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Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Cultivating Questions: Direct Marketing

by Anne & Eric Nordell
illustrations by Ed Ochsner

Dear Nordells,

I have enjoyed reading about your experiences in The Small Farmer’s Journal. Please send me your video. I am especially interested in the “sales” aspect of your operation. I believe you called it “direct market sales”; I would like to know the details of how you are doing this. I hope your video addresses this.

Sincerely,
Michael R. Whitman
Anderson, SC

By “direct market sales” we mean selling to the end user so that we capture the middleman’s share of the profits. A farmers market is a prime example. In this informal setting food and money are exchanged directly between grower and shopper. We have found that selling directly to the end user can double or even triple the prices we would otherwise receive at a produce auction or through a conventional broker.

The tradeoff, of course, is that direct marketing often requires two to three times as much time and effort as wholesaling. After all, at least half of “market gardening” is marketing. Not everyone is cut out for this task, myself included. Fortunately, my “other half” has a natural eye for quality and the knack for making face-to-face sales.

The reward for Anne’s time spent away from the fields is that she has developed a community of supportive customers who take a personal interest in our welfare and the farm. It is not unusual for her customers at The Williamsport Outdoor Growers Market to bring her mugs of fresh brewed coffee on cold, raw mornings, or give her samples of their favorite recipes made with our vegetables. They worry with us through extended droughts and ask about the health of the horses. In a profession which requires so much personal investment, their emotional support is appreciated as much as their dollars.

Direct marketing also offers some wonderful educational opportunities. With a population of over 30,000, Williamsport is not exactly a one horse town and it should be able to support quite a few family farmers. However, Williamsport is not a progressive place either. Even during the Alar Scare at the end of the 80’s when supermarkets throughout the Northeast were scrambling to stock their shelves with organic produce, the stores in our area did not identify our lettuce as “certified organic” or even “locally grown” despite all of the shoppers pestering the produce buyers for more of “that good tasting lettuce.”

At the farmers market, by comparison, when customers ask why our vegetables taste so sweet and flavorful, Anne has the opportunity to explain how we take care of the soil. In this way they eventually make the connection between the distinctive flavor of our produce and how it is grown.

Unfortunately, educating people through their stomachs is a very slow process. Our farm would not have survived had we relied solely on local sales from the start. Maybe recapping in this column the evolution of our marketing strategy shown in the video will be of help to someone trying to start their own produce business under similar circumstances.

To be honest, if we had intended to make a living as market gardeners we would probably have located closer to a large, upscale market. Our original goal, however, was just the opposite. When we moved here in 1982 we had decided that we wanted to avoid the headaches of hustling perishable produce. Instead, we intended to rely on Anne’s previous experience growing and wholesaling medicinal herbs. We figured, correctly, that it would not be a problem to ship dried medicinals to distributors around the country from our relatively remote location in north central Pennsylvania.

Following the same line of reasoning, we grew a lot of root crops in the rotation because, like the herbs, they could be stored, and then shipped on demand, to areas where premium prices were paid for organic produce. Looking back on it now, it took a surprising number of specialty wholesale outlets to move a few acres of organic carrots, potatoes, onions and celery. We sold through two organic grower cooperatives, a small-scale distributor in Philadelphia, a home delivery service in DC, a national mail order company, and a holistic health center which bussed prescribed foods to its patients. In this roundabout way, we received good prices for storage crops even if it was extremely inefficient to truck small pickup loads of produce as far as five hours away.

If wholesaling organic herbs and root crops was something we actively pursued, direct marketing kind of fell into our laps when a friend, Howard Parks, insisted we take over his trade in lettuce with a small cafe in Williamsport. The owners, who had just opened another fine dining restaurant, were interested in finding a season long supply of leaf lettuce, something we thought might be feasible to do on our mountaintop site.

To make the twice-weekly trip to Williamsport worthwhile, Anne approached other restaurants with samples of our produce. She ended up with ten accounts because we could offer picked-that-morning freshness which their regular suppliers simply could not match. The wide selection of culinary herbs that we grew also attracted the chefs attention right from the start. To this day, Anne is known around town as The Herb Lady.

To deal with the inevitable surpluses of perishable produce which results from unpredictable demand and the weather, Anne also approached several independently owned supermarkets and specialty shops. Again, the produce buyers were impressed by the quality of our produce and were willing to work with us provided we kept our prices in line with their suppliers and gave them sufficient notice of the availability of each item.

Anne began attending the Williamsport Growers Market in 1992 partly out of concern that the restaurants were facing financially shaky times and partly because we felt certain there must be a few individuals in Williamsport who might be interested in organically grown produce but did not shop at the small natural foods store we supplied. As it turned out, there was very little demand for organics, although our stand proved popular due to its attractive display and the fact that our cool season crops complemented the sweet corn, tomatoes and cantaloupes sold by the growers from the “tropics” south of Williamsport. We were also the first farmers to bring fresh and dried flower bouquets to the Saturday market and the only ones foolish enough to grow labor intensive crops like scallions, carrots and leeks. We sold value added products made by our friends, such as honey vinegar, which complements our salad mix, and herb jellies made from our herbs. Ethnic foods, like endive, collards and kale attracted shoppers to our stand as well. Although culinary herbs did not turn out to be a big money maker at market, the smell of fresh dill and basil acted like a magnet.

A genuine interest in pure foods finally arrived in Williamsport just the past two years. In fact, a new mega-supermarket, which actively promotes locally grown and organically grown produce, actually pays us premium prices for our vegetables. When we have sufficient supply, the produce staff creates a separate display for Beech Grove Farm which often sells out within a matter of hours. To remain competitive, other area supermarkets have begun labeling our produce as “certified organic” or using our Beech Grove Farm label. For the first time, a significant percentage of new customers at the farmers market are specifically seeking out organically grown food.

As a result, over 90 percent of our farm income came from local sales last year. This year we are aiming for close to 100 percent. While it is certainly rewarding to have our farm practices finally recognized in the marketplace, we do not regret all the years of selling our produce incognito. In fact, in some ways it was almost as satisfying to know that our produce sold on its own merits rather than due to the latest rage in public perception.

As you can see, an evolving diversity of markets has been essential to the survival of our small business. The marketing mix has changed dramatically over the years as a result of both Opportunity and Necessity. The constantly changing mix of crops on our farm also reflects the ongoing balancing act between our market niche, our growing niche, and our own personal preferences. Just to emphasize how much all of these factors affect the nature of direct market sales, we conclude this column with brief descriptions of four very different horse-powered operations.

BROCKTON HOLLOW FARM

Sara Brown and Neal Wecker and their Old Style European Belgians are making a living from three acres of produce in Brooktondale, NY. They attend the thriving, upscale Ithaca Farmers Market along with twenty or so other organic vegetable growers who display everything from purple potatoes to exotic melons. Other vendors at this attractive pavilion on Lake Cayuga sell pastured poultry, sheep and goat cheese, brick oven breads and ready-to-eat ethnic meals.

Neal and Sara have developed a profitable niche at this diverse market by specializing in garlic. In fact, they have earned the reputation for “the best garlic in town” because they pay extra attention to presentation. They carefully select and clean for sale only the largest bulbs of their eleven-year-old Sara’s Select strain of hardneck garlic. Long braids of garlic decorated with dried flowers also bring a good price and extend the marketing season well into winter.

The small bulbs generate almost as good a return when used as seed for garlic greens. Sara and Neal plant the bulbs whole in the fall and then harvest the tops the next spring. In this way, garlic greens fill their stand at the beginning of the market season. They use the surplus greens for garlic pesto processed in a professional food kitchen. This distinctive, value-added product is a hot seller at the Ithaca Market all season long.

Garlic is also a good fit for Neal and Sara’s farm site. For instance, the large barn on the property doubles as a garlic drying facility. Garlic is deer-resistant, an important advantage as deer pressure increases in their area. They also have a cheap source of round-baled mulch hay which they roll out on the garlic after planting to suppress weeds, conserve moisture and prevent winter heaving.

Sara and Neal have also found that crops like garlic, which can be planted, or harvested, all in one shot, fits the demands of parenting an infant and pre-teenager better than managing successively planted crops of leaf lettuce and spinach which are major items for many of the other growers at market. They accept Ithaca Dollars (worth an hour of work) at their stand and use this local currency to pay willing workers who come out to the farm and help with the garlic harvest, an event which Neal and Sara have turned into a festive community celebration.

Other crops which fit their site, lifestyle and market include large Walla Walla onions, specialty potatoes, and winter squash, for many of the same reasons as garlic. This crop mix represents a major shift from the early 90’s when they began leasing the 20 acre U-Pick strawberry operation where Sara had formerly been employed. Although strawberries now make up just a small part of their income, they were a natural choice during the first years of farming on this site given the established U-Pick market at the farm and the large demand for quality small fruit at the Ithaca Market.

MAPLE HILL FARM

Strawberries remain a key component at Paul and Carol Hauser’s diversified farm in rapidly developing southeastern Pennsylvania. They push an acre or so of Early-Glo berries with floating row cover to capture the early market which brings them the best prices and attracts customers to their stand for the rest of the season. Presentation is also a big part of their success at the farmers markets in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Bucks County. They mound the quarts high-to-overflowing with large, well-ripened berries, no stems showing.

The Hausers take full advantage of their long growing season by starting with bedding plants sold out the backdoor at their Chester County Farm and through garden centers. Heirloom tomato plants have been a big draw and helped them to break into this competitive market. Then it’s six weeks of gruelling, non-stop berry picking for the whole family before taking a much needed week’s vacation with their two teenage boys. Hay making, early tomatoes and thrashing speltz follow right on the heels of strawberries along with the full complement of garden varieties for the farmers markets, a natural foods store, and their small CSA. Their orchard of apples and peaches contribute to late summer and fall sales, a Godsend in dry years, like 1997, when un-irrigated vegetable crops suffered.

For year round cash flow, the Hausers raise and sell farm fresh eggs direct to the natural food store in nearby Delaware. They also purchase calves in the fall when prices are low, feeding them milk from their two family cows bred to freshen during the winter slack season. They sell the calves in the spring when demand is high for well-started cattle to put out on pasture.

Diversifying their horsepowered operation in this way has made it possible for Carol and Paul to realize the transition to full-time farming on 24 acres. The Hausers would be the first to admit that many of the details of their business plan have changed since their article, “Evolution of a Viable Small Farm,” appeared in Fall 1993 SFJ. Nevertheless they reached their goal of grossing $35,000 right on schedule by sticking to their original premise of diversifying both their crops and their markets in order to spread their limited labor over as much of the growing season as possible.

THE WILSON COLLEGE CSA PROGRAM

Steve and Carol Moore moved, with their two youngest children, to Chambersburg, PA in 1996 in order to head up The Center for Sustainable Living Program at Wilson College. Carol and Steve work eight acres of row crops, like sweet corn and potatoes, in rotation with cover crops using their Percheron horses, and cultivate two acres of produce with hand tools using bio-intensive methods. They utilize these bio-intensive techniques to maximize production in their year round greenhouse as well.

The Moores designed the 28′ by 96′ hoophouse to capitalize on midwinter solar gain and heat retention so that, with the help of floating row covers on the planting beds, no supplemental heat is necessary. Last year they offered their CSA members a special distribution of red peppers at Christmas!

The concept of Community Supported Agriculture — where members purchase shares in the farm in return for weekly allotments of the harvest — was a new idea for the Chambersburg area. Steve and Carol spent a good bit of time the first two years speaking about food security issues to service organizations like The Lyons Club. By the end of the second year they had attracted 134 shareholders and advertising was no longer necessary.

Carol and Steve have found that a big part of the appeal of the CSA concept is that people are looking for a worthy cause to support. The members are completely dedicated to The Center, and to the Moores as individuals. Maybe the most dramatic evidence of this commitment is that over 80 percent of the members signed up again for the ’98 season despite drought-stricken crops in 1997. Taking time during the first couple of weeks of the season to make sure that new members feel welcome has been critical to nurturing this kind of commitment.

People also perceive that Wilson College CSA Program as “a good cause” since surplus vegetables are donated to the Chambersburg soup kitchen. If a member family goes away on vacation, they know their share will be put to good use rather than wasted. Beginning the CSA season in March with fresh greens from the greenhouse has also helped to attract members in a predominantly rural area where most people have their own gardens.

Now that the CSA is up and running and the Moores rely solely on their shareholders to recruit new members, Steve and Carol can devote their time almost entirely to production. Community Supported Agriculture has met their goal of eliminating all of the time, hustle and uncertainty associated with most forms of direct marketing.

(Wilson College received a SARE grant to develop resources for farmers who want to initiate a CSA project. Information packets, brochures, a video and a slide show are available at cost from the Center for Sustainable Living, Wilson College, 1015 Philadelphia Ave., Chambersburg, PA 17201.)

OLD COLLINS FARM

Of all the new farmers that we have met, Mark Hernig and his mules have reached financial sustainability faster than anyone. Instead of raising and selling crops, he direct markets the farm experience. His “Barnyard Parties” are extremely popular among elementary school children from the Charlotte, NC area. They come by the busload on a class field trip or with carloads of friends to celebrate birthdays.

The Barnyard Parties are intended to be both educational and entertaining. Mark introduces young people to farm animals and crops as well as traditional skills like blacksmithing. For fun, the kids enjoy flying down the large hay slide in the barn or touring the farm in Farmer Mark’s mule-powered wagon.

Word-of-mouth traveled so fast that Mark was booked solid by the fall of his first year of business. He has now added a summer camp to the program and, due to popular demand, is publishing a children’s book about a typical trip to Old Collins Farm.

According to Mark, the major drawback to the “infotainment” business is the high cost of liability insurance. He also finds it challenging to dream up new programs for all of his repeat customers, and it is somewhat of a frustration to spend more time on keeping the place looking neat than actually farming.

On the other hand, he is pleased that he has been able to find a remunerative way to end his life on the road as a cartographer and to work full-time at home reviving his grandfather’s farm. In the process he hopes to inform the next crop of North Carolinians about the importance of family farming.

We hope these four inspiring examples show that the possibilities for direct marketing are endless. That is not to say there won’t be many long hours, and even deadends, before the marketing mix comes together. If it is any encouragement, we sense that the opportunities and incentives for direct marketing are increasing as we approach the end of the millennium. At least, in our neck of the woods, more and more people are seeking out a direct relationship with “their grower.”

Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Quality is critical to fresh market sales, and for leafy green crops, like lettuce and spinach, that means early morning harvest while these succulent crops are still laden with dew.

Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Alternating rows of snap peas and spinach with a single row of rye and hairy vetch planted in the pathways for erosion control. Rather than competing with growers to the south for sales of heat loving crops, like tomatoes, melons, and sweet corn, we put out successive plantings of cool season crops right through the summer.

Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Reducing weed pressure through the cover crop rotation frees us up for the more lucrative work of picking high-value crops like snap peas and spinach. Another way we have reduced labor is by planting oats in the pea rows to serve as a living trellis for these determinant varieties rather than taking the time to set up (and take down) pea trellis for the tall growing varieties. In the bio-extensive market garden, time is more precious than space.

Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Another interplanting scheme which fits both our market niche and growing niche involves planting squash, lettuce starts, spinach and peas all on the same day. The harvest succession of cool season crops — from lettuce to spinach to peas — keeps just ahead of the sprawling vines of the full season squash.

One of the advantages of spacing the rows 32″ apart is this extensive planting arrangement gives the crops a large reservoir of moisture and fertility to draw on in dry times. This shot was taken in July of the dry hot year of 1995 and the spinach leaves were as large as a horse’s hoof.

Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Large leaves make it practical, if time consuming, to pick spinach by the leaf with no stem. Washed carefully and bagged, chefs and produce buyers alike immediately recognized our spinach was a good buy because it required so little preparation and there was virtually no waste. Providing a clean, quality produce which exceeded industry standards allowed us to break into the conventional marketplace long before prepared foods, like salad mix, or an organic consciousness had reached Williamsport. Although we did not initially receive a premium price for this value-added product, spinach picked-by-the- leaf got our foot in the door to three area supermarkets, ten restaurants, a couple of specialty shops and the health food store. And once people tasted our sweet, mild spinach, they always wanted more.

Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Produce moves clockwise around the packing shed, from the truck, to the washing screen, to the scale. It is then packed in recycled waxed produce boxes before being loaded back on the truck for delivery, or stored in the small walk-in cooler for the next day. Trimmings and cull produce go directly to the pigs and chickens in the nearby barn who quickly turn into compost what they do not devour.

Lack of flies in the packing shed can be attributed to this almost instantaneous composting setup as well as good ventilation and drainage in the packing shed itself. Before constructing the simple 20 by 24′ pole shed we convinced the highway department to dump several loads of fill on the site that they were excavating from nearby road ditches. We leveled off the pile with dump scoop and team and then covered this oversized raised bed with a few inches of gravel. We actually find working on this coarse surface is less tiring and slippery than concrete and it allows us to set down dripping wet produce boxes to drain anywhere in the shed. The area directly underneath the washing screen will eventually get clogged with silt so we simply replace it with clean gravel once a year.

We must admit that on harvest mornings we feel more like truck farmers than horse farmers. It has simply turned out to be more convenient to zip up to the fields in the truck at daybreak than to rise an hour earlier to bring the horses in from pasture at their prime time for grazing, and then harness and feed them before heading to the “truck patch.” By the time we have finished picking the most succulent crops and returned to the packing shed, the horses are usually waiting at the stable door to escape the heat. We find that doing barn chores is a welcome break between picking and packing. Besides this way the horses are ready for fieldwork when we are done in the packing shed.

Cultivating Questions Direct Marketing

Depending on the crop and its condition, we soak, or simply dunk, the produce in harvest barrels filled with cold spring water before gently rinsing, pressure washing, or drip drying on the screen. The washing screen is made of 1/4″ hardware cloth tacked to a light frame which is easy to lift off its supports for cleaning or storage. The truss-like supports are hinged so they can be folded back against the wall to make more room for storage in the off-season and they are so sloped so that the washing screen rests on an inclined angle. The slope of the screen, slightly exaggerated in the drawing, makes it easier to reach produce at the back of the screen and is handy for draining bagged products, like leaf spinach, before weighing, twist-tying, and labeling.

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