Jan 15, 2013
Farm marketers find ways to survive 2012

What lessons did farm marketers learn from last year's short crop?

That was the subject of a panel discussion at the 2012 Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market EXPO held in December in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Michigan State University Extension district educators Ron Goldy and Bob Tritten assembled a panel of Michigan farm marketers that included Sarah Jollay from Grandpa’s Cider Mill in Coloma, Abby Jacobson from Westview Orchards in Romeo, Karey Robinette from Robinette’s Apple Haus in Grand Rapids, Dede Beck from Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns, and Gwen Anderson from Anderson and Girls Orchard in Stanton.

All of the panel members shared one thing in common: 2012 was not a great year for business. They were hit by the early spring frosts and summer drought experienced by growers across the East and Midwest.

“Hopefully, we don’t have another year like this industry-wide, but I’ll guarantee that at some point each of you will have your own personal disaster, one way or another,” Goldy said.

An early warm spell in March, followed by a series of “devastating” freezes in late April, hit fruit growers hard in 2012.

“What I mean by devastating: Imagine an orchard that is well over 100 acres and having six apples,” Tritten said. “For vegetable growers, the difficulty this season was a pretty serious drought this summer, and that meant that things were really difficult to grow. The net result for most farm marketers, and I’ve heard this hundreds of times in the past three months, is that they can’t wait for 2012 to be over. It was a very challenging growing season. They want to get started with 2013.”

To survive a year like 2012, it’s important to be prepared ahead of time, Jollay said. Be diversified, and market an experience instead of a product.
That isn’t always easy, however.

Perception

The news media made it sound like there was no produce, and that any produce that was available would be very high priced, Jacobson said.

Robinette said going to more farmers’ markets was an opportunity for more face time with customers, to educate them that the main Robinette’s market would have the things it normally had and that all of the activities would still be available.

“People would come up to us at the farmers’ market and say, ‘Are you guys even going to be open this fall?’” Robinette said. “It was a great opportunity to educate them. We made sure our new employees knew what happened and why, so they could inform our customers as well.”

Social media played a role in spreading the word, too. Many on the panel said they had cut back on some advertising and used social media and other venues to promote their markets this year. In the end, they all agreed it was a worthwhile and cost-saving direction.

“We really tried to let our Facebook friends know what was going on and what we had, versus what we’ve done before,” Robinette said.

Robinette said she hired one of her employees to update the Web pages more often.

Others used social media to advertise new additions.

“We had baby animals, which we advertised on social media, and that really brought out the families and more people from further away,” Anderson said.

Jollay took a more traditional approach.

“We direct-mailed a postcard to our customers, and it was our most effective and most cost-effective piece of advertising that we did,” she said.
The card read, “Come see us. We need you.”

“We appealed to our customers and they responded to it,” Jollay said. “They treat our farm like their farm, and this year they supported us.”

Cutting costs

All of the panelists looked at other ways to cut costs.

“We had some tough decisions,” Beck said. “We had to think about every aspect of our business.”

Focusing on farm identity, what the farm does and what customers really know the farm for, are key elements of making it through a tough season, Beck said.

For some, that meant adding activities. Jacobson said they were looking to not spend a lot of money. With minimal investment, they went looking for activities that didn’t take an employee to monitor or were free, or maybe activities where they already had all the materials needed, she said.

Jacobson said they added a maze that featured an anti-bullying theme, which helped attract school tours. Like other farm marketers, they switched out u-pick apples with u-pick pumpkins.

Anderson said that diversifying was a saving grace. They leaned heavily on their animals and petting zoo as a draw, although they don’t charge admission to see the animals. The zoo really brought in customers.

“We had a lot of strawberries, so we worked very hard to keep our strawberries going to make up for other areas,” she said. “Our sales were up 20 percent all summer long, but when we hit the fall, we had some bad weekends. Still, the animals kept people coming in.”

Anderson said they bought an electric train to add to the market’s activities. They raised prices, but setting a family rate on pricing kept large families from being turned off by the cost.

Anderson gave gifts to all of the teachers who brought out school tours.

“We didn’t run the cider press for the tours, instead using the animals,” she said. “The kids really seemed to like the animals. Tours were coming from further away than usual, and the teachers would bring their own help, which kept our costs down. The gifts really worked!”

All of the panel members agreed that when things are tough, it’s a good time to evaluate how things are done and where money is spent.

“We had to examine all of our costs and evaluate if everything we normally do is worth the added expenses and effort,” Beck said. “In the future, we’ll change how we do business – going back to our roots and focusing on our premium months. All I can say is, to be continued.”

The panelists also agreed that when things are slow due to crop shortages, look to other avenues. Many turned to their bakeries.

“We increased our doughnut offerings, including bacon-flavored donuts, which attracted a lot of attention,” Jacobson said. “People would stop and inquire because we put it out on our sign.”

Robinette said they adjusted their normal hours and opened earlier, offering breakfast items, and stayed open a little later to catch other opportunities to use their kitchen.

“We sold a ton of doughnuts,” Jollay said. “We used it as a way to continue the conversation about where food comes from.”

The subject of pricing was touchy, all agreed, but it is something to look at when things get back to normal.

“Some of what we need to do is hold the price increases that we had to make this year into future seasons to try to make up for this year,” Jollay said. “When people drive 90, 80 or just even 20 miles to come to the farm, it is a treat for them to buy a half gallon of cider, and they’ll pay $6 for it. Now that we’ve crossed that threshold, don’t give it back without good reason. We’re worth it.”

Use extra time wisely

Jacobson said they used the extra time in 2012 to add more parking.

“We had more time, so we actually physically moved our farmhouse and gained an additional 30 parking spots and made things more open,” she said.

It is also a good time to review your farm for risks, she said. Crop insurance is something the rest of the panelists were thinking about, too.

“We went with a higher-premium crop insurance policy this year, and that will kind of save us,” Anderson said.

Robinette used the time to work with her vendors to ensure she’d have all of the product she needed. Thankfully, her vendors worked with her, too. By the time the price had doubled, Robinette already had what she needed for the season.

“We had good relations with other markets and farmers,” Robinette said “Since we had been working with other farmers for years and pay our bills on time, they were more willing to work with us this year. The same could be said for the banks and lines of credit, etc.”

The relationships they gained with their customers made the difficulties of 2012 worth it, Beck said.

By Derrek Sigler, Assistant Editor





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