To tent or not to tent

I’ve been offered a raincoat more than once while setting up on a rainy morn.

Many market members protect their stands with some kind of sun and rain protection, or “tents” as they are generically referred to.

You may be using one, or you may be considering getting one. For five years I set up as Peacemeal Farm at the Brewer Farmers’ Market without a tent, then for a few seasons I started using one I made from a green poly-tarp and cedar poles. Eventually we bought a commercial rig with a take-apart pipe frame, and used that for several years.

Then I left Peacemeal and set up on my own as Snakeroot Organic Farm, and for the past two years have set up again without a tent.

This range of experience—combined with watching other market members use various makes and models of tents including EZ-Ups, pipe frames, and home-mades both clever and comical—has shaped my opinion on the use of tents at market. What conclusions have I come to about using a tent to cover my market stand?

For some members, like those selling dried flowers or baked goods, a tent is a clear necessity. Their products require maximum protection against sun and rain.

And for farmers with large displays of greens, a tent is surely an asset on a sunny day.

Yet although we display 20 to 30 sq. ft. of wiltable items during the summer, I prefer not to use a tent.

You see, I have come to believe that a tent greatly restricts the ability to create a display based on your seasonal product mix, your location in the market, and the weather. There is a tendency to think: “First I put up my tent, then I build my display in it.” The tent comes first, not the produce display.

Notice how often members with tents will set up exactly the same every time with only the colors and shapes in their display changing with the season. It’s as though growing, harvesting and getting the goods to market has taken all their energy, and they have none left to think about their display; so they do it again just like last time. You’ll see people without tents guilty of sameness-of-display, too, but having a tent almost forces you into “thinking within the box.”

It is tricky to display a large amount under a tent without putting up a “counter” between you and the customer—and between you and your produce. Some market members succumb to a creeping tendency toward the “shopkeeper” way of thinking, where they are on one side of the barrier and the customer is on the other. I believe this depresses sales. I prefer the open arrangement where the farmer and customer can interact freely within the display area on equal terms.

Tents, besides being an extra chore at the start and end of the market day, quite simply cramp your display style. I have seen some very inventive displays integrating tents—they just seem to be the exception. Most often the tent poles seem to get in the way.

I have seen people who set up under a tent the same on a sunny day as on a rainy day, and other people who set up in the rain so as to keep their produce dry and their customers wet.

On windy days, there are panicked attempts to keep tents from blowing over, and on rainy days a gust of wind empties a tent puddle onto a customer.

Tents also take up extra space in your market vehicle, cost a bundle if you buy a commercial one, and need to replaced or repaired after as little as two years—barring an accident, of course.

Well, then, what about setting up without a tent? Don’t I get wet on a rainy day? Yes and no. If it is really pouring there are no customers anyway, I sit in the vehicle. On rainy days, I use polypropylene long underwear under light outer wear in the summer and under woolen outerwear in colder weather. Polypro is unique in that it can be wet but doesn’t feel wet like cotton does. Using this clothing, one can stand all market day in a light rain and become quite wet without becoming miserable. Polypro really changes your attitude toward wet weather. If it rains hard for a short period, I don a raincoat, but off it comes as soon as the rain lets up, because when people see you in a raincoat, they think it’s raining too hard to shop outdoors.

Setting up produce display depends on where the sun or wind is coming from, what you want to sell most of, whether it’s sunny or overcast, and what direction the customers are coming from. It helps if I don’t also have a tent to fit the display into. Not having a tent allows me to take full advantage of overcast days by making large displays of wiltables right out front where they catch they eye.

On hot sunny days I use my tilted tables to tilt the apple boxes of lettuce and spinach away from the sun. On those rare baking hot days of August, I have been known to apply the watering can to myself, or even to escape to a neighbors tent during a pause in business. Of course wearing light colored clothes helps, too.

I am traveling to market in a Honda Civic towing a utility trailer, so vehicle space is at a premium. At market I set up three tilted tables displaying up to sixteen lugs and boxes of produce plus one short and two long flat tables where baskets, bags and loose produce is displayed. Sometimes I lay one of the tilted tables flat, depending what there is to display, but usually I make a wide “U” shape with the scale hanging on the hatchback door at the bottom. In the middle I have the three flat tables arranged as separate tables or in a zigzag fashion, always remembering to leave enough room for wheelchair accessibility. In other words, I take up space—often forty feet wide by twenty feet deep, and I certainly couldn’t afford to cover that with a tent!

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.