IDEA #1: Quality.
First of all, obviously the bottom line is that you must have fresh and good quality products. And secondly, I’m assuming you’re not an asshole. If you don’t offer the former and are the latter, this blog post won’t help you. You need quality control and years of therapy. This is usually a non-issue but I’ve heard a few horror stories from people about their experiences at Farmer’s Markets. If these two are handled (and in 90% of cases they are) then you’re well on your way.
IDEA #2: Decide what you want to do yourself and what you want to outsource.
It’s important to remember that, just because marketing needs to happen, doesn’t mean that you need to do it all. You’re in control of that. Some you’ll want to do yourself and some you’ll want to outsource. Once you’ve sorted out how you want to market yourself, it’s wise to sit down and look at how much time and money each option would cost if you did it yourself vs. hiring someone else to do it. Do you want to do your own book keeping? Your newsletter? Running the Farmer’s Market stand? Your photography and web designer? Or would it be better to bring someone else in? Sometimes hiring someone else to do it is actually the more profitable thing to do.
IDEA #3: Get more support.
Farmer’s are profoundly overworked and constantly in need of more hands on deck to pull everything together. Getting seasonal interns (in exchange for boarding or on the farm experience through the WWOOF, local agriculture students, local permaculturists who are thinking of getting into farming, market patrons or your local community) or volunteers for workbees can be a godsend and free up a lot of time.
IDEA #4: Do more of what works.
If you’re a farmer and have vended at a farmer’s market even once, you’ll have already learned something. You’ll have tried some things that seems to work. Do more of those things. This seems obvious but I can’t tell you how many entrepreneurs I’ve met who, when I asked, “How did you built your business in the beginning?“, tell me a brilliant strategy that they no longer do. When I ask them why they stopped doing it, I get blank looks and they finally say something like, “Huh. I don’t even know!” This is often the easiest thing to do. Go back to what worked when you were getting started and full of hustle.
IDEA #5: Educate and tell your story.
This is, perhaps, the biggest overarching theme. Every chance you get, tell your story. This idea overlaps with many of the others to come in this series. People love to hear the stories behind what they are buying. It’s easy to assume that people know more than they do about your farm and your food.
Marketing is about establishing the value beyond the immediately apparent.
I can promise you that 99% of the most compelling parts of the story of your business and your products are not clear to your customers. You’d be amazed at what they don’t know. Don’t assume that everything you put into your farm and your products is immediately apparent to anyone. Marketing is fundamentally about story telling and educating.
You can tell the story of:
- how your farm started
- why you choose to grow one type of produce vs. another
- why you choose x method over y?
- why do you grow the food you do?
- what’s the story of the land you’re on?
- what’s the history of farming in your area?
- why do you charge what you charge? why does it cost what it does? what are your margins and how much do you need to even break even (very few people will understand this).
- what are the extra things you do to make sure the quality stays high?
- does your farm have an ethnic heritage?
- what sets you apart and makes you different from other farms?
- always confirm what is thought to be known (fresh, organic, local)
- the specifics about crop varieties. Why did you choose it? Where is it from originally and how did it get to be here? What are the traditional uses of it and stories about it?
How do you tell your story? There are so many ways. It might be bit by bit, in conversations with your customers. It might be through social media or your email newsletter. It might be at talks you give or in newspaper articles about you. There are so many ways and you’ll learn more as you keep reading.
IDEA #6: Specialize in something.
This is another big one.
Figuring our your niche might just be one of the toughest nuts to crack in the business world. Tough enough that I created a whole website, The Niching Spiral, dedicated to it.
It’s a bit overwhelming going to a Farmer’s Market and seeing everyone offering all of the same things. If every table has beets, squash, lettuce and carrots, for example, then how do I choose from which table to shop? At that point, the answer might just be, which one is closest to where I am standing but it also might be some combination of the other things.
If you offer something that no one else at the market is offering, you will become known for that. If you’re the only one who makes mango lhasis, sells honey, has the best heirloom tomatoes, grows your food bio-dynamically it will be a big help in people remembering you and make it easier for other patrons and vendors to direct people to you.
Consider all of the different ways people have created niches in the field of permaculture.
Lisa Kivirist of Hobby Farms writes, “How is what you’re selling different than other vendors at the farmers’ market? Sometimes it helps to specialize in selling varietals of one distinct item, such as garlic. Another route is to creatively package your items. Sure, a lot of farmers may be selling red, ripe tomatoes, but what if you sold green tomatoes, along with your recipe for fried green tomatoes?”
Shayla Mihaly says, “I know where to get the best greens (Star Route Farm) and the best Peaches (Frog Hollow). Then there is the wheatgrass and sprout guy, the place to get lavender, the organic non gmo soy, the honey people….. and Cap’n Mike’s smoked fish. So, what are they known for?”
Brian Parsons adds, “Also, you have to remember that if you have 10 farmers stands, all selling eggs and potatoes, then you basically have 10 competitors… so you can have potential conflicts, tensions within the farmers market itself… in fact, that is the same with any market environment. And so it is not just a question of how you differentiate yourself from the large supermarket, but also from the stand next door selling the same stuff as you.”
Deb Vail shares her experiences of having her farm in NC which outgrew her and her family in nine years, “We sold it two years ago because we got too big too quickly and couldn’t keep up at our age. We did no advertising at all… but I will pass on one thing that helped us tremendously – We divided out our CSA for only veggies and then sold only flowers at market. I suppose that’s niching. It worked well to be the only farmer at market that only sold flowers – we were the experts.”
Daleen Adele Thomas sums it up, “Only grow/farm what you love/are good at. If you grow great lettuce but small turnips, why grow turnips?”
Please leave any thoughts, tips, resources or ideas that could help farmers grow their businesses in the comments section below. After a few weeks, I promise to read through them all and weave anything relevant and useful into the blog itself so that they can be of the most use to the most farmers.