Marketing advice to beginning farmers

Don’t put all your eggs in one marketing basket.

There are many places that today’s small farm can sell their productions. You might try an on-farm CSA, sell to your local food buying club, a multi-farm CSA or a Food Hub, grow for a string of retailers and/or restaurants, or sell to a wholesaler or larger grocery chain. Or you could go the virtual route and sell online, either from your own website, as part of a cooperative, or through an online buying club.

It is important for small farmers to research and make personal connections with several different types of potential market outlets. Eventually each farm will settle on a few market types that will be in their comfort zone and become final marketing outlets. Nevertheless, it is good to remember that it is usually easiest and most efficient to specialize in one primary market outlet type, and use the others as secondary marketing outlets.

For example, if farmers’ markets are going to be your primary market type, then you can add as many markets on as many days as you and your farm’s production can handle. But at some point you are going to have an overproduction, at which time it is beneficial to have a good relationship with a wholesaler, several restaurants, or a food hub who might be able to absorb some of your temporary surplus.

Note, however, that if you treat a market as a secondary market, they will of necessity treat you as a secondary supplier. Be prepared to live with that status when attempting to sell into a secondary market.

Whatever market you use as your primary market, do not forsake other marketing methods as your secondary markets. In fact, over time, you may discover you enjoy selling into your secondary market so much that it becomes your primary market.

Farmers’ Markets are a flexible marketing choice.

Farmers’ markets have the lowest entry threshold and the highest dollar return of any of the markets you could choose to sell into. This is because by going to a farmers’ market you have become a vertically integrated operation, husbanding your productions all the way from planting the seed to selling to the person who’ll be eating your harvest for supper. You thus get the highest dollar return for your product, but you also assume all the the usual distributor’s and retailer’s costs and burdens, albeit in a streamlined form.

Farmers’ markets are much more forgiving than the restaurant trade or wholesalers when it comes to meeting production expectations. If a wholesaler is expecting you to provide carrots in a certain volume at a particular time and you can’t meet those expectations, you do great harm to your relationship with them. If you have fewer carrots than you expected to have at the farmers’ market, the other farmers at the market will be more than glad to pick up the slack, and your customer base remains satisfied.

For beginning farmers with scant production track record and who may be uncertain as to harvest dates and volumes, the farmers’ market clientele is far more forgiving than is a wholesaler or restaurant. You may see your market share slip a little at market for the season, but at least you haven’t ruined any marketing relationships.

Can’t get into your favorite farmers’ market? Start one yourself; it’s been done before and happens at least once every year. MFFM has loads of info to help you get a market started and there are folks who attend markets who will share advice.

Your target should be to attend at least two farmers’ markets that happen on different days, preferably dividing the week evenly. Not only does this give you opportunity to market fast growing crops before they go by, but if one market has stormy weather or falls on a holiday, then you have another one in just a couple of days.

Debit-type CSA plans integrate well with attending farmers’ markets.

Sometimes seemingly disparate types of marketing turn out to integrate quite nicely. For the result of a fifteen year long integration of a 100-plus member CSA and attending multiple farmers’ markets, see http://www.mainefarmersmarkets.org/uncategorized/marrying-csa-farmers-market/

About Tom Roberts

When I started attending the Brewer Farmers’ Market back in August of 1983, my sole concern was being able to sell the produce my farm was growing at a good price. After attending market for a year or two, I began to realize that how the market was organized had a great impact on my sales. And how the market was organized also influenced how it made decisions about dues, new members, what could be sold at market, and how it promoted itself—and this, too, had an impact on my sales. So I got involved in the market’s steering committee and began to understand how various market members thought the market should operate. Some wanted a market czar, some wanted everyone to be allowed to do their own thing. But everyone seemed to agree that if the market as a whole did well, then so did they.