Helpline is already competing on a level playing field

In light of all of the recent media coverage of the Port Orchard Farmer’s Market request that South Kitsap Helpline lower its prices when it participates in the market, it has come to my attention that there is quite a bit of misinformation about Helpline that should be cleared up.

For the record, Helpline is a non-profit agency supported, in part, by a for-profit retail business. That retail business is subject to all taxes and expenses that any other for-profit business is responsible for.

Regarding the Farmers Market’s “request,” there is a huge difference in my mind between being asked and being ordered to do something.

The ramifications of Helpline not doing what we were “asked” by the Farmers Market were very clearly spelled out to me and to others within our organization.

There has since been quite a bit of backtracking on the part of market officials. The inappropriate e-mail that came to me from the market’s acting manager very clearly instructed South Kitsap Helpline to raise its prices to be in line with the other vendors.

Prior discussions and those following the e-mail between the market manager and me were of a tone that insinuated we definitely would be in jeopardy of selling at the market should we not do what we were “asked.”

Beverly Beurskens and Kareen Stockton of Helpline and the Port Orchard Nursery were also included in a few of my on-site conversations with the acting market manager.

They also came away just as I did with a clear picture of what would no doubt result should Helpline choose not to raise its prices.

A clarification I must make is that this matter about pricing absolutely did not involve all of Helpline’s Port Orchard Nursery prices.

It is about only our tomatoes, which at the time happened to be just a few cents less than a local hometown nursery our greenhouse manager has always used to guide her pricing.

Our other prices are equal to, and some are even a few cents more than, current vendors at the market.

The pricing formula we’re using is the same one that the Port Orchard Nursery has always used and I fully trust our greenhouse manager, who has been doing this work at the Port Orchard Nursery for more than a decade, to price appropriately.

Further, the tomatoes priced higher at the market are Heirloom tomatoes — which we do not even sell. So really, what is the true issue?

I believe it is all about competition.

Helpline’s customer service at the market has been wonderful. Each weekend we make it a point to have at least two people there to answer questions.We engage customers, we hand out coupons, we work very hard, rarely sitting down — and it shows.

We have hundreds of thousands of people in our community we help to provide services to who are counting on us to do well.

We don’t want to blow this opportunity by being lazy or uninvolved.

Unlike one vendor who has sold similar product at the market for years who prefers to stand away from the booth talking on a cell phone for most of the day, we are accessible and personable and I think even if our prices for the tomatoes we sell were higher, we would still beat out the competition based on our business practices.

I think when there is no competition, people tend to sit back on their laurels because they are the only game in town.

They don’t have to work as hard for what they get when there is no competition.

Competition is good, it is healthy and without it nothing ever changes. It is good for the consumer and it is good for the other vendors.

If anything, I think we should be thanked for helping to bring more traffic to the market. A lot of people might say it is just because we are the food bank that our sales are exceptional, but many times customers don’t realize until the sale is complete that they are even helping the food bank.

They just see great quality products at good prices with friendly people available to assist them.

In addition, there are a few other things I neeed to clarify. Per the acting market manager whose comments appeared in a recent Port Orchard Independent article, “When I first got (Helpline’s) paperwork, I misunderstood. I thought you were giving your product away. Then I realized your prices were too low.”

In our application to the Port Orchard Farmer’s Market, which I should point out was approved by the market officials, I clearly stated that we would be selling product grown at the Port Orchard Nursery to benefit the food bank.

There could be no misinterpretation with something that clear.

My question, then, is what kind of a backlash would we have faced should we have chosen to “give” away our product?

How would that be any better? We would still have upset vendors who would lose sales to us.

My second question is our prices (but again, only our tomatoes, in truth) were deemed “too low.” But according to whom?

We feel they are a very affordable price and it is completely out of line for anyone to tell someone else what to charge for their product.

Yes, a few of us at Helpline may be new to the whole growing concept, but the people we have operating our nursery are not.

They know what they are doing and definitely know how to price appropriately without instruction and advice from others.

Another false statement I keep hearing is “Helpline has fewer expenses than the other farmers market vendors.”

The truth is, Helpline has plenty of expenses to cover — and then some.

We rarely get anything for free. We not only have to cover our for-profit business expenses, but we have to cover a portion of our non-profit expenses as well.

In fairness, a portion of these non-profit food bank-related expenses — but definitely not all — are offset by donations and sometimes grants.

This longstanding, highly incorrect view that all non-profit agencies do not have any expenses is 100 percent not the case.

All non-profits have expenses, regardless of how large or small. Grants and donations only cover a small portion of the revenue needed to operate a successful non-profit agency.

This is why the need for a sustainable, revenue-generating business model to help support the agency is critical. Otherwise agencies like ours would operate from a tent in a church parking lot once a month handing out donated food.

This would offer no stabilty to our agency or to those we help to serve.

Another false statement I have heard recently about us is, “The farmers market vendors can’t compete because Helpline has everything donated.”

That is also 100 percent incorrect. We’ve paid for the seeds, the soil, the water needed, the fuel to power our greenhouses, employee wages and taxes, just to name a few.

These are in addition to any other expenses.

We have made an investment in these things and it has obviously paid off.

The money we make from selling at the market and at other venues is put right back into the agency to cover our costs and to help support the food bank.

Any donations we might receive of seeds, soil or manure are used for the plant beds on-site that are used to grow food for the clients of our food bank and will not be sold.

We choose to recycle nursery pots and highly encourage everyone else to as well so they don’t end up in the landfill.

A successful business model like the one we have worked so hard as an agency to implement will soon not only cover all costs to run itself, but will offer surplus funding to invest back into our nonprofit food bank and social service programs.

This is the only way nonprofits can survive and thrive.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nonprofit is only a tax status, not a business model.

Our agency has a well-rounded business model that does not only rely on funding from the market because we have to bring in funding from a variety of other sources to avoid having a weak business plan.

As long as we do what is in our agency’s mission with the income we generate, we have the right to be just as successful as we want.

Finally, this rule about banning vendors with storefronts selling at the market is absurd.

First, the committee determining whether it will be implemented consists of market members, some of them vendors who have a vested interest.

Some will possibly benefit financially from not having some of these other competitors there in the future.

This is a big conflict of interest.

The farmer’s market has to change with the times. That isn’t always a bad thing.

People can no longer make jams and baked goods in their home kitchens because of health rules, so unless they can afford to rent a commercial kitchen, they are out of the market.

Cross them off. If this rule passes, Tiny’s Produce, which sells from a variety of storefronts, would also be out.

Small local vendors like Carter’s Chocolates are working hard to market their fabulous products to the widest audience possible to ensure a successful return. But because they have a small storefront, they would be out, too.

Isn’t it a goal of the market to have a wide variety of booths selling an assortment of local products to benefit the consumer? Why would the Port Orchard Farmer’s Market choose to cut off its nose to spite its face by choosing to punish these and other vendors like them?

I guarantee that is what will happen if they choose to dust off the cobwebs and reinstitute an old rule they have never followed anyway.

All because of — and let’s be very clear and call this whole firestorm what it truly is — Helpline’s tremendous success at the market.

Jennifer Hardison is the executive director of South Kitsap Helpline.

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