Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is My Farmer, My Customer, by Marty Travis.

Sometimes there are opportunities for interaction at events designed to connect with either chefs or CSA members. We have seen not-for-profits or other organizations host meet-the-farmer or meet-the-buyer events. These can be great door openers. If you have that opportunity and can showcase some samples, do so. Many times your product will speak volumes about your farm and sometimes more so than you. If you can even get one person hooked, that is where to begin. Then, with continued relationship development, you can sometimes ask if they know anyone else that would be interested in what you have to offer. I believe many times it is better for someone else to recommend you than for you to try to press your case. To me, it means more to hear someone else is happy with a product than to hear a sales pitch from the one trying to sell it. Don’t get me wrong— it is important for you to believe and represent yourself and your farm well; just continue to get as many advocates as you can along the way. They become your unpaid sales force!

We never really sold at farmers’ markets, but I do believe farmers’ markets are a fairly easy way to enter into the arena of local food. You can connect with local shoppers and develop many of the same relationships that we are talking about. Depending on the market, some can be expensive to get a booth while others may be nearly free. In recent years, we hear more and more of the experienced farmers say they are beginning to see their sales drop at their farmers’ markets. This is a bit concerning and sometimes confusing. Consumers are in general looking for more local choices and looking to connect a face to their food for their families. Farmers’ markets allow that kind of interaction. Some communities do offer late-season special holiday markets. This helps, as many of us still have a lot of product after the regular markets end. I think it is important to have as much cash flow coming in for as much of the year as you can.

Some of the downsides to markets are the uncertainties, such as weather, consumer schedules, consumer spending, and other farmer competition. We know one farmer who said it was their intention to have the cheapest sweet corn at the market. That really helps no one. We are all trying to make a living at this, and racing to the bottom does not help. It doesn’t help the consumer understand the true meaning of producing something great. It demeans other farmers, and it also demeans that particular farmer’s reputation. So think carefully about how you price your product. Think carefully about how people will perceive you and your farm. You are worth a fair price.

During the last several years, we have sold literally tons of products to our chef community. In that same time, we have had numerous folks ask us where they can buy our produce for their own use. We began with a volume/scale we could handle, which was selling to restaurants; as we have continued to expand our production, we have been able to offer more and more to the general public. One way that I have thought about this is that we as farmers should be selling our food through the places where people buy their food, regularly and conveniently. Grocery stores are that place for the vast majority of the population.

Many times your product will speak volumes about your farm and sometimes more so than you.

As we began thinking about that opportunity and how we could access the grocery store market, we initiated a conversation with our local grocery store family. We have a family-owned grocery store that is really quite nice, large, and accommodating. We spoke with the owners and came to an agreement that they would be happy to provide a certain amount of cooler/shelf space for local product. Instead of the store buying the product, we offered to set up the space with our product, to manage it every day or two to make sure it was still looking good, and to see if it needed restocking. In return, the store would give the farmers 80 percent of the sale price and hold back 20 percent for the space. They had little investment into the shelf area and we could work to keep it filled with items that we thought or knew would sell.

It was a good starting point. The store could use it as a promotion that they were carrying local produce and we could use it as promotion that we had our product in a local grocery store. We received a fair price for our work and were able to set the price for our own produce. The percentage the store kept was built into our retail price.

Moving forward a couple of years, the grocery store saw the benefit of working with the farming community and began purchasing the product outright. They had made it through the risky startup phase and had some sense of what was available during each season and also what folks were willing to purchase from local sources. We continued to do some meet-the-farmer events at the store; these are always a good way to connect with your customers. We were supplying local food to a place where people buy food! We now had begun to close that loop of food miles and accessibility.

Next, we had another larger family grocery store contact us to discuss a project. The new concept was to have a large store that made the connection with the farmers an important, integral, and visible part of their business. This project did not go as well. We came to understand that if we don’t have everyone on the same page, working to develop the relationship extremely well, there is a real chance that not everyone is going to buy in. It looks and sounds good, but when it comes to the point of numbers, the margins often mean more than the relationship and the product.

I think there is still a lot of work to be done with grocers. Everyone needs to make it work, I get that. But, we need to have conversations about the whole experience. If a store wants to showcase verbiage and signage promoting local farms and their products, we all need to make sure that everyone realizes what that means. How is our product different than what is purchased from the warehouse or from a farmer’s auction house? How is one farm’s product different from another’s? What about different prices paid to the farms? I will explore and share some other ideas coming up, but just know for now that we all have a lot of work to do in order to make local food more mainstream.

As we begin to think about how to make connections, consider who you know and who they know. References and referrals are super important. If you are faced with someone who says they are not interested, don’t let the opportunity pass. Ask them if they know of someone else who might be interested in what you have to offer. Never take a “no” without asking another question. Sometimes it is good to start by saying, “I’m not here to sell you anything. I just need your opinion or advice. What do you think of this product, and do you know anyone that might be interested?” That takes the pressure off of Farming with a Purpose 73 the person in front of you. It also makes them feel important as you are asking for their advice. Sometimes it works out that they are definitely interested; plus, you might get another referral, or more.

Another successful tactic we employ is at the end of the year we ask several of the seed companies we deal with if we can purchase or acquire a box of their seed catalogs to hand out to our chefs. Many of the highly visual catalogs are super exciting to look through. Chefs are visual characters, and looking at a seed catalog does a couple of things. First, it allows them a window into the farmer’s world. They get to see what we have access to, and this can create a lot of excitement for them. Second, they can begin to visualize specific varieties from the catalog being on their plates. This also gives them an opportunity to have something totally unique on the menu. Additionally, it helps you, the farmer, know what to grow. If you ask how much they would use per week during the season, it will give you an idea of how much to produce. This is a great way to understand how much and what items you should grow. Then if you have an abundance and can offer it to other folks or, again, ask who else would be interested in it, you have a supply and demand issue that could be nearly well matched. We always like to have the demand for any product just barely ahead of the supply, and it is okay if we run out. Better that than to have so much extra that it goes to waste. We just try to be close.

About the Author:

Marty Travis is the proud owner of Spence Farm, which he runs with his wife, Kris and son, Will. Their farm supplies organic vegetables and heritage meats to some of the top kitchens in the City of Chicago. In 2019, Spence Farm was highlighted in the documentary, SustainableMarty is also a speaker at the upcoming 2021 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show.

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