Dec 12, 2007
Farm Markets Riding High on Agritainment

Farm markets are doing quite well, thank you, and while they’re not driving Wal-Mart out of business, Wal-Mart’s not driving them out, either.

In fact, the level of enthusiasm for direct farm marketing is increasing across the United States, compelled by different forces in different regions.

In the East, the driving force is “buy local,” said Ben Vitale, who is involved in farmers’ markets as a career and in a market on his own farm. Whether the food is from California, China or Chile, people are showing their distrust of foods of distant or foreign or unknown origin.

“Food safety is a growing issue. During the spinach recall last year, our farmers sold out of spinach,” Vitale said. “It wasn’t spinach they were afraid of, it was spinach from far away.”

Vitale is executive director of the Central New York Regional Market Authority, a combination terminal market and farmers’ market in Syracuse. It serves 10 wholesalers and has more than 360 vendor stalls for retail.

On the side, he grows about 11 acres of produce with his wife, Sharon, and markets it from their farm market. They sell what they raise and offer no entertainment.

“We might have thought about it at one time, but now, we have no interest,” he said. “We’d need more space, more staff and more energy. It’s a whole different ball of wax. Labor is a big issue, and getting bigger.”

Nor is he enthusiastic about organic production. His customers don’t demand it.

“The organic trend is becoming less important,” he said. “But locally grown is becoming more important.”

The lure of agritainment

Meanwhile, not that many miles away in the Midwest, Steve Tennes tells a different story. He operates the Country Mill near Charlotte, Mich., with his family. Last year he was elected the first president of the newly formed Michigan Farm Marketing and Agri-Tourism Association (MI-FMAT).

Tennes sees agritourism as a logical evolution, both for the farm families who entered farm marketing more than a generation ago and for people who have lost their connection with farming and are now looking to reconnect – perhaps in a less laborious and more fun way.

While Tennes has 31 acres of apples he wants to sell each year, he thinks his customers come to the Country Mill more for the experience. He doesn’t want them to put the Country Mill into the same category as the grocery store.

“You don’t go to Disney World with coupons,” he said.

The Country Mill specializes in creating an experience. People come to pick apples or pick their own pumpkins. They pet animals. They fill a jug with ice-cold cider from a dispenser that looks like a cider barrel – after watching the cider-making process and seeing the juice flow from crushed apples.

“Our business is different,” he said. “I try not to put us in the same box as them.”

By “them,” he means the big box stores.

“We won’t sell what Wal-Mart does,” he said. “If we find Wal-Mart selling the same brand of caramel apple dip that we do, we’ll change and find another vendor. We don’t want our customers to compare prices. You don’t want to play that game.”

So, while apple juice costs about a dollar a gallon more at Country Mill, you see it made and jug it yourself – and you can’t do that at Wal-Mart.

Similarly, he sells pumpkins by the pound, not by the piece as Wal-Mart does. It gets people more involved with the pumpkin they choose from the patch.

Tennes believes many people are hungry for the connections they have lost – they no longer have a Grandpa who has a farm they can go visit.

Tennes’ parents started his farm. His dad, Bernie, was an agricultural engineer at Michigan State University who retired early and started Country Mill – and recently relinquished management to his son. Tennes believes it’s no coincidence that so many successful farm markets have many family members involved and many years of business experience. Family gives that warm feeling that draws customers.

“They can feel it. They like the history, the story of the place,” Tennes said.

Tennes is just finishing year two of the three-year transition process to organic production on about half of the farm.

He found that his customers – “particularly the ladies” – were interested in organics. He found that organic customers seemed more interested in the farm and the food, and he believes they will be more loyal in the future.

While organic production is more difficult, the marketing side is easier, he said.

He can have kids in the orchard – including two young ones of his own – and can allow people to come in to pick apples and pumpkins, and he doesn’t need to deal with re-entry intervals and signs telling people about dangerous pesticides.

But producing organically does change management practices. You can’t afford to produce fruit you can’t sell. Organic production creates sort-outs that can’t just be thrown away.

“You want to have a cider press,” he said.

At the same time, Country Mill does not pasteurize cider, so rotten apples and drops are not used in the making, because they might shorten shelf life or change the flavor. Other sort-outs are used.

In Michigan, where deer hunting goes on from October to January, the demand for “deer apples” is huge, especially in the early bow-hunting season when hunters use bait. This year, Country Mill sold drops and apples with rotten spots for $50 a 20-bushel box – and sold every apple in the orchard.

The trend to farm-provided entertainment is a major one, Tennes said.

A key issue facing agritainers is making sure local zoning authorities recognize them as agricultural enterprises. MI-FMAT has a committee working to develop a list of Good Agricultural Management Practices (GAMPs) for farm markets and to make sure they fall under Michigan’s Right to Farm Law. In Michigan, such practices have been defined for most agricultural enterprises and put into regulations that protect farms from nuisance lawsuits and other social pressures. MI-FMAT is working to ensure that local authorities clearly understand the Right to Farm includes farm market operators.

Regional influences

Charlie Touchette, who has a farm in Massachusetts, has been executive director of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association since 1998.

Buying local is enjoying a revival along the East Coast, he agrees, and agritainment is growing wildly in the Midwest. But other regions are undergoing other trends.

On the West Coast, it is farmers’ markets rather than farm markets seeing the growth, he said. While the East and Midwest are witnessing a reconnection between customers and farmers, the Western tradition is for farmers’ markets to be a place where people come together, often from longer distances.

The ethnic diversity of the West and the diversity of foods that goes with it make farmers’ markets a cornucopia.

Randii MacNear, manager of the Farmers’ Market Association in Davis, Calif., and vice president of the California Federation of Certified Farmers Markets, agrees with Touchette that the West is farmers’ market country: “a staple, not a trend.”

“We kind of love them out here,” she said. “More and more of them are popping up every day.”

California has about 500 farmers’ markets, the most of any state, but they’re popular in Washington and Oregon as well – even though it’s cooler up north. California’s markets prosper, she said, “because we can run them year round. Customers know they can come any time and find produce.”

Even in areas where markets are seasonal, as in New York, there are more than 300 farmers’ markets, and the common denominator is the face-to-face contact between customer and farmer, she said.

“They can talk to people who grow their food,” she said. “This direct contact provides the ultimate in traceability.”

The South, Touchette said, is a place where all the trends of the other areas are working to find traction. The South was profoundly affected by crops like cotton and tobacco.

“Tobacco is the influence on the South that plays directly to direct farm marketing,” he said. “All these years they’ve been growing cigarettes, when they could have been growing fruits and vegetables.”

With the waning of tobacco, the South is drawing on the experiences of everybody else – the East, West and Midwest – in creating new enterprises. These include farm markets, farmers’ markets, agritainment and a growing base in wholesale production, including cooperative auction markets to serve smaller growers.

“If you’ve ever wished you had a chance to do it all over again, look to the South,” Touchette said. “Farmers there are doing that.”

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