Celebrity farmers take a bow

The popularity of Scott’s Zellwood Triple-Sweet Gourmet Corn attracted the likes of Larry the Cable Guy, star of “Only in America” on the History channel. He is pictured here with Haley Scott, who manages Long & Scott Farms’ market, caf_ and produce club, all expanded features that continue to build the Florida grower’s reputation.
Photo courtesy of Long & Scott Farms.

Central Florida grower Hank Scott does not know whether it was sheer luck or fate that brought Larry the Cable Guy to his farm.

The celebrity, who stars in the History channel’s “Only in America,” was traveling through the area shooting footage for the show. When a gig fell through, Scott was asked if he’d allow Larry to help create a customized maze in Long & Scott Farms’ cornfields.

“We had less than a week to work it out, but we did it,” says Scott, who chuckles modestly when called a celebrity farmer. The Scott family created a maze that featured the show’s logo, and they let Larry take the tractor wheel for the last 2 acres.

Could this have been a coincidence? Unlikely.

The farm’s reputation has blossomed from solid provider to popular purveyor in the food-to-fork revolution. Growers small and large are using anything from corn mazes to radio shows to social media to bring people closer to their food.

“It is funny to think of somebody with muddy shoes and sweat as a celebrity, but that’s how we feel,” jokes Minnesota farmer Rae Rusnak, who gained a heaping measure of fame when she was featured in a documentary about co-ops with celebrity chef Kevin Gillespie of “Top Chef” fame.

Minnesota farmer Rae Rusnak talks turnips with celebrity chef Kevin Gillespie, who was a standout on Bravo’s “Top Chef” show and competed for the “Top Chef” title. Rusnak and Gillespie were featured in a documentary about how participating in local co-ops boosts farm popularity.
Photo courtesy of the National Cooperative Grocers Association.

A relative term

Whether the operation is large or small, growers who have developed “celebrity” mindshare among wholesale and retail customers say the key is being creative, building relationships and providing top-notch products and service.

For Long & Scott Farms (http://www.longandscottfarms.com), becoming known for sweet corn “from all over” started years ago, when Florida growers cultivated sweet corn on “Zellwood muck.” Government regulations shut down 22,000 acres of these operations in the late 1980s. Long & Scott became the only surviving farm, and subsequently trademarked Scott’s Zellwood Sweet Gourmet Corn.

As with farming, consistent effort has given this operation a reputation. Over the years, the family-run Long & Scott Farms has introduced agritainment, including a large farm market and corn maze. A café was established, and Long & Scott’s CSA is being reintroduced.

“Unless you are already wealthy, go out and take baby steps. We’ve been doing our corn maze for 10 years, and we’ve learned you have to do something different every year,” Scott says.

Through marketing and sampling, Long & Scott has made its way into restaurants throughout Orlando, including Disney offerings. The grower also produces pickling cucumbers that are used by Claussen and Mt. Olive Pickle Co.

Scott himself is regularly contacted by the media for features. He was named to the Orlando Sentinel’s Central Florida 2010 Culinary Hall of Fame, and he was recently featured in a cookbook.

Rather than doing a lot of paid advertising, Long & Scott uses press releases for promotion because they are free and can be submitted any time. Other marketing strategies include charity promotions, websites, blogs, e-newsletters, Facebook and Groupon.

No matter how you promote your farm, it can be a house of cards unless you have built a solid operation.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s on a commercial scale or local scale, quality is number one,” says Scott. “We’ve created a very spoiled society that expects perfection.”

Hank Scott and his father Frank Scott pose with their old Farmall tractor.
Photo courtesy of Long & Scott Farms.

On the street

Jaemor Farms’ (http://www.jaemorfarms.com) market on Highway 365 in North Georgia is a well-loved spot for travelers going to and coming from the Smoky Mountains.

“Almost 90 percent of what we grow is sold in the market,” says Jaemor’s Drew Echols. The 350-acre farm has 120 to 150 acres in production. “We built our name on peaches, but the last 10 to 12 years, strawberries have really taken off.”

The key to Jaemor’s success has been location, but it’s also developed a community stronghold with Echols and his growing “celebrity” status.

Echols says that a few years ago, he decided to cut a radio commercial with his small daughter promoting strawberries.

“The phone started blowing up,” says Echols. Now he and his uncle, Judah Echols, participate in radio shows and farm updates every month.

“Our customers think it’s cool,” says Echols. “They like farming and want to know where their food comes from, and we do updates and call-in spots. There is a Saturday morning program that is a home and garden show, and once a month I fill in as the host. People get to call in about their fruit trees, and I can tell them what is going on at the farm.”

Echols says that staying relevant is the key.

“I had a public relations lady tell me once that every time you have a chance to get your name out there, you raise your hand,” he says. “I don’t think you have to go around and ask for freebies, but people are interested, and you need to be proactive about wanting to promote yourself.”

Fourth-grade students from St. Vincent Ferrer School take an educational hayride to the cattle pasture at Grand Prairie Farms in Dixon, Ill.
Photo by Danelle Burrs, Lee County Farm Bureau manager.

At Jaemor, they’re also interested in growing the wholesale business, so they’re working with brokers for restaurants and school systems.

“You’ve got to find someone, regardless of who it is, find someone you can have a personal conversation with. You need to find a friend, someone who cares about what you have,” he adds.

Life at Jaemor is also on Hollywood’s radar. Echols says an executive producer for “American Chopper” and “Dirty Jobs” wanted to know about the possibility of doing a reality show.

“I told them no. They can either make you look like the smartest person in the world or the biggest idiot in the world.”

In addition to the roadside market, Jaemor has a bakery, corn maze and pumpkin farm, and hosts field trips and hayrides.

In the store

While celebrity chefs have become side dishes for celebrity growers, they are still powerful when it comes to exalting the farm.

Rusnak, owner and operator of L&R Poultry & Produce (http://www.lrpoultryproduce.com) in Kenyon, Minn., experienced this as part of a video series sponsored by the National Cooperative Grocers Association. Celebrity chef Kevin Gillespie hosted the series and traveled to the local Just Food Co-op where Rusnak’s produce is sold.

He focused on the special connection between co-ops and local farmers. Part of the program features Rusnak and Gillespie chatting in a turnip field. Pictures of the two appeared in coupon fliers and in local media, and Rusnak says people would recognize her out and about.

Grand Prairie Farms in Dixon, Ill. started hosting farm tours in the 1970s to educate visitors of all ages about the farm. These students are part of the fourth-grade class from St. Vincent Ferrer School in River Forest, Ill., a suburb of Chicago.
Photo by Danelle Burrs, Lee County Farm Bureau manager.

“Having him visit the farm and co-ops in the area validates it to everybody that we are doing something right, and this boosted a lot of people in this area.”

Paparazzi aside, Rusnak already had a strong reputation.

“I would say we are known regionally. Just about anyone in this farming circuit of Minnesota has heard of us,” she says.

While primarily a wholesale operation, Rusnak’s products are sold in retail markets and at the Northfield Farmers’ Market. Reliability has been her trademark. Her 72-acre farm includes 5 acres of produce.

“We have a reputation for quality and being on time, and I think that has really been the key to our success. Even if you don’t have a lot of product for the farmers’ market, it’s still important to go,” Rusnak says. “Customers get to count on you. You can tell them what is coming, and they can plan their shopping around that. If they see you regularly, they are not going to jump around.”

Farm and flight

Seeing the white-hot draw of the down-to-earth, professional associations are parlaying their educational agendas with growers leading the way.

“The act of talking about what we do on the farm has taken flight,” says Illinois farmer Katie Pratt, who was named one of the Faces of Farming & Ranching by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance earlier this year. “It has elevated awareness of what we do on the farm.”

Pratt produces corn, soybeans and seed corn on the 5,500-acre Grand Prairie Farms in Dixon, Ill., and has found her role a little overwhelming. She’s not accustomed to doing satellite media tours that involve taping 27 interviews in four hours.

“Regardless of the audience, I’m finding out that people just want to know what’s happening on the farm. When you sit down one-on-one, you find people are just curious,” she says.

Pratt and celebrity chef Danny Boome from the Food Network’s show “Rescue Chef” educated television viewers across the country about what food terms such as organic, local, grass-fed, naturally raised and sustainable really mean.

Pratt and her husband, Andy, a seventh-generation farmer, are partners with Andy’s family, and the operation has welcomed tour groups since the 1970s.

Getting the word out, whether through TV, word-of-mouth or Hollywood headlines, adds up to profits for farms fueled by fame.

Jennifer Paire is a freelance writer based in Canton, Ga. 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.