Blue Roof Organics is a small vegetable farm located near Stillwater, Minnesota, 30 miles from the Twin Cities. We grow seasonal produce that is marketed through the Stillwater Farmers Market, limited restaurant sales, and direct farm memberships (Community Supported Agriculture or CSA). Currently we have three acres in production using a bio-intensive strategy reliant on wide beds, transplant production, and growing mulch and compost crops. Generally, crop beds are maintained using focused applications of compost and mulch along with some interplanting in bands for weed suppression and increased diversity. Our farm is currently organic certified.
We have been in operation since 2001. Through trials, we have slowly evolved our tillage and cropping practices to decrease the disruption of our soils and to reduce off-farm inputs. Although I’ve been known to try growing everything, the farm’s primary focus is on soil building with an emphasis on garlic and heritage tomato production.
The goal of the project was to use an interesting and eye appealing market stand to attract attention to sustainable local foods and farms.
I gutted a single axle 1964 Airstream Tradewinds camper with an interior that was in extremely poor condition to renovate it into a market stand. I removed the black water system, plumbing and gas lines from the trailer frame and patched the flooring. Once cleaned out, I framed a platform 10 inches off the floor between the wheel wells, creating a pocket to slide folding tables and other long items. On top of this platform, I constructed a 4 ft. x 8 ft. x 4 ft. box out of metal and wood studs, and 10 sheets of extruded foam sheeting. The rear wall of the cooler was framed to support a packaged refrigeration unit similar to those found on retail ice chests – the unit that I used was a 6000 BTU unit manufactured by Kold Pack in Michigan. The water drain was plumbed through the floor and the 115 volt 15 amp connection was wired into one of the 2 original 20 amp circuit breakers at the very rear of the camper. The front wall of the cooler was framed with a 3 ft. wide door for easy access and use. Inside the bin, I installed some eyelets to bungee stackable bins to the walls to prevent overturn while in transit. The front area of the camper remained cleared out to provide ample space for stacking bins of produce that didn’t requiring chilling and early season transplants to market.
Externally, the market stand was fitted with a 16 ft. blue awning to provide shade. Steel recycling carts were tucked against the exterior of the Airstream with various sized blue hanging bins displaying produce. At market, I generally used larger bins on the bottom to hold potatoes, extra squash or other heavy or bulky crops and tried to put more colorful varieties on top in smaller bins. The stands were originally designed to hold three recycling bins for convenient access and also serve as a convenient dolly to haul them to the curb for collection. The carts are available through Real Goods. The two bins that I used were stacking shelf bins sold through Global Equipment and Grainger. The bins are designed to either hang from the wall or stack. I originally considered affixing metal strips for hanging bins directly on the outside of the camper, but in the end didn’t feel the aluminum frame of the Airstream would handle the stress over time. I think the moveable stands provide more flexible marketing and display opportunities.
EDUCATION, OUTREACH, AND RESULTS
The education component of the project came quite naturally by using the converted Airstream at farmers markets and by grabbing attention while on the farm. A typical conversation at market would start with someone asking me a simple question about the Airstream. It would either be where I got it from, or what year it was. The conversation would generally go from there to talking about SARE and how they came to help me in utilizing the camper as a market stand and what they do to help sustainable farmers. The conversations often turned to talking about my farm directly and what I had to offer local people. Many people were interested in the cooler box and how that played a role in the quality foods my farm produced.
The Airstream functionally worked very well with our farming operation. The chilled cooler box installed inside the camper kept vegetables fresh until sale and also facilitated more efficient harvest and handling. For harvest, the trailer could be pulled near crops if needed, reducing distances lugging heavy bins of vegetables. Preparing for market was easy with the camper – vegetables could be harvested and chilled so market mornings I only needed to hook up the trailer and head off. The vegetables were packed and ready for sale. The extra space provided by the roomy trailer allowed us to bring gear solely for display and educational purposes. Some weeks we would bring different tools and implements to show people equipment used on the farm, other weeks we would bring extra tables and display items such as soil block starts or minerals used for fertility. Generally space is pretty tight for market operators, so being able to bring extra items was a bonus that facilitated a greater level of outreach about my farms practices.
I think using a modified trailer as a market stand for a direct sale based farm has good potential. Using a dedicated vehicle for marketing allows for saving time in preparation and organization. Convenient refrigeration is also very important and is a frequently overlooked aspect of market production. Over the past season, people responded favorably to my unique stand and other vendors told me they appreciated its presence at the market. They considered it to be good for the entire market because it could be seen from a long way away, attracting attention to the market as a whole. Several repeat customers mentioned that it was easy to remember to return to the vendor with the Airstream, and it made us identifiable to friends they had referred to us. I think reusing and renovating artifacts of society such as old milk vans, campers or other unique vehicles can create smart and effective marketing for others direct market farms.
While at the farmers market I informed people about sustainable farming and how the Airstream fit into my farm. I informed people about the assistance I received from SARE in developing the market stand and how they support many farmers on a regional basis by assisting them in developing sustainable practices. I had signage specifying that I was conducting a demonstration grant affixed to the camper along with other educational material such as pictures of the farm and crops, samples of transplants and soil amendments and tools that I use to produce my farms products.
I applied to display the stand at the August 2006 National SARE Conference in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I felt that would be a great way to let people see a grant project that is fully transportable.
In the future I plan to make further improvements to the market stand. I want to add a solar power system for lighting and potentially some high efficiency DC refrigeration. I also plan to add permanent signage to advertise my farm and give credit to SARE for the grant. I will continue to inform people of SARE and the support they provide sustainable farmers at future markets when I am asked about my unique and novel market stand.
The last time you stopped at a farmer’s stand, what did it look like?
Chances are, there’s one farmer’s stand that will be like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Sean Albiston of Blue Roof Organics in Stillwater, Minnesota, uses a shiny Airstream Market Stand to market his produce. This version of the classic Airstream pull-behind camper is laden with hanging produce bins, shade canopies to protect the just-ripened tomatoes from the summer heat, and signs promoting local sustainable foods. Albiston was able to pursue this unique, eye-catching idea because of a 2004 NCR-SARE Farmer Rancher grant.
“Marketing local produce from a roadside stand in today’s world of fast food chains and supermarkets can at times seem insurmountable,” Albiston says. This can be extra challenging in Minnesota, where fresh products are only available for a short period of time. Producers can find it difficult to attract loyal customers. Novel marketing methods like the Airstream Market Stand keep sustainable products alive in the minds of customers.
The stand is customized to provide refrigeration space that supplies both cool dry and cool moist storage.
Blue Roof Organics aims to provide a truly sustainable example of local food production that relies on simple, time proven methods. Their web site is www.bluerooforganics.com.
In order to create a novel, eye catching, roadside stand for increased sales of fresh produce, the project intent is to use a 1964 Trade Wind Airstream trailer for a mobile vegetable market. The trailer will be equipped with a refrigerating unit, wet and dry storage and a sales/shelter area.