There is no doubt Hershey, Pennsylvania is the undisputed land of chocolate but during the first week of February, fruit and vegetables ruled the day. However, it was still all business.

The Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention, held at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center, brought together crop growers from around the region to discuss the business behind fruits and vegetables. Keynote speaker Elaine Froese drove that point home with her session titled, “Discuss the Undiscussabull.”

Froese, who is a family farm coach, explained to the attendees the obstacles and tough conversations families face when running a farm. She suggested the two biggest challenges facing family farms are divorce and poor management.

Froese recalled stories from the past year when a neighboring couple sold their land after a divorce and another time when a wife asked her husband to choose between her and the cows.

“He choose the cows,” she deadpanned to the crowd.

Froese laid out the “undiscussabulls” or tough issues that included financial planning, basic decision making and communication problems. She stressed that the sooner families have the tough conversation, the better it would be for the business.

“What are you doing to balance the business?” she asked the crowd. “Does your business serve the family or the other way around?”

Yes, you really do need a business plan

The role of business was well represented at the convention with Farm Credit East’s Keith Dickerson. Dickerson, business consultant and financial manager, hammered the basic tenets for a business plan for farmers.

Farm Credit East’s Keith Dickerson at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Farm Credit East’s Keith Dickerson at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

“Those with verbal plans had three times their net worth while those with written plans had 9x net worth,” Dickerson explained. “Who wants nine-times their net worth?”

He suggested that a basic business plan should provide detail but at the same be precise—no more than five pages. “If you need a three-ring binder, your business plan is too long,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson recommended several exercises to assist farmers in a business plan such as a SWOT analysis—an inquiry about a company’s Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats.

“It’s a big picture at your business,” he said.  “I recommend you use an outsider to help: someone who doesn’t have skin in the game. I always start with strengths—build up to not tear down.”

Dickerson also used a joke to state the importance of having an organizational chart which is often, he said, the most challenging part of creating a business plan.

“In a family, it’s simple. Mom tells you what to do, you do it,” he said. “It’s slave labor until you’re 18, and you’re an indentured servant until you’re 26.”

Dickerson went further to explain that with the addition to in-laws and non-family employees the roles of leading figures can get confusing. “It’s a simple as asking, ‘who’s my boss?’” he said.

Social media basics

As growers move to the next steps in the digital space, having a robust social media strategy has become increasingly important aspect in ag business. Rebecca Frimmer of Kitchen Table Consultants, a Philadelphia-based firm that assist farms with social media, broke down the often-intimidating platforms of Facebook, Instagram and Yelp.

Rebecca Frimmer of Kitchen Table Consultants, speaking at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Rebecca Frimmer of Kitchen Table Consultants, speaking at the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

“Use Facebook to highlight new products,” she said. “Calling partners, use hashtags. People want to know about an event. They can click on the hashtag and filter it all at once.”

Frimmer also stressed the importance of connecting with customers on social media in an expedited manner. “You always want to be valuable to your customer. Facebook comments should be responded within 24 hours,” she said.

She recommended that Instagram should be used to a creative tool to promote farms visually and engage in conversation. The online review site Yelp, she explained, is ideal way to “claim your business,” and control a business’ narrative. Overall, Frimmer stressed that most businesses succeed with a robust social media plan.

“Understand your visibility and reach,” Frimmer said. “Don’t always feel that you didn’t do better the week before. Dive deeper for engagement.”