ImageShopping at local farmers' markets has transformed my thinking, and not just about food.

I grew up with the supermarket. And though my parents always threw a mountain of fruit and vegetables into the cart, I became accustomed to the flawlessly spherical, evenly colored, impeccably unblemished produce on display without ever considering what I might be missing.

Not that the folks were ignorant of Big Agribusiness' shortcomings. My father groused memorably about how all the flavor had been engineered out of store-bought tomatoes.

Buying fruit straight from area and regional farmers has shifted my focus in a number of ways. For one thing, I'm unafraid of bruises, dirt, bumpy rinds, discolored husks and the myriad other imperfections that rarely make it to the store shelf. (I once shucked an ear of local corn to find a rust-hued worm that looked like a tiny Aztec god feasting on one end. I promptly sliced off the worm's chunk and left him outside to enjoy it, then roasted the remainder to juicy perfection.) As I've found, what lurks under these sometimes rough, motley surfaces is astonishingly flavorful.

I've also gotten used to eating what's in season here, rather than simply buying grapes from Chile or pineapples from the Philippines. When the peaches have peaked, it's on to the Fuji apples; after the tangelos recede from staggering to just pretty good, it's time to snap up the strawberries.

But the experience of shopping this way has advantages beyond the superior merchandise. The farmers are proud of their wares and know them intimately, urging passers-by to stop at the overflowing bowls of sample wedges and even helping shoppers select the nectar-richest pears, the most succulently yielding avocadoes, the clementines with the ideal tart-to-sweet ratio.

The strength of these farming operations lies in their small size and scope. And this has prompted me to ponder what small businesses can do, especially in these days of capsizing corporations, that big ones can't.

Small companies may not have the slickest present- ation or the grandest offices, but what they offer is often crisper, fresher and more flavorful.
Boutique marketing companies, branding agencies, design houses and other diminutive outfits may not have the slickest presentation or the grandest offices, but what they offer is often crisper, fresher and tastier. We can frequently out-compete larger entities not only on price (especially as we're unshackled by bureaucracy and have the flexibility to negotiate), but on attention to detail, customer service and free samples. We'll throw in the equivalent of an extra bunch of carrots, or we'll be available at 11 p.m. when the client sends a panicked e-mail about changes in the project. More often than not, those who hire us will recall a more human transaction.

Most vitally, though, what we grow in our creative garden is not perfectly, predictably symmetrical. It isn't waxy or full of chemicals. It's not engineered to resemble some generic, flavor-free tomato of copy. It might have an unexpected texture or shape, but that's what makes it stand out from the timid truckloads of clones blandly mounded in the marketplace.

Do you stand out in your field? How are you leveraging The Power of Small in your business? This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it