Marketing Your Farm Series

Now that I’m finally moved and (almost) all the boxes are unpacked, it’s time for me to get writing again. I’ve been thinking about how to apply marketing precepts and processes to small farms without them having to spend too much money. The perfect opportunity to do this as a series just came up.

I volunteered with the Aspire Foundation to mentor a woman who owns a small farm in an area that does not have any real support structures in place. It doesn’t take much of my time, about 6-7 hours over 6 months, but the responsibility of being a mentor can be quite serious. I want her to succeed.

To that end, I’m starting a series about marketing small farms (or other small, rural businesses) without incurring too much cost. Yes, that means free or extremely low cost tools that you can find online. They are out there, but how do you use them?

Here’s the framework I’m going to follow to help you create your marketing plan:

  1. Who are you?
  2. Who are your customers?
  3. How can you reach them?
  4. What do you want say?
  5. How do you know that what you’ve said is working?

It sounds rather simple, but it really isn’t. How you view yourself and how you approach your potential customers is a tricky proposition at best. (Billions of dollars are spent on advertising every year trying to crack this.) It can be done, but it must be thought about first.

So, to kick this off, I suggest watching Simon Sinek’s brilliant TED talk on How Great Leaders Inspire Action. It will get you thinking about your business and why you do it.

(Seriously, go to the Aspire Foundation site and see what an amazing program it is. Their goal is to mentor a billion women and the work they’ve already done has changed the lives of women all over the world.)


Frugal Innovations

TTED2echnology – it’s not for just the rich anymore. Ravi Nadjou’s TED talk on Creative problem-solving has some really innovative and very low-cost tools that we, in rural America, can use right now to get our small farms and business in the red. The two that I found quite fascinating are gThrive and Be-Bound.

gThrive is a system of soil monitoring that uses basic technology to provide an amazing amount of real-time data, at a much lower cost, to farmers. It let’s you know the nutrient levels of your soil so that you can properly correct for them, instead of over fertilizing. In drought-stricken areas, understanding the moisture content of your soils could help you conserve water. Where I live, the fields are saturated with flood waters for most of the winter. Knowing when the soils are dry enough for proper germination is critical to ensuring that seed is not wasted on soggy soil.

Be-Bound frees your phone (phablet or cell-enabled tablet) from those cell dead zones. Essentially, it lets you use a number of applications, such as Twitter, from almost anywhere in the world, even when there is very little cell or Wi-Fi service. What this means for those who travel, is that you won’t necessarily have to use Verizon to get in touch with people in rural places. You may be able to go with a $35 plan and add Be-Bound. (That’s my plan, anyway.) Calls won’t work through it but texting, mail, and Twitter do. It’s currently only available for Android phones, but they are developing it for other platforms. It’s available at the Google Play store.


Celebrating a New Farmers Market

Today marked the much anticipated opening of the Port Susan Farmers Market, our spot for showcasing the produce, flowers, honey, meats, milk, and nursery plants our local farmers have cultivated. It was well attended, with one booth selling out within the first hour. It’s now possible for me to do a full week’s organic and local grocery shopping in one place, while visiting with my neighbors, friends, and farmers.

Port Susan Farmers Market Opening Ceremony

It took a great deal of work to bring this, (and you’ll excuse the pun), to fruition. Slow Food Port Susan, the city of Stanwood, the Food and Farming Center, and local businesses all pitched in to make this market possible. It would not have happened without Leslie Collins, the market manager. She, along with numerous volunteers, worked diligently to coordinate vendors, find a suitable venue, create and disseminate marketing materials, ensure proper permits, and even paint a huge mural for the market backdrop.

The market’s mural created by the Stanwood-Camano Arts Guild.

The mural signifies, more than almost anything else, that the market is going to be a fixture in our community for more than just this year. I believe that the market is an important step in making our town sustainable and creating that sense of community so crucial to a vibrant, healthy place to live. As the Stanwood-Camano Island area grows in population, it’s important to guide how we want the community to look in the coming years.

Nancy Chase shows off the plants and produce from Shambala Farm.

Of course, I picked up some great food, too. Balanced System Farm had whole, organic, free-range, heirloom chickens for sale. I picked up some beets and beet greens, along with a huge bunch of carrots from Freshly Doug Vegetables. Cat’s Paw Honey had their delightfully hand-painted jars of honey on display, while Old Silvana Creamery sold milk from their Guernsey cows. Shambala Farms displayed not only produce, but many of the plants used in the type of permaculture in which they excel.

Vivian Henderson, with Slow Food Port Susan, had information on the Slow Food Roots Music Festival happening in Stanwood, Aug 25-26.

Another critical aspect of the market is introducing folks to the local farms and the events they are hosting during the rest of the summer. What a fantastic way to bring people who are already interested in fresh, healthy foods out to the farms that produce them? Besides strengthening our community, these farm events teach kids where food comes from. I think that’s fairly important.

Farmers Markets have been welcomed in many towns. Some critics, however, say they cater to only the elite or are insubstantial when it comes to feeding the world and, especially, feeding those who don’t have enough. I think they are missing the point altogether. Farmers Markets help create and invigorate the communities around them and give the poorest among us  access to fresh, local produce at a decent price. (Many low-income food programs include farmers markets.) They bolster not only the incomes of farmers who sell directly to the consumer, they allow farmers to reach customers for their CSAs and other farm programs. Farmers markets become an important lynch pin in the link between town and country, between producer and consumer.

I believe that the Port Susan Farmers Market is a major step in creating the urban-rural connection we need to ensure the sustainability of our town and the health of our people. For those who still doubt that these markets are viable, I just point them to the big farmers market on Pike Street, in Seattle, which has been running for over a century. That usually settles any dispute.

Census of Agriculture – 2007

The USDA conducts a census of agriculture every five years, detailing the current state of food production at a national level. The latest is from 2007. Some of the statistics are surprising, even eye-opening. I find some of the charts especially intriguing.

The chart of Average Age of Pricipal Farm Operators shows that there are few farmers under the age of 55. This means that within the next 10 to 15 years, a large majority of farmers will reach retirement age or will get to the point in their lives where they’ll not be able to farm full time. What happens to their farms when that happens?

Young farmers (or farmer wannabees) can’t afford to buy or even lease enough land to make a living. They end up working at a job they don’t want to do in order to eventually have enough money to do what they want, namely, farming. Then they must continue working in order to maintain their health insurance and other benefits, while farming. Their best, most productive years, the 20s, 30s and 40s, are spent not farming. It’s unfortunate.

Two of the charts: Percent of Farms Operated by Family or Individual and Percent of Farms with High-Speed Internet Access, have almost an exact inverse correlation. It’s uncanny. If the land is primarily dedicated to small farms, there is no access to VoIP, online video training, or a whole host of tools that can really promote farms and make them more successful. This correlation does not hold true for large, corporate-held farms, however.

If you want to see more charts, go here.