Small Farm Marketing
by Gail Luttmann
“Sooner or later the American people will have to start eating more food that’s grown closer to home,” asserts Maurice Norman, pick-your-own fruit grower from Hendersonville, Tennessee. His belief is shared by thousands of small farmers across the country who are changing the face of agriculture by growing and selling fruit and vegetables on a small scale.
Of primary concern to small scale farmers is how to market a low volume of produce in an economy geared for mass distribution. Solutions to this and other associated problems are gradually being found as growers gain experience and as various agriculture organizations take a more active role in research. Insights and ideas are often shared at conferences such as one recently held at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville.
Most important to getting a good start, agree experienced growers, is to know before you begin that there’s a market for your intended product. A general market is not sufficient, cautions Dr. M. Lloyd Downen, University of Tennessee Extension dean. You must recognize a specific market, or else create one. Worthy of serious consideration are commodities now being imported to your area, to which freight must be added and for which local money is being sent to outside areas.Nursery plants often fall into this category and provide excellent opportunities for small scale farmers, suggests Ed Porter of the Wholesale Nursery Growers Association of America.
As you list the various possibilities, give greatest weight to those you and your family really enjoy doing, and that you do well. Take into consideration as well enterprises readily adaptable to your location and to your particular piece of land. If you plan to diversify, look for compatible endeavors that require the same type of facilities and equipment to keep costs down, but for which intensive labor is needed at different seasons to avoid competition for your time. Study what is being done by others in your area and decide whether there is room for more of the same, or a need for something new and different. Talk to potential customers to get an idea of their needs and tastes. Sweet corn was Jack Looney’s choice as lead item for his roadside stand in Crossville, Tennessee, after he learned of its high demand because local home gardeners were unwilling to cultivate the large plots required for corn.
Farming is a high-risk proposition that requires long range planning, a hard look at the lag time between paying start-up costs and taking in anything of significance, and the financial ability to withstand set-backs due to the farmer’s eternal nemesis, bad weather. Having an accurate financial picture of all the costs involved is therefore essential for small farming success. “It helps to start out with lots of money, or else have collateral a banker understands,” advises Victor Miller, who learned to his dismay that the usual lending institution didn’t understand his goat cheese business in Monroe, Tennessee.
In addition to formulating a complete financial picture, you will also need a master plan which includes the development and lay-out of all required land, facilities, and equipment, as well as any resources and back-up assistance available for you to call on. Put your plan on paper so you can refer to it often, but be prepared to change it if necessary. Include a calendar in your plan, to map out planting dates or livestock breeding times. It’s important to know how many days it takes for your chosen plant varieties to mature or livestock to give birth, so you can organize your schedule accordingly. Among other things, a calendar will help you determine how much labor you’ll need, and when, so you can arrange in advance for the assistance of family members to reduce the prohibitive cost of hiring outside help. Make provisions in your master plan for starting small and expanding as you gain experience, taking into consideration your own limitations and those of your market. Set realistic goals at one-year intervals so you can periodically look back and gauge your progress.
In all phases of the research and development of your enterprise, it’s helpful to know an interested and competent Extension agent who can help coordinate expert assistance as you need it. And need it you will, for research and planning are part of an on-going process that doesn’t end when your enterprise begins. Constant evaluation, keeping abreast of the special requirements of your buyers, and listening to their suggestions will help you anticipate the need for change. “If you are successful,” says cheesemaker Miller, “you will attract a lot of competition, and you’ll have to work hard to stay one step ahead.”
Knowing there’s a market for your product is one thing, but getting it sold is quite another. Competent marketing is the single most important factor to success for a commercial small farm. Decide in advance who will perform all the necessary functions of grading, packing, storing, transporting, and selling your product. A professional distributor may be difficult to find since many feel that a new enterprise farmer is unlikely to stay in business for long. If you decide to use a distributor, seek out the best qualified to handle your particular commodity. “Look for a regional distributor if you wish to stay small, but try to find a national distributor if you plan to grow,” advises Miller, who sells his fifteen-dollar-a-pound cheese nationwide in competition with French imports. Miller also cautions that transportation is often a problem for the small producer because haulers prefer not to carry partial loads.
Some of the problems of distribution can be avoided by selling direct to the consumer, eliminating being at the mercy of packers and distributors who dictate everything from how you package and transport your product to how much you get paid for it. Direct-to-consumer sales also allow customer feedback and the chance to learn first hand about unfilled needs. The possibilities for direct sales include pick-your- own farms, roadside stands, and farmers markets. A fourth marketing outlet for a limited volume of agricultural produce is through a local growers cooperative.
A pick-your-own farm provides not only a product but also the service of allowing consumers to select and harvest their own fruit or vegetables. The ideal u-pick location is on a blacktop road near a large center of population where there is little or no existing competition. Also needed is enough land for adequate parking near the picking fields. It helps as well to have a shaded area where pickers may rest out of the hot sun, hopefully to gather enough reserve energy to go back and pick some more. An essential part of your u-pick investment will be public liability insurance. And you’ll need sufficient help to have someone in the fields supervising pickers, while others weigh produce and collect payment. You also need “a sincere liking for people,” according to the folks at Ahrens Strawberry Nursery in Huntington, Indiana, “and the ability to get people to go where you want them to, and make them like it.”
For a successful roadside stand, study the traffic flow and be prepared to adjust your hours accordingly. Your customers will want to see a variety, so to your lead item be able to “add a little bit of a whole lot,” suggests corn grower Looney, who sells beans, squash, and watermelons along with his sweet corn. He also advises taking advantage of different varieties which can be conveniently planted at the same time but have varying maturity dates to provide a staggered harvest, and scheduling planting with your cut-off date in mind. Looney’s stand is on the road to Lake Tanzi, where it is highly dependent on tourist traffic, so he customarily doses after Labor Day.
A farmers market offers the opportunity to sell direct with little more investment than a fee to join and a modest fee per selling day. Most farmers markets regulate when you can pick your produce, and many require certification from your local Extension agent to ensure that you actually grow what you sell. Finding out in advance what dates the market will be open helps you schedule planting so your harvest will fit the proper time frame, and a little pre-season sleuthing will help you learn what others will be selling so you won’t add to an overabundance but can profit by providing something different.
Cooperative marketing is a good approach for growers who are too busy farming to become involved in time-consuming direct sales, but have neither processors nearby nor adequate volume to allow economic. shipping to distant processing plants. Through marketing cooperatives, growers pool like produce for transportation and bulk sale. If there is not already a local cooperative that handles your particular commodity, consider banding together with other growers to organize one. Be sure to check with your state Department of Agriculture and county Extension agent to learn what cooperative marketing regulations you must comply with advises Tennessee Extension dean Downen who claims he can always gauge the chances for success of a new cooperative. If he hears the growers say, “they should help us,” failure is likely. But growers who get together and say “we should do something about this” always make Downen happy, since they are very likely on their way to success.
One of the things you’ll have to do something about is advertising. Successful direct-sale growers claim it pays to advertise by radio and newspaper, especially if you concentrate your ads within a twenty-mile radius, where you’ll reach some seventy-five percent of your future customers. Allow plenty of lead time, since it may take a while for your ads to be noticed. Look for other opportunities to promote your product, such as showing customers how to prepare and freeze fresh produce. Giving out free samples may seem extravagant, but it paid dividends for apple grower Bobby Stout, who gave away bushels of apples and gallons of apple juice at the Tennessee State Fair. Now Stout happily sells all his apples and juice, fresh from his farm in Leoma, Tennessee.
Freshness and quality are consistently stressed by successful small scale growers, along with handling methods designed to maintain that quality. Also required for steady top profits are dependability as a supplier, and good old-fashioned customer service.
Quality fresh farm products are new to many of today’s consumers, accustomed as they are to supermarket produce that may be five to twelve days old and suffering from loss of flavor and nutrition. But if the trend toward small farming continues sooner or later the American people will learn’ to prefer eating more food that’s grown closer to home.
FARMING IN TRANSITION
“The attitude in Washington seems to be that if we run short of food, we’ll build more grocery stores ” says Bart Gordon, U.S. Representative for Tennessee. In his conference with farmer-constituents, Gordon discusses factors that combine to discourage traditional farmers while at the same time inadvertently help small-scale growers gain momentum.
High on his list are an imbalance in the foreign trade of agricultural commodities, and a congress more interested in cutting budget deficits than in the farming program. Gordon, whose father is a farmer and grandfather a retired farmer, expresses concern that the lifestyle of rural America is being threatened by our country’s uncertain agricultural future.
Backing Gordon’s concern is a recent Department of Agriculture survey in which fifty percent of the farmers polled said that unless there is a change in trend, they will-not be in the business five years from now.
That’s where enterprise farming steps in. It allows greater diversification, helping spread the risks both of crop failure and of fickleness in the marketplace. It lets suburbanites join rural dwellers in supplying, on a local level, a substantial portion of our country’s needed agricultural products. The nation long considered the bread basket of the world may be spared the consequences of not even being able to supply its own food, through the efforts of small scale farmers.
Enterprise Farming: The Ford Tractor Guide to Small Farms. First edition, 1983-84; second edition, 1985.
Farm Management for Part-Time and Small Farmers, Correspondence Course #184, College of Agriculture, Pennsylvania State University.