Crop Talk: Pinpointing Your Markets
Markets – like farms – are a dynamic, ever-evolving entity. We often hear from growers who say they need to do an assessment season-to-season in order to figure out what the most profitable market is for their farm business. Dialing in your markets will also help you dial in your crop plans: maybe greenhouse tomatoes are your bread and butter for wholesale accounts; or, perhaps you live near a particularly fruitful farmers market where you need to grow everything from okra to winter squash in order to be competitive; or, maybe your CSA members demand very specific varieties of peppers and eggplant year after year.
In this month’s issue of Crop Talk, we’ll be talking about the benefits and pitfalls of the four major market opportunities for small scale organic growers: local farmers markets, roadside farm stands, wholesale accounts, and – of course – Community Supported Agriculture programs. Read on to learn about analyzing the benefits of your local markets this season.
Farmers Markets. (Or is it spelled farmers’/farmer’s markets?) No matter which side of the grammatical line you fall on, it’s important to know the potential of your local markets. First, you might want to consider what “local” means to you. Would you be willing to drive four hours one-way to a market if you know you can sling $5,000 worth of vegetables in a single morning? It might mean you miss your kid’s bedtime story on Saturdays, but on the other hand you might be able to start a college fund for said kid sooner rather than later. If you’re lucky, you have a bustling market within 15 miles of your farm – and chances are, with the demand for local sourcing on the rise and farmers markets trending ever upwards, you do. However, determining whether the local market is worth your time as a vendor is only half the battle. Much remains to be done before you can determine whether or not you can be profitable at a farmers market. For help in that area, check out “Tips to Making a Living at the Farmers Market” by High Mowing’s own Paul Betz.
Roadside Farm Stands. If the mountain will not come to Muhammad . . . make your own farmers market! In all seriousness, a roadside farm stand can be a great alternative to a farmers market if you have access to the right location. High traffic rural roads or walkable areas near suburbs or cities are best, of course. The benefits of not having to pack and truck all that produce to and from market are appealing, but also note that if you are going to be the sole vendor at your own mini-market, you may want to consider adding some value to your customers’ visits with suitable local products you might not grow yourself. For some advice on how to go about choosing your farm stand model, check out our blog post, “The Roadside Stand Advantage” by High Mowing’s own Megen Hall of Riverside Farm.
Wholesale Accounts. Ah, yes – the wholesale appeal. Pros: larger volume, consistent buyers. Cons: lower prices, consistent buyers. Yep, that’s right: consistency is a pro and a con. Here’s why: a wholesale account for a local restaurant might want 200 heads of romaine lettuces every week. Sounds great, right? At $2.00 apiece that’s a guaranteed $400 a week. But do you realize that means you need to supply the buyer with 200 heads of romaine lettuce every week? What if your crop gets aphids? What if there’s an unexpected flood? What if your heads melt in the field from that stretch of 100°F days in August? Engaging with a wholesale account can be risky for both parties if you don’t have your systems dialed in and a steady relationship already in place. Since the food industry became heavily mobilized, grocers and restaurants have become accustomed to purchasing from a middle man, which means that if a North Carolina farmer’s field of romaine lettuce got washed out by a hurricane, the middle man distributor would simply get that week’s lettuce from a grower in California. And this is precisely the reason that wholesale accounts can be a pain in the neck. If you’re not willing to meet the buyer where they expect to be met, the relationship may crumble. Luckily, there are lots of folks out there doing wholesale successfully and their stories can be studied to inform your own decision-making. Check out “Small Scale Wholesale” on our blog, by farmer and UVM extension agent Becky Maden, and New Tools for Managing Wholesale Relationships from Growing for Market magazine. Another great resource is ATTRA’s “Tips for Selling to Grocery Stores” tech sheet.
Community Supported Agriculture Programs (CSAs). CSAs have long been loved by our crowd, and for good reason. It’s an excellent model for a small-scale or beginning farmer, and can still be the most viable option for many markets these days. For those of us who cut our teeth on CSAs back in the ‘90s, it is hard to hear that membership numbers in many CSAs are stagnant in some areas. Thanks to aggregators and food delivery systems that are being marketed as “direct from farms”, there is a new hurdle for CSA farmers to face: the convenience factor. Thankfully, farmers are nothing if not resilient and there are many who are adjusting their pick-ups by offering multiple times and locations, and switching up their distributions to include some select-your-own options instead of pre-packed boxes, in order to suit the needs of their customers. Kate Spring of Good Heart Farmstead tackles the question of “Is CSA Right for Your Farm?” on our blog, and it’s worth a read to see if the model suits your production and markets.