May 15, 2014
Marketers share winning sales ideas

In 2007, Giff and Mae Burnap, who run Butternut Farm in Farmington, N.H., tried something new: They gave out free u-pick apple bags at a local elementary school. The half-peck bags were given to the school’s second graders, and each bag included a coupon allowing the user to fill the bag for free at the farm. A lot of families showed up on the day the coupon expired. The farm probably gave away $3 to $4 of apples per bag that day, but most of the families bought more product while they were there. It turned out to be one of the most profitable days the farm ever had – and this was back when they charged a lot less for their apples, Giff said.

The Burnaps weren’t allowed to repeat their success, however. Some people in the community objected to a public school appearing to show favoritism toward a local business, so the promotion wasn’t held again. But it served its purpose by introducing new families to the farm. Many of them became long-term customers, Giff said.

The Burnaps shared their story in a survey recently released by Fruit Growers News. The survey, one of three (the other two, focusing on pricing and agritainment, will be covered in future issues), focused on marketing techniques used by farm marketers.

Eighty people responded to this question: “What’s the best marketing idea you’ve ever tried?” The responses included selling quality produce, handing out free samples, giving discounts and creating eye-catching displays at high-traffic areas like farmers’ markets. A few of the responses were more detailed. Fruit Growers News followed up for more of the story:

Circle B Farms in Caribou, Maine, allows kids to eat all the fruit they want while picking, at no charge. Owner Sam Blackstone figures kids are going to eat while picking his fruit anyway, so he just priced himself accordingly and decided to have fun with it.

“I have two rules for kids: They can’t run and they have to eat when they’re picking,” he said.

The idea, which he’s been using for at least two decades, seems to have earned Blackstone some long-term customers. People who bring their kids to the farm today tell him, “You let me eat when I was a kid, and I’m coming back to do the same with my kids.”

Blackstone grows apples, and is the largest highbush blueberry grower in his area (northern Maine, near the Canadian border). He’s also the “highest priced guy” around – which helps make up for the fruit lost when kids are eating it. People are willing to pay more because his farm is where they learned to like berries and apples. It’s also a “neat and clean” place to spend the day, he said.

Circle B Farms charges $2.75 a pound for u-pick blueberries and $6 a quart for pre-picked berries out of the refrigerator. U-pick apples cost $1.35 a pound; pre-picked apples cost $1.75 a pound, Blackstone said.

For the first time last year, Miller Plant Farm in York, Pa., hosted a contest for local high school art departments.

“We contacted several area high school art departments and supplied them with a (7-foot by 21-foot canvas), and asked them to paint the winter scene of their choice,” said owner David Miller. “It did not need to contain our logo or any such requirement.”

Four schools participated, and the Millers hung the finished paintings in their poinsettia greenhouse around Thanksgiving. They encouraged the public to come to the farm and vote for their favorite piece. Voting consisted of giving 50 cents to the favored painting, and the art department that got the most votes received all of the proceeds. Last year’s winner, Dallastown High School, received several hundred dollars. Miller Plant Farm gave the other three schools $100 honorariums, Miller said.

The farm got something out of the art contest, too.

“Any farm market or garden center manager knows that traffic is the name of the game,” Miller said. “Once people are in the door, they will buy. The challenge is getting them there.”

Miller’s son, Dustyn, came up with the idea for the contest, which they intend to repeat. Miller is considering changing the fee to $1 per vote.

“Some voted ten at a time, especially the art students’ parents,” he said. “The money all goes to a good cause.”

Boosting the size of his berry packages and touting the lower per-ounce price has been a successful marketing idea for Warren Howell, owner of Allder School Berries in Purcellville, Va.

Howell, who sells at farmers’ markets, gave an example: He typically sells blackberries in 6-ounce clamshell packages for $4 each. For the last two years, he’s been bumping the size up to 16-ounce packages for $8 each.

“We say they get four free ounces,” he said. “Everybody likes the idea.”

The technique is nothing new, especially for big retailers, but for Howell the advantage is moving more product. Fresh fruit is highly perishable, and he tries to get it to his customers within 24 hours of being picked. He grows berries and other produce on about 7 acres, and sells it at local farmers’ markets. As a retiree, he’s focused more on perfecting his growing techniques than on expanding his business. Selling everything he has is his biggest priority right now, he said.

He uses the size-boosting technique with blackberries, blueberries, strawberries and figs, but not with black or red raspberries. Reds are hard to produce in the Virginia heat, and there’s too much demand for black raspberries (Howell charges $5 for a 5-ounce clamshell).

“Nobody around here grows black raspberries,” he said. “I won’t give them away.”

Fortunately for Howell, he lives in Virginia’s Loudoun County, the richest county in the United States.

“People who like fresh and local foods will pay top price for anything around here.”

Survey results

A total of 158 respondents filled out the marketing survey. Here’s a breakdown of the data:

Word-of-mouth is the most effective form of advertising, checked by 50.3 percent of the respondents. Social media got the second-highest response rate (19.7 percent), followed by local newspaper (print: 11.5 percent; online: 2.5 percent), television (1.3 percent) and radio (0.6 percent).

Other responses mentioned fliers and posters, e-newsletters, roadside signs, quality products and service, affiliation with a farmers’ market or CSA group and Google ads as the most effective forms of advertising.

Nearly two-thirds (65.2 percent) of the respondents have a website. Product can be ordered off of 21.7 percent of those websites.

More than two-thirds (68.6 percent) use social media in their marketing plans; 8.3 percent plan to do so soon. Of those who use social media, nearly all use Facebook (99.1 percent); followed by Twitter (18.7 percent), Pinterest (12.1 percent), YouTube/Vimeo (10.3 percent), Instagram (6.5 percent) and Flickr/Picassa (4.7 percent). Nearly half (43.9 percent) of the respondents have a staff member dedicated to social media. More than a quarter (28.1 percent) produce an e-newsletter as part of their marketing plans.

Nearly half (48.3 percent) of the respondents dedicate 1 percent or less of their gross sales to their marketing budgets; most of the rest dedicate less than 9 percent. Only 2.8 percent dedicate 10 percent or more of their gross sales to their marketing budgets.

Matt Milkovich

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