Have you ever wondered what the tomato you picked up off the grocery shelf has been through, where it’s been, who grew it, how it got there? For as long as there have been farmers, there have been ways for farmers and eaters to connect. Much of the food in America goes from producer-to-consumer (in other words, from the farm to your dinner table) by first going through a number of middlemen (wholesale buyers and sellers), before entering the grocery store.
“A significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one’s own accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes.” Wendell Berry, from “The Pleasures of Eating”
The market refers to the point where farmer-grown food moves into the hands of the user or eater. This switch can occur through sales to a wholesale buyer, sales directly to a restaurant or local grocery cooperative, exchanging goods (like bushels of potatoes) for another farmer’s goods, or setting up a vegetable stand or shop on the side of the road. For most farmers, the market is where his/her financial income is made.
Many small-scale farmers are bringing food to market through a combination of ways so that they can maximize the value and/or money they receive in return. Up-to-date weekly average market prices for produce, meat, poultry and dairy products can be found on the USDA’s website and published in local newspapers, and these influence which site of distribution is most favorable.
Farmers today are thinking creatively about how to price their goods. They are producing value-added products (a new product created from processing, repackaging, or adding special features to existing products often raising the sale price), growing rare and heirloom vegetables, and participating in barter economies where produce, land, or labor are exchanged instead of dollars.
Selling food directly to the consumer, getting full retail dollar price for the food and thus maximum return on what you produce. This can mean on the side of the road, at a farmers market or through a CSA. Direct sales are a strong option for start-ups, for good communicators, and farms located on well travelled streets.
- Cutting out the middleman allows a lower price; this is attractive to customers
- Can vend unique varieties, small amounts, and fruits and vegetables that do not transport or keep well
- Seasonal Customer service is a must–the best salespeople are well-organized and creative, with a good sense of spatial and temperature management
- Can be time consuming
“Marketing” might sound like advertising your product or doing a press stunt, but marketing means selling your product, building a brand and product identity, making relationships with buyers, packaging, delivering, and keeping accounts. The computer selling company Apple does their marketing on TV; you might market your apples through a farmers market or by selling applesauce to a distributor.
Bottom line, the point of growing food is to sell it to feed people and animals, while also making a living doing so. Different strategies for sales and marketing work in different places. Some crops or marketing styles may work well in some places and fail in others. It may take some time and creative thinking to succeed; getting some advice from your elders is a good idea and don’t hesitate to try new things. Tune into your community to hear about their preferences and ways of shopping for food. Listed below are some considerations for different types of marketing.
Transporting produce to a designated, centrally located and well-visited market place where other farmers also bring their goods can be effective for farms that have a reliable output and access to transport (a van or truck). Farmers markets are popping up all over the country with music, prepared foods, and a lively scene. This can be a great way to sell, and also to show off your farm products to restaurateurs. Visibility and reliability is a big part of sustained sales.
- Enables communication with other farmers and ability to collaborate on crops, sales, recipes
- Farmers are often charged a fee to participate
- Regulations can be difficult to meet
- Requires additional infrastructure including transportation, coolers, and storage containers
- Can call for additional employees to sell
- Price competition with other farms
Wholesale is a good option for large farms with large acreage and limited crop varieties, as well as for farmers who are shy, dislike working sales, or do not consider themselves a ‘people person.’
- Selling wholesale to a distributor or middleman can be more convenient than selling direct
- Farmers receive a lower price for the produce, usually the distributor takes at least 15% up to 60% of the retail dollar
- Requires negotiation
- Grower must be able to consistently provide significant volumes of quality produce “supermarket standard”
- Needs cooling/storage and loading facility
- Must have a relationship with your purchaser
- Can be risky: price fluctuates based on commodities market, less diversity means your risk is higher
- Crop by crop basis, yearly contracts or week by week sales depending on the distributor
Customers buy seasonal shares of the farm’s production, ensuring a specific and consistent demand; farmers can develop good relations with customers but also are responsible to a pre-calculated output. For new farmers, it can be good strategy for entry because support of community can help farmers through any crop failures or climate challenges. In this model, the consumer shares the risk, plus the cash is in hand at the beginning of the season to help buy seeds and inputs.
- CSA members can help plant, maintain, and pick produce
- Requires extensive scheduling, good timing, and dedication to fill a subscription
- Consumers are often surprised with the volume of vegetables they receive, and overwhelmed, so sending a recipe is a good idea
- If you don’t mix up the variety, you’ll get complaints of “ too much chard” “too much cabbage” etc.
Pick Your Own
Pick your own operations grow food for the customers to come pick for themselves. This is very common with berries, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, also for orchard crops and cut flowers.
- The weather makes a big differenceIt needs to be neat, accessible, well-marked, and advertised on road sign and around town
- Very compatible with summer tourism
- Organic production methods will give you definite advantage in some regions (people will ask!)
- You still have to staff it, but far less than picking all the berries yourself
- This model is usually a good complement to other marketing strategies as a way to invite people to the farm
- Supplementary insurance is often required, especially if people use ladders.
For the seasoned farmer, contract-based delivery to a specific venue or set of outlets relieve farmers of having to worry about sales as much. Farm-to-school, farm-to-hospital, farm to food bank, farm to cafeteria and other models of contract farming are popping up all over the country. Institutional partnerships allow partners to develop long-term contracts with farms to deliver fresh produce and goods at a reasonable price on a crop-by-crop basis. These partnerships, like CSAs, help farms invest in their operations and guarantee their harvest won’t go to waste.
- Requires good communication/marketing skills
- Need to develop a relationship with purchaser
- Not good for amateurs; contracts require fulfillment and high quality standards
- Can require crop insurance or GAP certification for food safety standards
- May need to pre-wash to their specifications, or pre-chop vegetables in a certified kitchen
- This is a great way to sell a LOT of storage vegetables all at once, and get them off your farm
- Facilities that plan for seasonal pulses of food will process, freeze and store vegetable for their own future use (a great use of those big institutional kitchens and freezers!)
Retail or Restaurant Sale
Sending your produce off to a restaurant or store and having someone else sell them to the customer can be good for farmers who like to maintain control of product quality and for those farmers who specialize in gourmet crops
- Must develop good relationships, trust
- Can be time intensive to maintain
- For top dollar fancy food markets, quality standards must be highAbility to negotiate prices; building a relationship with the produce buyer is key
- Lower volume of sales means tighter margins on each case
- Labeling and branding for your farm are important, as is the handling by the retail outlet
- Fancy restaurants are keen to show off their local produce, but sometimes they don’t pay their bills (or they go out of business!)
Evan and Rachel raise heritage breed ducks and grow heirloom vegetables on their farm in Oregon.
“80-90% of our sales is to restaurants. We have some local food co-ops. The chef connection and really working with the chef is very important to us. It’s all about relationships. We also grow heirloom squash and tomatoes, stuff that was kind of pre-1950. We collect stuff too, some Tom Wagner’s tomatoes, some of the new creations. But we really have an interest in collecting rarities and things that are in need of preservation.”
Jacob and Courtney Cowgill at Prairie Heritage Farm in Central MT
Jacob and Courtney own and operate Prairie Heritage Farm, which is a diversified, organic farm that focuses on three main enterprises: organic vegetables, organic heritage pasture-raised turkeys, and organic heritage and ancient grains.
“We sell all three products directly to customers, by individual orders and at the area farmers markets. But, a large part of our farm is devoted to our Community Supported Agriculture programs. CSA customers buy in to the farm, essentially becoming ‘shareholders.’ In return they share in the bounty — and risk — of the farm. In our vegetable CSA program, shareholders pay up front in the spring and in turn, get a weekly bag of produce for 16-18 weeks. With our Thanksgiving CSA, shareholders pay at the beginning of the season and a few days before Thanksgiving, get their “share” which includes a turkey, onions, potatoes, winter squash, herbs and other fixings for the yearly feast. And with our Grain and Seed CSA, shareholders get nearly 100 pounds of grains and seeds not readily available anywhere else, like specialty lentils, barley, a variety of heritage spring wheat and ancient grains, including Emmer and Khorasan. The past two years we have been trialing amaranth, quinoa, dry beans, and teff to be added to shares one day.”
Mary Ellen and Austin Chadd at Green Spark Farm in Cape Elizabeth, ME
Mary Ellen and Austin cultivate rare and heirloom vegetables, cut flowers, garden seedlings and medicinal herbs, serving the community around Portland, ME.
“Right now we grow mixed vegetables, and most of our sales are through the Portland, Maine Farmers’ Market. We have also started an online market. We pre-sell online, so people order and then they pay for it and pick up their orders every two weeks at a specific pick-up date. The online order has been great for our winter market. And we call it Cape SoPo winter share because it’s in Cape Elizabeth and South Portland, which are towns right outside of Portland.”
Cara Fraver and Luke Deikis at Quincy Farm in Upstate NY
Cara and Luke are just getting started and plan to grow vegetables over 48 acres of farmland.
“We plan to sell CSA shares as the years progress, but in our first year we will market exclusively through farmers markets until we feel confident that we know our land and what we can produce. In the second year, we hope to sell CSA shares to our neighbors and in the following years branch out to other upstate neighborhoods and eventually New York City’s CSA network. We feel that CSA offers a unique opportunity to farmers. Logistically, it provides income in the spring when most of the operating costs are due. It also provides security for the farmers; we will know exactly how much food we need to grow and will be able to predict our income. I think that CSA fills some deeper needs that I have as a farmer, too. Knowing the people for whom I am growing food is part of the draw of farming.”
Increasing Profit & Cutting Cost
People often say farming isn’t profitable, and it isn’t compared with many other businesses, but planning for a ‘more profitable’ farm business is the responsibility of the entrepreneur.
Certified Organic means that your farm is run without synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, GMO organisms or sewage sludge. Certified means that the USDA regulates and verifies that your practices are organic. Becoming a USDA certified organic farm requires a set amount of paperwork and due diligence and documentation. Once certified, farmers can charge a premium for “certified organic produce” and there is strong market growth for organic produce and value added goods. Even without certification, growing organically (pesticide-free) can help save dollars in the long run by by preserving soil conditions and overall health of crops.
Value-added products take additional steps to transform raw ingredients into finished products that sell for a higher price than their individual ingredients. It takes extra time, materials and equipment but value-added processing can be key to long term farm viability. Value-added products can take advantage of unsold, extra or damaged crops that might otherwise go to waste, and may offer opportunities to employ laborers who are not as physically strong as fieldworkers. Value-added products include: ketchup, pickles, sauerkraut, jam, cheese, wreathes, potpourri, jerky, bread, cornmeal, dried mushrooms, etc.
Some items may require additional licensing, such as commercial kitchens or pasteurization. Call the board of Agriculture and Markets in your state to learn more about what rules apply to the products you want to produce. There are exemptions available for many home baked goods, bread, high-acid canning (like tomato sauce) and jam–but it’s better to CHECK FIRST to avoid fines, fees, and breaking the law.
Some farmers embrace agricultural education as a part of their mission. Farms may teach schoolchildren, tour adults, offer classes and workshops for new farmers, cheesemakers, beekeepers, or more. On farm education classes generally require additional farm insurance.
If you are naturally hospitable, you might consider opening up the farm for public events such as tours, workshops, camps and dinners. Special tourist events can be a great way to add to income and educate the larger community on farming. Many people will pay to eat a nice delicious dinner while sitting in a field! There are many Bed and Breakfasts and little Inns (especially near towns with museums, antiques, ski slopes) that are based on a farm, with farm fresh food for breakfast.
Agritourism is a good option for farms that have historic or interesting architecture, an educational goal, location close to a lot people, and a scenic location/landscape or buildings. Farmers should have the ability to watch over visitors and staff, keep a tidy and safe farm, be friendly and open, and enjoy the disruptions that come from visitors. Agritourism generally requires additional farm insurance.
Transporting what the farm produces to market is a huge cost for most farmers. Finding a market close to the farm can help cut costs, not to mention environmental impact. Staying local provides a great opportunity for developing a loyal local customer base that depends on your farm, reduce “food miles” and a long lasting support base for your farm. So called “direct sales” of produce may take time away from the farm, but you get a retail price for your produce. Many beginning farmers build their businesses with high value vegetable sales so that they have the capital to expand production and then move into more wholesale when they have more volume to sell.
Farmer Advice: Marketing
Before you get started, make sure you know your market niche (what do I sell, and who do I sell it to?), define your operation’s image (what is my mission?), and advertise yourself. Local press and the Internet are great tools to spread word of your new farm. National and regional online farm listings provide a way for potential buyers/eaters/consumers to find you.
Some possible marketing ideas include:
- Advertise your roadside stand in the local paper
- Take out an ad in the church circular
- Sponsor an ad at the local diner
- Put up a roadside sign at your farmSponsor a local t-ball team
- Have a Facebook page
- Keep a Twitter account
- Use a newsletter to connect with your customers
- Put your farm into the farmer’s market database, etc…
Here’s what some farmers are doing to expand their reach and tell more people about their farms and products:
Pawel Buda and Kelly Firkins of Delabu Farm in South Central MN:
“Word of mouth, website, facebook, twitter, localharvest.com, The Land Stewardship’s CSA guide and farm list, MN homegrown website/searchable database, craigslist, last year we put up posters but this year we’ll distribute some brochures, there was one article in the local paper as well…”
Dana Gentile of Darlin’ Doe Farm in NY:
“Well, I am just starting to market my meat. I am working on getting a website up, and Facebook is another great way to market a small business online. I also started to donate product to small local auctions to get new customers and to have more people see my products, and small farmers market are also a great place to get started. The possibilities are seemingly endless so we’re still figuring out what strategies work best for us. Word of mouth is of course a good old standby so we talk about our product everywhere go, to anyone who will listen!”
New Ideas for Distribution = New Ideas for Collaboration
Farmers work hard to produce food, but they work just as hard to make farming work for them as a living while constantly adapting to changing market demands. This means coming up with new ideas for distributing goods and conserving resources, and collaborating with fellow farmers, neighbors, consumers, and institutions like internet-based farmers markets, and buying clubs. One of the most important things a farmer does is to build a community around their farm, so that resources–as well as losses–can be leveraged and shared.
Think about your neighborhood and where your family shops for food. Do you shop near your home or school? Or is the grocery store faraway? Maybe your neighborhood doesn’t have a grocery store at all. If that is true, think about the places where you buy food instead–maybe from a convenience store or a fast food drive-thru window. Have you ever thought about why you purchase food where you do?
Poor food access is an issue that is hurting neighborhoods all over the country. Studies show that people who live in neighborhoods with less access to healthy and affordable foods (such as fresh produce, whole grains, and preservative-free meats) are more likely to develop diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
In some communities, people are demanding their rights to affordable, accessible healthy food choices. They are organizing farmers markets, reclaiming abandoned lots for community farms and gardens, and learning to grow their own food. These neighborhoods need farmer collaborators–farmers who want to bring their goods to market in these neighborhoods and help organize other farmers to do the same.
When looking for market options, beginning farmers should consider communities with restricted access to locally produced, fresh foods. In places with such need-driven demands, farmers may find they are able to carve out a viable market for themselves while growing an urban renewal.
Getting the Word Out
There is no market without consumers. Luckily, new farmers have something on their side to make marketing easier– the internet! Marketing is a whole new skill set for most small business owners, and many farmers are taking advantage of free and low cost social media tools and websites to help owners spread the word about their products. One of the easiest ways to begin marketing your products is to participate in your local community events. Join the local Chamber of Commerce or Grange, volunteer for the 4-H and the county fair. Go to the library, the local diner, coffee shop and general store – and talk to your neighbors. Listen to the stories they have about farming, the land and food. Make friends, develop relationships and barter with those that have resources you’d like to share or use. Share your time helping and getting to know your neighbors, and they will help spread the word about you and your business without you spending a penny.
Once you have your farm up and running – host an open house and invite members of the community to join you on a tour of the farm and community potluck that evening to strengthen relationships. Invite an agriculture class from the local high school to tour your farm, and offer job shadowing opportunities to interested young folk. The strong and lasting relationships you create will help ensure your farm is a success!
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