusively. There is no produce churn where the unsold fruits and vegetables are packed up at the end of the market day, and brought to a different market the next day. The standard farmers’ market adage is that you should bring an abundance and have produce left over at the end of the market, that way you have taken full advantage of the opportunity. For the farmer, no potential sale is missed. We have always approached from the consumers’ perspective. We typically sell out in two hours or so. That way our customers have purchased the fruits and vegetables at their peak of quality. Our shrink or waste is very nearly nothing, and our customers note the same about the fruits and vegetables they buy from us.
We enjoyed our years working with Cascadian, and now selling to the Restaurants and retail stores. Our decision to attend Hillsdale was not a retreat from volume sales, or unhappiness with other venues. It just added a new and interesting dimension to our work.
How many markets a year do you typically do?
About 22 markets a year. Our soils are not good for spring farming.
Have you and Carol always gone to the market or did you ever hire anyone to sell for you?
Both of us run the market stall. The market appeals to our thespian nature, we both enjoy the theater of it. There are farms that create a farmers’ market franchise, staffing the stalls and the farmer seldom or never attends the market. Just like a restaurant chain. We hew closely to the restaurant where the owner sees to day-to-day running of the establishment, and sets the menu. We have a very competent and highly skilled staff who work with us on the crops. All of us have a good time working together. Carol and I bring different talents to the enterprise, disagreeing frequently and mostly amiably. Disagreeing over the garlic presentation keeps the rest of life in perspective.
Over the years, we learned a great deal from our conversations at the market. We have customers from all over the world and they have helped us immeasurably. We learn through inquiry, the pursuit of questions, both ours and those of others.
Friends and family have pitched in at critical times, especially when it comes to preparing for the market. Carol’s sister, Sylvia Black, helps us prepare for the market and restaurant orders. Linda Colwell is the farm’s Melete, Muse of Occasion, and helps us in the field and putting together events at the farm. As a chef, she has helped us sort out flavors and preparation methods.
Has the market been your main source of revenue?
No, never. At its peak, about 40%, but that has trended downward as we have expanded our restaurant trade and the number of New Seasons stores has grown. I haven’t done the full accounting yet, but it looks as though the market contribution will be around 20% this year.
How have your offerings changed over the years?
Not much. We have pulled back on certain crops when we see a glut emerging. By the end of our third year, the basic character of the farm’s presence at the market was well established. The beans, barley, corn, small fruit, plums, table grapes and a broad array of greens found their way onto the market table by then.
We stay away from novelties and the latest offerings from the seed companies, and revel in the humdrum staples. We have developed our own varieties and improved others. We enjoy the relationship we have with our crops. Some may find it boring, but for us it is not unlike a musician who has played Bach Partita #2 or Charmichael’s ‘Stardust’ for all of their performing life. There is always a new angle to explore even in very familiar terrain. We find some wrinkle we somehow missed.
The weather, more than any other factor, shapes our offerings. We have never used greenhouses, hoop houses or any other shelter that tempers the effect of weather. We would rather enjoy the higher quality of fruits and vegetable grown in the fullness of nature, than lower quality in an effort to reduce the risk of crop damage or failure. We are diverse enough that we can absorb the risk this sort of farming entails.
What sort of changes have you seen in the past 15 years relative to consumer behavior and demand?
There are more immigrants. There are also more children participating in food decisions.
Why are you stopping the farmers market?
Demographics. We started at Hillsdale in our mid-40s, and today we have matured nicely into active 60-year old farmers. Unfortunately, in Portland, the farmers’ market model has not matured as gracefully. We are expected to happily stand in a searing hot parking lot when the temperatures break 100°, brave a sodden and gusty Pineapple Express, or the icy Chinook winds that come down the gorge and freeze our greens in seconds. We have stuck with that model for 14 years and it is enough. Physically, it is the hardest day of our week. We have put in our outdoor market time, acquitted ourselves well, and we want to leave in good form and nature.
When you slice away the rhetoric and hype, I think Portland, and Oregon in general, are failing when it comes to direct sales. There is no improvement or investment in the neighborhood farmers’ markets. Most have a tenuous hold on their sites. Carol and I expect to farm for another decade or more, and we have made substantial investments to make sure that is possible on our end. The city has not. Portland’s Comprehensive Plan – the overall view of what the city will look like in 20 years – treats farmers’ markets as an acceptable temporary use for undeveloped land, with the proviso that they will close or move when the property is eventually developed for some other use. Followed to its logical end, farmers’ markets will disappear from the urban area. We would love to see greater public commitment to direct farm sales. With neither certainty nor comfort in store at the market, we decided to shift to a different way of selling what we grow.
What will you miss most about the markets?
Good farmers always look to the future, and how to do a better job. We have loved every minute in that parking lot at Hillsdale, and we will not miss anything. We did a good job and now it time to move ahead. We are looking forward to the next iteration of our farm.
What is the plan for the 2016 season and moving forward? Where can people purchase your product in the future?
We will sell directly from farm, opening our farm shed a couple times a month. Beyond that, our plans are still in flux, but there are some interesting opportunities emerging.
We have known Josh Alsberg for many years, first at the Arbor Lodge New Seasons and then as the buyer for Food Front. He has now started Rubinette Produce Market which will be located in the new Providore market on Sandy. We look forward to working with him in his new venture. In addition, New Seasons will have at least two additional stores when we return with our Chesters next August.
Over the past year, we have also doubled the number of our restaurant accounts and hope to do a better job of meeting their needs. We will continue to sell our preserves to Gaston Market, City Market, Food Front, Foster & Dobbs, People’s Coop, Pastaworks and Vino.
What will you be selling at the market on December 20?
Many of our signature crops will be available on 20th. We will have three very different types of stone ground cornmeal. The white Amish Butter, the yellow Flint and a purple flour corn Peace, No War. The latter is a project we have worked on for several years, and makes a beautiful and flavorful blue cornmeal. We will have a full complement of our dry beans, cayennes and pumpkin seeds. Migrant barley, a mixture of hull-less barleys from Europe, Africa and Asia, is another longterm project of ours. Naturally, the full selection of our preserves. Russets, traditional storage apples very different in flavor and texture from the modern sorts. Horseradish, the Bohemian parmesan. And, as always, the cryptic “odds and ends” which covers the category of vegetables that we may have time to harvest, weather permitting.
As one can imagine, Ayers Creek Farm has made a big impact in the community and at the market. We asked Hillsdale Market manager Sarah West her sentiments on Ayers Creek’s departure.
“While I am new to the market manager role at Hillsdale, I’ve worked at Hillsdale Farmers Market since 2011 (previously as the assistant manager, coordinating volunteers and the info booth). Ayers Creek Farm was already firmly established as a popular vendor by the time I joined the Hillsdale market community, but I have never known them to rest on their laurels. As a market manager and an avid gardener, I have always appreciated their search for improvement in all they do – from crop selection and processing to seed breeding to finding small ways of improving the vitality of their business–always with strong and inquisitive creativity. I see farmers markets as builders of community, strengtheners of local economy, of healthy (and delicious) lifestyles, but also as incubators of authentic small businesses. While we are sad to see Ayers Creek go, their departure is a positive expression of growth and exemplifies the best of what talented farmers and a healthy farmers market can accomplish.”
– Sarah West, Hillsdale Farmers Market Manager
Visit Anthony & Carol of Ayers Creek Farm at the Hillsdale Farmers Market on Sunday, December 20
from 10 am to 2 pm.
Feature Photo Credit: Kathleen Bauer, GoodStuff NW