September 2011
For What It's Worth

Making the Connection With Local Produce

This is more or less an editorial on something I have observed for a while and it bothers me. I believe there is a strong disconnection between a significant number of people who say they would like to buy local farm products and their actual pursuit and acquisition of farm fresh products. In this case, I am referring to small-scale farm situations, with produce and live-stock (large and small) being the commodities.

Making the connection between potential consumers and actual farmers is not easy. I say the blame is shared among all potential parties involved: consumers, farmers and agencies/organizations with the potential to help but having very limited impact. With the continuous pursuit of creative-marketing opportunities and serious efforts on the part of consumers, I believe things can improve in the long-run.

First, let’s talk about farmers. They are hard workers and tend to be good producers, but can have weak marketing strategies. I’ll be the first to admit some of them are busy farming all day or working a full-time job and farming in their spare time, which leaves them little time to devote to marketing strategies. However, I believe, if they would set aside some time when they are not busy farming and spend that time with family or friends getting some input on marketing, they might come up with some good ideas. Farmers need to create a more visible presence to attract buyers. If selling directly from the farm, try using some highly-visible signage, possibly place signs away from the farm with directions, hours of operation and a phone number. If selling at a farmers market, make sure to have a highly-visible sign or banner, list items for sale, possibly some prices and a website.

Figure out a way to develop an inexpensive website; also utilize Facebook or Twitter to update interested parties. Everybody likes a story, so share ongoing activities regarding the farm, maybe a history of the farm and plans for the future. Take out ads in local newspapers, magazines or sales papers. When spending time with customers, take the time to ask them how they found out about your farm, what they like about the products and whether there any new or different products they might like to see made available for next year. As a famer, you might be surprised at what you learn trying all these processes. If they work, continue to use and improve them; if they don’t, take a look at other options.

"Experts," not saying there aren’t some good ones, but they are few and far between. One of the weaknesses I have seen over the past decade is "experts" tell everybody there are all kinds of opportunities, but the experts don’t take the time to follow through and evaluate these "opportunities." And if farming were so easy wouldn’t more people be farming? Next time you are talking with one of these "experts" ask them if they farm and if not, why not? Experts will come up with ideas, but generally don’t stick around long enough to see the results, They are too busy running off to their next "victim," assuming their previous encounter was a success.

When it comes to consumers, I am not saying there are not pockets of people who actively support local farmers, but there are too many consumers whose actions speak louder than their words. I have heard it from people trying to buy goats (for production or consumption), people who want to buy fresh fruits or vegetables, and people in general who talk about buying local, but fail to actively pursue the desired products. I’ve had people come to me and say they could not find any goats to buy, when they failed to add "at a low price they were willing to pay." I had a family member tell me they wish they had a local produce stand where they could buy fresh products, and they lived 30 minutes from one of the bigger farmers markets in the Southeast.

I am not saying buying local is easy; it takes time to actively seek out producers and build a relationship that will last from year to year.

Whether it is buying half a cow or hog, acquiring a membership in a Community Supported Agriculture group or driving to a local farmers market, it can be done!

As I said earlier, there is no single party to blame, it takes greater initiatives to identify marketing opportunities and a greater effort on the part of consumers to actively pursue and develop a relationship with farmers. Sometimes things change, a farmer retires and the consumer must pursue other sources. Farmers cannot take consumers for granted; they must always look to build their clientele base in innovative ways.

No, there is no easy answer to this. If all parties will make a greater effort, there is the potential for a greater re-connect; fall and winter are good times to work on this.

Robert Spencer is a contributing writer from Florence.