Farm Marketing: Reaching A Hungry Public

The explosion of farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer channels has created a variety of new opportunities—even bolstered tried-and-true methods—to help producers connect with consumers. Check out how two farmers are taking advantage.

By Jodie Helmer | Photos By Dan Cappellazzo & Jamie Cole

Ron Thompson doesn’t have a web site or social media presence to market the squash, green beans, Brussels sprouts, beets, Swiss chard and other vegetables he grows on his 9-acre farm in Rockwood, Ontario. He doesn’t send newsletters with updates about what he’s bringing to market or invite customers to purchase Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares online.

Ron Thompson

Ron Thompson

Despite a growing demand for local produce and an uptick in the number of small farms competing for customers, Thompson is still marketing his vegetables the same way he did in the 1970s. “I go to the farmers market on Saturday mornings,” he explains.

Thompson has been loading his pickup truck with fresh produce and driving 45 minutes to the Brampton Farmers Market for almost four decades. In the early years, he harvested less produce and sold to fewer customers. Now, he’s racing to keep up with demand at the bustling Saturday market. “I haven’t changed what I’m doing, but, all of a sudden, the market is packed and people can’t wait to get farm-fresh vegetables,” says Thompson.

For farmers like Thompson, the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food movement has created unprecedented demand for fresh produce, eggs, meat and milk. In a 2015 report, the USDA Economic Research Service estimated that local food sales topped $12 billion, which is in part due to double-digit increases over the past 10 years in the number of farms selling direct to consumer. Moreover, the report notes that farms selling to consumers were more apt to remain in business than those selling to intermediate markets like grocery stores.

Although the number of Canadian farmers selling directly to consumers increased just 2% between 2004 and 2007, according to a 2013 report from the Conference Board of Canada, 42.5% of shoppers rated locally produced food as extremely or very important.

Markets and Marketing

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service reported a 180% increase in the number of markets between 2006 and 2014. In Canada, the number of farmers markets has doubled since the 1990s. Elanor Starmer, acting administrator with the Agricultural Marketing Service at the USDA, explains that markets “offer easier points of entry for new and beginning farmers.

Stephen Robertson tends to a herd of sheep on his hilly North Carolina farm

Stephen Robertson tends to a herd of sheep on his hilly North Carolina farm

“Consumer demand creates new opportunities for farmers and ranchers who brand and market their products locally,” Starmer continues. “The great thing about having many different marketing channels is each farm business can create the combination that works best for them.”

In addition to cultivating a loyal customer base, a continued market presence has allowed Thompson to notice (and capitalize on) food trends. He often adjusts his planting plans so his crops meet customer demand. “When I notice something is a bestseller in the first few weeks of the season, I plant more,” he explains. To maximize market sales, Thompson partners with other farmers to purchase in-demand vegetables like sweet corn and value-added products like tarts, which he doesn’t produce. During the markets, he visits other vendors to compare prices.

“A big assortment on the table brings people in; if you only sell one thing, they’ll walk right by,” he says. “If your prices are too high, they’ll go to another farmer.”

Although he resells produce, there are no bananas or mangoes on his table. Thompson only purchases produce grown by Ontario farmers and is honest with customers about which foods he grows and which ones come from neighboring farms. “I’d never deceive a customer,” he says. “All of the produce I sell is locally grown.”

Merchandising is also important. To attract customers, farmers should think like boutique retailers, creating attractive, even interactive, displays with their products. “Like it or not, that’s how business is done at the farmers markets,” says Garry Stephenson, small farms program coordinator at Oregon State University.

East Fork Farm in Madison County, N.C., earns 90% of its revenues from farmers markets. To stand out from other vendors, farmers Stephen and Dawn Robertson hand out samples and provide recipe cards.

“When I give someone a sample and a recipe card, I sell double,” says Dawn. “It takes the burden off of them to figure out how to use our products.”

Assuming More Control

Until 2013, the couple sold their eggs, chicken and lamb at four markets per week. Sales were great, but the commitment left the couple burned out and struggling to keep up with farm chores. To maximize revenues and minimize their off-farm commitments, the Robertsons dropped down to one weekend market and built a farm store.

Dawn turned to social media to build buzz about the farm, sharing photos and updates on Facebook and Instagram, and started sending a monthly newsletter with information about product availability.

“People want to know what’s happening on the farm,” she says. “It’s a new way for us to market our proteins.”

Technology is an important tool, according to Megan Bruch Leffew, value-added marketing specialist at the University of Tennessee Extension Center for Profitable Agriculture. In addition to using social media and e-newsletters to build a following, technology can have a direct impact on sales.

“Farmers are also using technology to accept more payment options, providing more flexibility to consumers and opportunities for more or larger sales,” Leffew says.

Payment and Portability

The popularity of farmers markets has created complementary opportunities for farmers to reach customers. For instance, markets that accept SNAP/WIC benefits boost sales for farmers. More than 6,000 farmers markets now accept the benefits, and redemption increased from $4 million in 2009 to more than $19 million in 2015, according to Starmer.

Dawn Robertson looks after chickens.

Dawn Robertson looks after chickens.

“Accepting SNAP at farmers markets is a win-win-win situation,” she says. “It expands the customer base for farmers and markets, gives recipients access to healthy foods and encourages the sale of locally sourced produce.”

Increasing access to healthy foods has led to the creation of mobile farmers markets. Similar to food trucks, the farmers markets on wheels move from one destination to the next selling fresh produce, meat and eggs. The concept is popular in food deserts and towns that are too small to have traditional farmers markets, according to Stephenson.

“Often, farmers sell their produce to nonprofits that operate mobile markets,” he explains. “It gives farmers another outlet to sell their products without having to devote manpower to operating a farmers market booth.”

Bring the Customer to You

On-farm sales also offer farmers a certain amount of flexibility. On a whim, the Roberstons set up a farm store in 2015 to boost sales during annual farm tours; almost half of the guests who spend the night in one of their three on-farm cottages also shop in the store. “I’m amazed at the support we’ve gotten,” says Dawn Robertson.

Because provincial regulations make it difficult (and expensive) to sell pork, chicken and eggs at the market, Thompson started doing on-farm sales a decade ago. Although he hasn’t advertised on-farm produce sales, Thompson often sells fresh vegetables to customers who stop for meat and eggs, and see bushels of squash, greens or beans he’s harvested for the farmers market.

“If the customers want it and I haven’t got it harvested, I’ll go out and pick it,” he says. “If it’s something I can make money on and make the customers happy, I’ll do it.”

Other Opportunities, Innovations

CSA programs are another popular option for farmers to market their products to new customers. Shares can be picked up on the farm, at the farmers market or at pre-determined locations in local communities.

The other benefit of CSAs: Selling shares provides an influx of capital at the start of the season and guarantees sales. To maximize sales, Starmer notes that farmers have gotten creative, offering flexible share subscriptions, partnering with other farms to diversify their offerings and incorporating value-added products.

“The great thing about farm direct marketing is that it’s constantly innovating,” says Stephenson. “Small farmers who need sales channels where their products will command a premium price have more opportunities than ever before.”

Montreal-based Lufa Farms, for example, developed software that allows shoppers to customize their CSA shares; Baltimore’s Real Food Farm started a mobile market, selling produce from their 8-acre farm at stops around the city; and 7th Street Market in North Carolina disrupted the traditional market model, opening a brick-and-mortar location with multiple local vendors selling daily, all year long.

Regardless of the advent of new opportunities, Thompson believes that effective farm marketing comes down to one thing: “You have to raise a good product,” he says. “Without a good product, you might sell to a customer once, but you’ll never sell to them again.”