It was market day in Ponyville, and all the farmers were in the center of town, selling their wares.
“Hello!” said Carrot Top, to the pink pony with a blue mane who was perusing her stall. “How can I help you today?”
Aloe smiled up at Carrot Top before returning her gaze to the stand. “Do you have carrot juice?”
“Yes, we do!” The farmer pointed behind her at a few barrels. “Would you like a glass?”
“Oh, I’m not thirsty right now. But Lotus and I were discussing adding a health drink bar to the spa. If we were to include carrot juice, do you think you’d be able to supply us? We’re anticipating selling five barrels a week or so.”
Carrot Top blinked a few times while she made sure she’d heard Aloe correctly. Most of the catering contracts in the area went to the Apple Trust as a matter of course; the restaurants, similarly, bought from the apple farms in far greater quantities than from any of the others. Any new stream of revenue was a welcome sign, and selling five barrels of carrot juice a week certainly counted as revenue.
“Yes,” she managed at last. “Yes, of course! We’d be happy to supply you.”
The two hashed out the numbers quickly. Carrot Top wasn’t what one might call a ‘great negotiator,’ often selling her products for less than she could if she pushed harder. But she was generous by nature and couldn’t find it in her to squeeze every possible bit out of her customers. As such, it didn’t take them long to come to a deal.
“There is one thing, though,” said Aloe.
“Well, our customers need to know they’re getting the healthiest food we can provide. Before we receive our first order, we’ll need you to have a batch of your carrots put through a nutritional analysis.”
“… a what?“ Carrot Top frowned. “I can tell you what vitamins are in carrots, if that’s what you mean.”
“No, I mean, we just need to see that your carrots meet our standards. Our customers will accept only the healthiest foods. So we're having all of our juice vendors get their drink inspected by an external group.”
“My carrots are healthy. I don't take any shortcuts in growing them,” said Carrot Top, hurt. “Come on, Aloe, you know that.”
“Yes, but we still need to be able to guarantee the quality of the drinks to our customers. Nothing against you, but we have to see the evidence so we can tell our customers that we're certain they're getting the purest and most nutritious drinks we can find. Besides, if your carrots are as healthy as you say they are, all the analysis will do is prove that. What’s the problem?”
She had a point. “I guess I understand that. Um, who does these ‘analyses’?”
“There’s a lab in Canterlot that we’ve had good success with. They even give us a discount.” Aloe smiled. “The boss there makes up some reason to visit Ponyville at least once a month; she says that we give a better spa treatment than anywhere in Canterlot. I’ll tell them that you’re with us. It shouldn’t cost you more than...” She named the figure. The rather high figure.
“That much?” Carrot Top couldn’t help but gasp.
“Is that a problem?” Aloe frowned.
Carrot Top paused.
“I mean, if it is, no hard feelings. We’re small business owners too, we totally understand having to prioritize what you spend your bits on.” Aloe smiled gently and took a carrot. “How much for this, by the way? It looks really good.”
Aloe tossed them into the cup. “But if you can’t do it, please just let us know as soon as possible so we can go to our backup plan.”
“The Apples?” guessed Carrot Top.
“Yeah. Lotus wanted to just start with them, actually, but apples have so much sugar that we thought we’d try you first.”
“I can do it,” said Carrot Top, as quickly as she could. “I’ll get the carrots shipped out tonight.”
“Then you should get the results by next Wednesday. Send them to us, and we can approve the carrot juice deal.” Aloe smiled and began to walk off. “Looking forward to doing business with you!”
“Yeah! You too!” But Carrot Top’s smile fell as soon as Aloe had walked off. Where was she going to get that kind of money? That would basically use up the rest of the reward money that the Court had given her for helping to save the world from Corona. Actually, this would completely use it up, and would go beyond that once shipping was factored in. Well, she might be able to hold off on fixing the south fence for another week, and if she held off on taking that day-trip to Hoofington this weekend, that would free up some more money…
Yes, it could work. She’d just have to work a little harder, that was all.
“Thank ya very much!” Carrot Top turned to see Applejack helping Filthy Rich, one of Ponyville’s richest ponies, load a large pallet of jars of zap apple jam onto his back. Filthy Rich dumped a whole bag of bits on the counter. “Pleasure doin’ business with ya!”
Carrot Top forced herself to look away. She didn’t have time to worry about the Apples and their (much more successful) farm. She had her own stall to run.
“Hey, Carrot Top! Ah gots… gotta talk ta ya!”
She turned to see Berry Punch, who looked unwell – more so than usual. The lavender mare was clutching her head.
“Are you okay?” asked Carrot Top, though she had a pretty good idea of what was wrong with her.
“Was… was tryin’ out some new mixes last night… got a little carried away.” Berry Punch shook her head. “Hangover from Tartarus… don’t s’pose you could sell me one of your cure-alls?”
Carrot Top nodded. Her knowledge of herbology was useful when it came to medicines for common ailments, and she’d discovered a good hangover cure that wasn’t too hard to mix up. “Any of the drinks make the cut?”
“Yeah, one. I'm calling it the Rainbow Dash… uses just a little bit of liquid rainbow. Got a real kick!” Berry smiled, but unfortunately she opened her eyes wider to do so, which was a poor idea considering her migraine. “Ow!”
“Here,” said Carrot Top, rapidly setting a cup on the table and offering Berry Punch the straw.
Berry gulped it down. “Thanks, Carrot Top. You’re a lifesaver. How much?”
“Six bits,” said Carrot Top.
Berry Punch hesitated. “Wait... uh…” She dug around in her saddlebag. “Only have four…”
“That’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” said Carrot Top.
It cost five bits of ingredients to make the hangover tonic. Carrot Top knew, then, that she should price it at around eight or nine bits, to recoup other costs (electricity, transport) and make a little profit for herself. But the farmer always had trouble charging more than a bit or two over cost for medicine. A few ponies insisted on paying more anyway – Trixie was the other big buyer of this particular item, and she at least paid what it was worth – but most didn’t. And now Berry was two bits short -- and this wasn't the first time, for every four times that Berry bought the tonic, she tended to be short a bit or two once. Carrot Top tried to tell herself that she should refuse to sell it to Berry, that she had to make a living and at least sell at cost, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave that mare in obvious pain.
Still, though, her mind ran the numbers as she began calling more customers to her store. One bit lost, so that’s one more you owe now. Might want to put off getting that new work hat…
Carrot Top hated it when it seemed like she would go into the market, try to sell her carrots, and wind up losing money. It would be nice if, just once, she could get enough bits to have a little breathing room. Then she wouldn't be so stressed by bad days. I could do it if I just charged more and pushed harder… if I was more businesslike, like the Apples… aw, who am I kidding? I think that every week and I never do it.
“It’s here! It’s here!”
Carrot Top turned. A very loud foal was running down the street.
“It’s finally here! Everypony, it’s here at last!” Apple Bloom was practically doing cartwheels as she galloped down the lane. “Big meetin’ at town hall about it! Let’s all turn out ta cheer ma sister on ta another big win!”
“Heya, Apple Bloom. Uh, what’s here?” called out Applejack. But she was smiling knowingly – she already knew, then, and they were just putting on a show for the other ponies.
“Watch out!” cried Lily as she dodged to one side. Apple Bloom just kept running, voice raising in joyous celebration.
“The Annual Great Equestria Farm Competition is here again!” Apple Bloom did an impromptu somersault and almost wound up in the town fountain, but she righted herself and kept going. “YEEHAW!”
All the customers headed to town hall to hear the speeches, so Carrot Top decided to go too. There wasn’t much point in selling carrots if nopony was around to buy them.
“Hey,” said Trixie, trotting up behind Carrot Top. “What’s going on?”
“Big farming competition,” said Carrot Top, pointing with one hoof at the town hall. It was freshly decorated with banners and streamers, most in the Apple Trust’s red-and-green colors. “It’s held in Canterlot. Don’t you know about it?”
“I was never really into gardening,” mused Trixie. “Don’t think it ever caught my eye.”
Carrot Top glared at her. "Gardening?"
Trixie seemed unphased. "What?"
The carrot farmer sighed. It would nice to be able to actually pull off a good glare once in a while. "...anyway." She nodded at the big stage, and the large tables in front of it that were set up with various apple products. “Farms from all over Equestria compete to produce the best produce and dishes. The winner gets a huge pile of money.”
“Well, you should enter then!” Trixie grinned and nudged Carrot Top. “You’ve got great crops.”
“Attention, please!” It was Mayor Scrolls, speaking from the podium. “Once again the Annual Great Equestria Farm Competition is upon us. And, as always, Applejack and the Apple Trust have agreed to enter and represent Ponyville!”
There was polite hoof-claps from the audience.
“As many of you no doubt recall, the Apple Trust has won prize money for the past ten years straight, and, each year, they have donated one quarter of their winnings to Ponyville.” More cheers. “Most recently, they were the runner-up in the competition last year, and their donations allowed us to refurbish the town hall and put some money into the town disaster fund. That money was used just a short time ago to repair some of the damages to our village after the, uh, Ursa Incident.”
There was more applause, hooves noisily drumming against the cobblestone.
“The Apple Trust has once again pledged, in advance, to donate one quarter of their winnings to the town. Please join me in giving a warm thank-you to Applejack!”
Applejack, having just entered from the stall area, took the podium. “Friends an’ fellow Ponyville citizens, it’s an honor ta represent this here town before farmers from all over Equestria. Once again, ah swear ta do ya proud, an’ ta work real hard ta take home the big prize!” There were cheers. “Ah think we all recall how awesome it was when we won it all three years ago, an’ here’s hopin’ we do it again!”
Carrot Top whispered to Trixie, “That’s the problem. The Trust always does really well. They’d just beat me, and I’d be out the registration fee.”
“Well, with an attitude like that, sure.” Trixie frowned. “How do you know they’d win? How many Ponyville teams entered last year?”
“Just the Trust. They’re always the only team from Ponyville. No point in anypony else trying, I guess -- we can all barely hang on; we don't have the resources to compete against them and farms even bigger than they are. Besides, they always give some of the prize money back to the town, so it’d look rude to challenge them. Like I was trying to take money from everypony else.”
“Rude?” Trixie raised an eyebrow. “Really? Come on, Carrot Top. You know they could give that money to the town and not notice the loss, even if they didn’t enter. It’s just Applejack trying to look good.”
“I know, but…”
"Besides, it's not like Applejack's really popular. Who's going to care if you try to show her up?"
"Maybe Applejack herself isn't, but everypony in town respects the Trust. They provide a lot of the food around here, and like Applejack said, they do donate money to the town. Going against them... well, you know how Applejack is. She'd probably make me out to be unpatriotic or something."
Trixie chuckled. "Who cares what she thinks?"
"I do, if my customers boycott me because of it."
From the stage, Applejack beamed. “Now, in celebration of our upcomin’ victory, ah believe the mayor’s provided a little somethin’ ta eat?”
“Well,” joked the mayor, “It’s you who provided it, Applejack, I just had a few ponies set up the tables.”
Applejack laughed. “The dishes that’re gonna knock the hats off the judges, colts and fillies! Dig in!”
“You should really think about it,” observed Trixie, as they watched the other ponies get in line to eat.
“Trixie, come on.”
“You’ve got a great shot. We both know it” She smiled. “Look at it this way. You know I’ll help you, and so will the other Elements. Your carrots that are more than a match for any of their apples. And I’m sure the money would be helpful.”
It certainly would. Carrot Top could think of exactly what she’d do with it. Take care of all the maintenance work that had been slowly piling up. Get new equipment, maybe even a new irrigation system to replace her broken and crumbling pipes. Buy the plot of land just to the south of her farm; it was perfect for growing carrots. Maybe even take a short vacation. How long had it been since she’d gotten out of town for more than a day? But with that prize money, she could justify closing up for a few days in the winter and heading out to Manehattan, or Los Pegasus… maybe even Amblerja.
“And if you’re really worried about the town objecting, can’t you just offer to donate a quarter of the winnings too? Then the town might make even more money, if both you and the Apple Trust place. What’s bad about that?”
It made sense, and it was probably something that Carrot Top would do anyway if she did take home some money – she wouldn’t just hoard her winnings, that wasn’t who she was.
That’s part of your problem. The familiar thought crossed her mind and then was gone before Carrot Top could really focus on it.
“I know it’s a risk, but we’ll all help you as much as we can.” Trixie smiled, and it seemed a bit more sincere this time. “In fact, I'll ask around, find a few ponies who can loan you the bits for the registration fee. Wouldn’t it be worth trying?”
Carrot Top thought. She worked extremely hard to produce the best produce possible, and her customers confirmed that her product was good. Great, even. If not for the Trust’s gargantuan size, Carrot Top suspected that she’d have a good shot against them. And even with the size…
Having that kind of windfall would be so nice. I could finally have a break.
“Alright,” she said.
“Alright. I’ll do it!”
My little pony, My little pony
Ahh ahh ahh ahhh...
My little pony
Friendship never meant that much to me
My little pony
But you're all here and now I can see
Stormy weather; Lots to share
A musical bond; With love and care
Teaching laughter; It's an easy feat,
And magic makes it all complete!
You have my little ponies
How'd I ever make so many true friends?
The knock on the door came a few hours after Carrot Top had filled out her paperwork.
“Come in!” Carrot Top hurried to the door. Her table was filled with ideas for recipes. She felt more energized and excited than she had in weeks. She was going to fight for her farm, was going to take on the Apple Trust. This would be fun!
She opened the door to reveal a scowling orange pony.
“Uh. Hi Applejack.”
Carrot Top let the orange mare in. “What’s up?”
“What in tarnations are ya doin’? Ah just got word from Mayor Scrolls that ya entered ya’r farm in the Canterlot Farm Competition?”
“Yeah, I checked and there’s no rule saying only one team per village.”
“That don’t matter!” Applejack sighed. “Look. Here’s the thing. It ain’t that ah’m against ya competin’ in principle, but ya gotta understand how it’ll look ta the judges. Some of the votes we get are from judges who like Ponyville, or who like rustic an’ rural farms in general instead of the industrial city ones.”
“You think I’ll split the Ponyville votes.”
Applejack nodded. “Yeah, ‘xacty. Then maybe neither of us’ll place. D’ya know what that’d mean?”
“…we’d be out the registration fees?”
“Dang it, Carrot Top, think! Every year we give some of our winnins back ta the town. They’ve come ta rely on it. Ya know how bad the Ursa messed up the downtown area, an’ the relief money from Canterlot took weeks ta get here. If it weren’t fer that disaster fund, there would have been a lot more ponies without their workplaces fer a lot longer. If ya make it so we don’t place, then the town’s short money fer next year.”
“I really don't think it's that serious. Come on, Applejack. The town doesn't depend on your farm winning this thing.”
Applejack looked like Carrot Top had just told her that Ursas made great pets. “What, are ya crazy? Look -- if ya had a good chance at winnin', ah'd understand, but ya'r practically a novice at this. Ya'r gonna hurt our chances an' ya ain't gonna place yarself, so all ya'r doin' is hurtin' the town.”
“I’m a perfectly capable farmer, Applejack.”
“Ah know ya are. Never said otherwise. But this’ll be ya’r first big competish, an’ ya don’t know how it is. Ya don’t know how ta impress the judges, or even who they are an’ what they like. Can ya tell me which judge hates desserts, an’ which one’s allergic ta wheat, or maybe which one’s got a cousin who grows potatoes an’ always votes for a dish with taters in it? Hay, d’ya even know what ta wear?”
“Well, no, but—“
“Then ya don’t have a shot.” Applejack paused. “Look. If ya want ta get inta the competition world, ah respect that. Heck, if ya were gonna enter one of the smaller ones – the Farmers' Meet in Fillydelphia next month, decent prize too, or the Rural Farmers Union Battle over by Hoofington – ah’d support ya. Us Ponyville folk gotta stick together, after all. But this is too important. The town needs this win. An’, frankly, so does Sweet Apple Acres. Ain’t been a great year. Big Mac was sick durin’ the zap apple harvest, an’ two of our biggest trees died of rot.”
If there was one thing that Carrot Top found most distasteful about Applejack, it was the pony’s insistence that her farm was perpetually close to bankruptcy. It was a lot better off than any other farm in Ponyville, after all. “I’m competing, Applejack. That’s all there is to it.”
“Fine. But don’t think we’ll go easy on ya. We’ll play fair, mind ya, no cheatin’, but we’ll play hard.” Applejack tipped her hat. “Hope ya don’t regret this, Carrot Top.”
Applejack swept out the door and bucked it shut.