Little Rock growers say marketing, promotion are key to profits
Josh and Anna Hardin sell at an “old-school” market where resellers are not welcome.
Photo courtesy of Josh Hardin.
Lots of people are good at growing organic food. Decent rainfall and the right seed stock, coupled with plenty of hard work, generally result in more commodities than most know what to do with.
And that’s the rub. What separates those who start as organic farmers from those who continue to farm is the ability to sell what they grow for a profit. Successful farmers probably spend more time selling what they grow than they do planting and harvesting.
Like a phoenix
Kelly Carney of Little Rock, Ark., was at the top of his game in 2007. He had taken early retirement after holding several executive posts at three successful companies.
Four years earlier, he was president of the software division of his family’s business, World Wide Travel Service. The company had pioneered a full-service, enterprise-level software solution for coordinating business travel. Clients included NASA, the Department of Homeland Security, Applebee’s restaurants and the University of Texas system.
In 2003, the family sold the business to a competitor, and Carney went with it as a vice president. The competitor later sold the software system to a NASDAQ-listed global firm, and Carney followed the system again, this time as a director.
Five years ago, the global company retired the software, and Carney followed suit. His plan to stay retired derailed when the financial markets imploded the following year.
Heavily invested, he and his financial portfolio hit the wall. Not destitute, but no longer able to enjoy a comfortable early retirement, Carney set about determining what would be next.
“I had always been interested in growing things,” he says, “but after watching a few family members and friends pass from cancer, I decided to take a look at organic food production.”
That led him to buy a 9-acre farm near Jacksonville, Ark., along with some farm equipment and some hoop houses. Today he has 6 acres in cultivation and is a certified organic grower, growing organic produce year-round.
WWOOFers Richard Donaldson and Wesley Berthelot from Baton Rouge, La., finish up construction of a movable hoop house at North Pulaski Farms. The WWOOF organization (http://www.wwoofusa.org) is Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms USA, which seeks to “link visitors with organic farmers, promote an educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming practices.”
Photo courtesy of Kelly Carney.
At North Pulaski Farms (http://www.northpulaskifarms.com) named for the county the farm is located in, Carney grows berries, a variety of leaf vegetables, tomatoes, squash, sweet corn and melons. He admits that his farm lost money in its first two years. Then he got serious about marketing.
No longer content with simply taking his production to a local farmers’ market, he looked for ways to change how he was selling produce. His first strategy was to establish relationships with wholesalers. “It was easy, and it was steady,” Carney noted. “At first I sold about 60 percent of my production to wholesalers. If I had a lot of crop to move, I’d give it a good ice bath and deliver it.”
The problem, as Carney saw it, was that he was selling produce to people he was competing with at the local farm markets. The other problem was the price he was getting. “I was being paid 50 percent of local retail prices.”
So Carney decided to break out of simply being a market farmer. In 2009 he began contacting local grocery stores, which were, at the same time, reaching out to local growers to improve their produce offerings.
He connected with the Argenta Market, a North Little Rock grocery store and café, and then a local Fresh Market store. He also created relationships with several area athletic clubs looking to sell organic produce to members.
Snow-covered Laughing Stock Farm awaits another season under the guidance of fifth-generation grower Josh Hardin.
Photo courtesy of Josh Hardin.
These new relationships allowed him to shift his farm’s emphasis toward marketing to retailers. “I went from selling 60 percent of our produce to wholesalers down to 30 percent. Now I sell 70 percent of my product to retailers.”
The last piece of Carney’s marketing is online. Using an online market software service, he signed up about 20 area growers as vendors. They post photos of their produce on three separate market sites, each with its own unique name and Web address.
The software service takes a commission from the sales, but Carney and the rest of the growers simply mark up their prices to recover the commission. “When I was a suit, I never even looked at prices if all I had to do was click, click, click and have it delivered,” he said.
Carney sells his produce at five to six markets each week, including a sale held on the sidewalk in front of the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock.
Creating partnerships like this with local civic groups and businesses can be a profitable way to establish a market. Essentially, the new market capitalizes on a location that already has its own traffic.
Sponsors also share in the market promotion. For example, the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church’s Hillcrest Farmers Market is featured prominently on the church’s website, http://www.phbclr.com. A button takes visitors to the market’s Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/pages/Hillcrest-Farmers-Market/137757319630986.
Tim Coolong, University of Kentucky, recommends earlier planting dates to reduce insect infestations.
Photo courtesy of Tim Coolong.
Whole Foods venture
Josh Hardin of Sheridan, Ark., is a fifth-generation farmer. His family has lived on the farm, now a 16-acre sustainable agriculture operation producing fruits and vegetables, for 130 years.
After finishing an agroecology apprenticeship at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Hardin came home to farm in a way that was starkly different from the way previous Hardin generations had farmed. “It was my awakening to organic production,” he said.
After coming home, he bought a 40-acre farm he calls Laughing Stock Farm (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Laughing-Stock-Farm/246469198739262 ) and has begun converting it into a certified organic operation. He’s just getting started and is cultivating 1 acre he has cleared by himself on the farm. For now, he’s working on improving the soil with cover crops and composting.
Similar to Carney, Hardin sells his produce at three to eight markets each week. A few months ago he started thinking about marketing on a much larger scale: arranging an ongoing organic produce sale in the parking lot at the Whole Foods Market in Little Rock.
Whole Foods is offering more than simply space on their premises. “They are also supplying us with our own 1,000-square-foot walk-in cooler,” Hardin noted.
Hardin and store management are creating what he calls a curated market. “There are a lot of them on the West Coast,” he said. “Farmers are allowed to sell in the market if they fit the group.”
The market will have a priority rule. Each crop has a priority grower, a designated farm that produces a specific commodity, so vendors won’t be competing with each other on market day.
If the sale management determines that what the farmer has to offer is already covered by others in the market or is not a good fit for the customers, they are not denied entry outright. “We’ll ask them, ‘Can you change what your offering is so that it does fit our market and then reapply?'”
Whole Foods and Hardin want to assure the markets are populated with farmers who are selling their own products. “This will be an old-school market, with no resellers,” he said.
“We will require that all products sold must be clearly labeled as to where the product comes from, as well as its price,” Hardin said. “Booths must have banners, clearly showing the farm’s name and where it is located.”
They also require on-farm inspections. “They are not a prerequisite for joining, but members must submit to inspections by two board members to make sure they are the kind of operation they claim they are.”
Another rule they adopted is that they won’t add growers to the market after the spring season starts. The number of extra requirements the market has makes it too difficult to vet new growers while staging marketing days at the same time.
To date, the sale has seven growers who have committed to participate. The goal is 15. “Growers should make, on average, 80 percent more in this sale than at any other wholesale market where we now sell,” Hardin said.
Brand and quality
Establishing a market is just the first step in creating a cash flow for growers. The next step, promotion, is equally vital to assuring profits.
Both Hardin and Carney know the value of promotion. Both farms have a Web presence, including blogs. Carney writes his own, but Hardin provides material to a professional who writes his.
Each farmer uses the Web as a marketing tool to create brands for all the organic produce they sell, and for each of the markets they run. In addition, Carney has a Facebook page for each of his enterprises – his main farms as well as the four farm markets he runs.
The last piece in the marketing puzzle is quality control. Vegetables presented to customers must not only be nutritious, they must also look nutritious.
Promotion’s handmaiden is quality control, said Tim Coolong, associate extension professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. “Most consumers are forgiving of physical defects in vegetables, but have zero tolerance for insects,” he said. “Having aphids or cabbage loopers in leafy green cabbage is an absolute no-go.”
One strategy Coolong recommends is to use early planting dates to reduce insect infestations. Another strategy worth employing is the use of row covers, though it can be an expensive practice.
“You are talking about a minimum cost of $1,000 per acre for medium-weight plastic, not counting the cost of the hoops,” he said.
A less expensive strategy is to use plastic mulch, though many organic growers might object to using products derived from fossil fuels. “For vining crops, I’d recommend using conservation tillage,” Coolong said. “For pumpkins and sweet corn, strip tillage can minimize insect damage.”
Whose farmer are you?
Carney said the moment he lives for is when someone refers to him as their farmer. “People want to know their farmer,” he said.
Customers go to farm markets to buy vegetables, but unlike the grocery store, they can create a relationship with the growers.
Farmers who write blogs about how they grow their vegetables and what they have available, or even simply talk about what they see from their back porches, create brands. And it brings customers closer to the farm, giving them a sense of being a part of it.
“Facebook pages, flyers, events, radio promotions … people will connect the dots,” said Carney. “Have beautiful produce, bring something unique, create relationships.”
Dr. David Weinstock is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Tyler. He earned his mass media Ph.D. at Michigan State University. Curt Harler, who has a B.S. in agriculture from Penn State University and an M.S. in ag from Ohio State University, is a full-time freelance writer specializing in green topics.