Avoid These 5 Farm Marketing Mistakes

Raising quality produce and livestock is not enough to make sure your farm is successful.

By Jodie Helmer | Photos By Dan Cappellazzo & Jamie Cole

“If you build it, customers won’t necessarily come, and if they do come once, there is no guarantee that they will come back,” says Megan Bruch Leffew, value-added marketing specialist for the Extension Center for Profitable Agriculture at the University of Tennessee. “One of the main reasons [farms] fail is due to ineffective marketing.”

Ron Thompson collects eggs, which he only sells from his farm.

Ron Thompson collects eggs, which he only sells from his farm.

Avoid these five critical marketing errors to successfully turn crops into cash.

Failure to Merchandise Produce

At the market, shoppers see the produce before they taste it. You might have the market’s best tasting fruits and vegetables, or the freshest eggs, but a poor display will hurt sales.

“You have to learn about good merchandising,” says Garry Stephenson, director of the Center for Small Farms at Oregon State University. “Like it or not, that’s how business is done.”

If you’re not sure how to show off your bounty, Stephenson suggests visiting other markets to get ideas from farmers selling similar products on a similar scale. Apply your favorite design ideas in your market stall and watch how customers respond.

Lack of Diversification

More than 40% of sales at East Fork Farm in Marshall, North Carolina, come from chickens and eggs. Having too many eggs in the poultry basket led Stephen and Dawn Robertson to add cattle, pork and berries to their offerings.

“If our poultry business stumbled, we knew we could lose everything,” Dawn Robertson says. “We had to diversify to protect the farm.”

Diversification also helps generate sales at the farmers market. Customers, according to Robertson, want to be able to walk into one market stall and buy all of the fixings for dinner and dessert. The more you offer, the more you’ll sell.

Ignoring Premium Sales … Premium Prices

A 2015 USDA report found that 70% of farmers sold through direct-to-consumer channels, including restaurants. Many farmers want in on the latter, because restaurants are often willing to pay premium prices to offer farm-to-table fare.

“Restaurants love to list farmers’ names on their menus,” says Stephenson.

Since the margins in farming are thin, he encourages farmers not to ignore opportunities to charge premium prices for fresh, local foods.

Failing To Reach New Customers

Technology has made it easier than ever to reach customers and boost sales. The Roberstons have accounts for East Fork Farm on Facebook and Instagram, and send monthly newsletters to customers.

“People want to see your postings and your presence,” says Dawn Robertson. “It’s the new way to market.”

Leffew also encourages farmers to experiment with novel approaches to marketing, including coupons through daily deal sites like Groupon and Living Social. Look at the terms carefully, however; you might receive as little as 20% of the value, according to Leffew, but it could present an opportunity to reach new customers.

Overextending Operations

Ron Thompson has been a loyal vendor at the Brampton Farmers Market for 37 years. A manager from another market took notice and encouraged him to start selling there, too—an offer Thompson declined.

“I’d have to start picking Tuesday [for the Friday market], load up, come home and pick again [for the Saturday market],” he says. “I can’t grow or sell more than I can handle.”

The Roberstons, acknowledging that online sales are a growing trend in their region, are also reluctant to expand. According to Dawn, “We can barely keep up with the demand at the tailgate market. We’d have to lease land—and find the time or hire help to farm it—to start selling online. It would stretch us too thin.”

Each farmer has a unique approach to marketing and what works for the neighbors might not be right for your farm. Yet, understanding common marketing mistakes and knowing how to avoid them, will help attract new customers and boost sales.