Westcott Family Farm

by Nicholas Hall

Chapter 15

"The buyer needs a hundred eyes, the seller not one."

(George Herbert)
[Jacula Prudentum 390]

Mattie rested, dozing peacefully on the seat of the large refrigerated truck I was driving, between Davey and me. I'd thought Davey may have slept as well, but he'd been awake ever since we left the farm around four in the morning.

Dave, as I discovered he preferred to be called since he announced he's be a teenager, all of thirteen, in a couple of months, was a quiet, pleasant companion, saying little by nature rather than by choice, studious, inquisitive, intelligent, and the real scholar of the bunch. Probably not as intelligent as I thought Mattie was, but still no slouch either. For that matter, all six of my nephews seemed above average in intelligence and certainly outstanding as far as looks were concerned. Perhaps, it is just pride on my part, but so what!

Dave's main intellectual interests seemed to be mathematics and science. I learned when his brothers had problems with math homework, Dave was the one they went to. If they had science projects to work on, Dave's help was enlisted as well. He was patient with his brothers and seemed to enjoy the challenges of each and every project. I was surprised when I discovered he was most anxious to take this road trip with me. It didn't take much for me to decide to add him, along with Mattie, to my crew for the day.

He appeared most anxious to take the trip with me to our wholesaler. The few questions he asked were pertinent to our business, but most surprising to me was his interest in the business portion such as determining how much to purchase, what the right price would be for making a profit, what might constitute a bargain, and what sort of profit did I hope to make.

I explained I used last year's records, keep meticulously by Mrs. Jenkins our bookkeeper, which products sold well, the cost, the markup figures I used to determine my selling price, and quantity purchased for resale; all of this in relation to my overhead, the cost of doing business.

"I try," I said, "to average a twenty to thirty percent net on all produce I truck in so it means keeping my costs as low as possible and moving the produce as quickly as possible. That's called rapid turnover and ensures fresh produce in our markets."

When it came to quality of the produce I purchased, all I could say was to pay close attention as I examined each "lot" for sale.

"Much comes from years of experience. Determining quality is more than just looks, although that is important, but taste, possible shelf life, and ripeness or lack of it, are just a few of the many things I consider."

Mattie was awake when we stopped for breakfast. The wholesale warehouse opened at seven and I like to be there when it opened.

"Eat up, guys," I advised as we sat down at a table. "I understand the warehouse is short of help today so we will have to help load what we buy. Always eat before you shop. You'll use your head instead of your stomach to make wiser purchases and less."

I paid the bill with our credit card, but asked for a receipt as well. Dave, watching me closely, as I recorded the expenditure in a small ledger book I kept in my briefcase. I looked up, noticing his interest and simply said, "Always keep good records, guys. Good books make good business and helps the bottom line."

We arrived at the warehouse about ten minutes before opening. I opened my briefcase and took out a clipboard and a hand-held electronic calculator. Mattie looked at me questioningly while Dave asked outright, "What are those for?"

I showed them the paper on the clipboard. I explained it was a print version of produce items Mrs. Jenkins prepared for me each time I sought out items for purchase at the wholesale house.

"My main purchase items today are the #1 (table) Tomatoes, and #2 (canning) Tomatoes. I know these items are from out of state and according to the wholesaler's flyer, he has an abundant supply of them."

I showed them how she listed the various items purchased the year before, the price we paid, the retail price we charged, net markup, length of time to sell, and profit on the item. The list also included the most recent retail market price charged in local stores and markets.

"I try to keep our market price below the current retail prices in town. The local retail price is what I call my upper target price to charge, so I try to keep it slightly lower. I can quickly calculate my cost per unit, mark it up, and see how it compares to the local prices. If I have to lower the price to stay within my markup range, I do, although I'm also quick to not make a purchase if it falls below that range. I don't like to lose money."

Mrs. Jenkins has several retired folks, who work for us seasonally, who willingly seek out retail prices of comparable produce in the local stores and keep her up to date. We don't pay them for this but they do receive a one hundred dollar bank gift card on their birthdays and special monetary gifts at Christmas.

"Couldn't you put all of this on your Smart phone?" David inquired.

"I do, but I also like a paper copy, sort of hands-on method as well. I guess I'm just old-fashioned that way. I think it keeps me from making foolish or non-profitable decisions."

"Good records make good business and money!" David remarked with a wide smile.

Mattie just sort of digested all of this, much like his breakfast earlier. He certainly belonged to the clean plate club I noticed as he ate. The more I thought on it, the more I realized a sit-down breakfast in a restaurant for both of the boys was probably a real treat. I didn't imagine it happened very often in their young lives.

The twenty-six foot "reefer" was the larger of the two refrigerator trucks we used on the farm. I decided I'd need it this trip, given the sale bill my distributor sent to me and posted on line. I intended to pick up a goodly number of Number One and Number Two (canner) tomatoes and blueberries as well as some other fruit shipped in from down south, and an assorted number of vegetables. I wanted to look at his peppers, cauliflower, radishes, lettuce, carrots, and green onions for a starter. What else I might purchase depended on what I thought would sell or really a bargain.

We were met at the door by a sales clerk (Customer Service Representative aka-CSR) who'd accompany us as we perused and shopped out way through the rows of produce Using an electronic hand-held order pad, he scanned in my customer account number, automatically opening my "shopping cart." It'd record items, quantity, price of the purchase, adjust the warehouse availability inventory, and notify the Order Fulfillment Crew (OFC) to begin assembling my purchases near the loading dock.

Reaching the tomatoes, I opened a box, they came in twenty-five pound boxes, took one out, and examined it carefully. Motioning the boys closer, I pointed out the uniform size, the nice bright color, and the firmness of the fruit.

"Notice how bright and inviting the color is? The fruit is not too firm, being underripe, or soft, indicating over-ripeness, so it'll keep well. Smell it," I instructed, "notice it has a fresh, tomato smell and pleasant."

I pulled out my pocket knife, selected a tomato from the box marked "samples," chose one and sliced it in half. I cut a slice for each of us and invited the boys to taste. The tomato had a sweet yet slightly acid taste, didn't hang heavily on the palate, and a fresh from the garden flavor.

"Ordinarily, I like to sell out all of our Thursday purchases by the next Wednesday. If need be, I could hold these over until the second weekend without too much deterioration in quality. Tomatoes continue to ripen after picking so we have to watch them closely."

The #2's were irregular in size, shape, and color, although none were underripe. Perfect for canning, or eating for that matter. I ordered the same amount as the year before. I explained to the boys we'd have plenty of opportunity to make tomatoes available again several times throughout the summer.

The blueberries were packed in cello-wrapped one quart containers in twenty-five pound lugs (boxes), helping to preserve the quality and reducing my labor costs. They were firm, good dark blue color, popped when squeezed, and had a strong sweet, juicy blueberry taste when eaten. I ordered the same as the year before.

"I'll sell these out fast," I noted to the boys.

There were some early Georgia peaches and nectarines available. The early fruit was a little firm, with some greening around the stems of the peaches, but would ripen to a point, and then turn pithy. They didn't have that "juice running down your chin" quality, but would do for canning. I ordered slightly fewer than the year before, again noting to the boys better quality would be here later in the season.

I bought several lugs of cherries. They were dark red, multi-purpose cherries, good for pies and not bad for eating or sauces.

Vegetables were next. The green beans had a nice green color, all about six to seven inches long, firm pods with well-developed seed inside, and "snapped" when broken. They were in bulk, thirty pounds to the case. I ordered the same as the year before.

Cauliflower is always popular and we stopped raising it several years before.

"Boys," I said picking up a head, "notice how white and firm the head is. There's no browning on the top or black spots visible, the leaves, although trimmed are still firm, the fleurettes or flowerheads are tight and firm."

I ordered a little more than the year before. The sweet bell peppers, red and green, were nicely sized, firm, no wrinkles, and when tasted, had that sweet, fresh, pepper taste and "snapped" when a strip was bitten into. I ordered the same as the year before. The radishes were bundled in one pound bundles, but I ordered less than the year before. They sometimes sold well and sometimes didn't. I passed on the green onions.

In less than two hours we were done and ready to load. The warehouse would tally my bill and present it at the dock. I'd pay with a check before I could load. I backed out truck up the loading dock and a forklift operator began moving pallets of produce to it. Fortunately, there was a young man there to assist us as well. The forklift was able to drive into the truck, settle the pallets, two high as I slid sheets of three-quarter inch plywood over one layer so the weight wouldn't damage the layer underneath.

When our purchase was all loaded, I asked the dock foreman if he had any tomatoes, peppers, or onions which were unsalable. He was aware I generally picked up such produce and distributed it among the food pantries or free meal sites. This time, I had a church group, who ministered to the needs of the Latino community who wanted to can up some salsa for distribution and use at their community meal site, so I had a special interest in tomatoes, green and red peppers, and onions, other than the fresh green ones. We left with ten boxes of tomatoes, two of mixed red and green peppers, one of Jalapenos, and a twenty-five-pound bag of white onions. I called Mrs. Jenkins and told her to contact Pastor Rodriguez and tell him what I had and that we'd be home around one or one-thirty.

Ted and Lee, my crew chiefs had the "roller tracks" set up and several workers ready when I backed the truck up to our warehouse containing the two walk-in coolers. The ramp-like roller tracks made unloading and transporting the produce from the truck to the cooler quick and easy; at least easier than carrying each one by hand to the cooler. The boxes were carried to the ramp and gravity would carry it down, where momentum would propel it along the ramp over the rollers, with assistance from an employee, to the crew waiting near the cooler, where they'd carry it inside and stack it.

Ted, tentatively anticipating the produce to be sent to each of our three farmer's markets, set those cases aside in three different stacks. Our own stand near the road and the seasonal market we had in town, where a large quantity of the merchandize would be sold, would be kept in storage and delivered as needed. We didn't overstock any of our market places, in fact, tended to understock. I preferred to sell out each day. It reduced waste. There are times, however, we'd guess wrong and we lose some produce for sale, but still of sufficient quality for donations to the various organizations assisting those in need for either meals or their pantries.

Mrs. Jenkins stood by watching the process and remarked how good the blueberries and tomatoes appeared.

"Couple those blueberries with our strawberries and we should sell the lot before Monday morning," she announced.

I couldn't disagree with her.

We'd just finished unloading the truck when Pastor Rodriquez arrived in his pickup truck. Accompanying him was a young Latino lad about Mattie's age, by the looks of him.

Pastor introduced his companion as Luis Andres. "He's pretty shy," Pastor said with a smile. "His Mom is one of the ladies who'll be working the kitchen this afternoon so I brought him along to help."

Introducing David and Luis, I added, "We're used to shy. Mattie doesn't say much either."

I saw Luis sort of smile bashfully at Mattie and give a little wiggle of his fingers to say "Hi" to Mattie. Mattie grinned shyly and returned the gesture.

It didn't take us long to load the peppers, tomatoes, and onions into Pastor's truck. They were preparing to leave when Luis gave a tug on Pastor's sleeve, looked up at him, expressing on his face some concern!

"I believe," Pastor said, "Luis needs to use the restroom. Could someone point him in the right direction?"

Mattie was suddenly gone from my side, extended his hand out to Luis, who clasped it quickly, and the two were off to the men's room.

"Looks like Mattie found a friend," I commented with a smile.

"Lord knows Luis needs one," Pastor sighed, "after all that poor lad's been through."

Before I could inquire, Pastor quickly said, "It's a long story, but will have to wait until another time."

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