Finding the right outlets

Direct marketing, in one form or another, has been around as long as agriculture itself. The earliest forms of trading fruit for a neighbor’s eggs have expanded and grown to include an array of locations, methods and technologies.

In a University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences document titled “An Overview of Small Farm Direct Marketing,” M. E. Swisher and James Sterns say the crucial aspect of direct marketing is the personal relationship between grower and consumer. Even when that connection isn’t face-to-face, as in the case of Internet sales, the personal aspect is an important part of making the sale.

Finding the right sales vehicle

Direct marketing, like most things, becomes successful through trial and error. That certainly has been true for DaVero Sonoma, Inc., the specialty food production arm of Olive Ridge Ranch in Sonoma County, Calif. Owner Ridgely Evers has continually refined operations since purchasing the farm over 20 years ago.

Growing an assortment of fruits, including olives, grapes and lemons, for processing, Evers has attempted wholesaling, distributorships and operating a retail store, but Internet sales have been the most successful, resulting in doubled sales figures. Olive oil, wine, jams and other products are available at www.davero.com. Evers says online marketing has eliminated many expenses that made other techniques less profitable. While the Internet is the primary sales vehicle, he plans to open a retail tasting room near the farm, which will replace the recently closed retail operation. During the transition time, products will be available at farmers’ markets and a produce stand.

“The Web changes everything,” Evers says. “It enables you to carry on a conversation with people even when they aren’t in front of you.”

Like Swisher and Sterns, he believes that relationship-building is key and quite challenging for some growers. “Most people don’t understand that retail is theater. You … need to put on a good show, and ‘tell the story’ to visitors and prospective customers,” he says.

Pearson Farm in Fort Valley, Ga., has also found the Internet, as well as mail order sales, the best distribution system for its peaches and pecans. Mary Pearson says customer complaints of being unable to locate their products originally led the family to open a retail operation, but the demands of running that along with a 4,000-acre farm made Internet marketing appealing.

Photo courtesy of Miller Farm.
Miller Farm festivalgoers take a hayride to the field where they will pick vegetables.

Pearson says knowing your customers is one element of successful marketing. She offers an upscale line of peach and pecan products designed for gift giving, as well as fresh produce. In addition to the Web site, www.pearsonfarm.com, which is marketed through online search engines, succinct communications such as e-mails and postcards help promote the business. Pearson says differentiating her mailings from typical catalogs and focusing on consumers’ desire to purchase from farmers they know is imperative.

“It is extremely important to know who you are and what you want to look like in three years,” she adds. “Spend money on great photos.”

Finding the right promotional vehicles

Although family-owned and operated Miller Farms doesn’t sell its fruits and vegetables online, its Web site, www.millerfarms.net, is equally essential to the operation’s success. David Patterson, who manages the sales and marketing of the Platteville, Colo., farm, says the six-year-old site is responsible for nearly doubling purchases each year.

“If you have a farm and are open to the public and do not have a Web site, you are losing business,” he adds.

Miller Farms produce is sold at 35 farmers’ markets weekly and at the farm. During the growing season, up to 30 people work on the farm and at the sales venues. Since the farm began in 1949, when produce was sold along a highway on the honor system, a reliable set of promotional tools has been developed.

Miller Farms hosts two festivals each year, which Patterson says have been its most successful ways to earn and retain customers. Thousands turn out to have a farm experience, enhanced by corn and hay mazes, a playground and a display of tractors, airplanes and antique cars.

Word-of-mouth advertising is always valuable and Miller Farms tries to ensure that the buzz will be positive by emphasizing excellent customer service. Even the family’s children are taught to be professional and knowledgeable in their customer interactions.

Photo by Bill Tarpenning, USDA.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture sponsors farmers’ markets in its parking lot.

A comprehensive flyer that lists all farm information, including markets and special events, goes into each bag of produce sold. It is available wherever the farm’s products are sold. Patterson says because the flyer is packed with information, it is most successful with current customers or those who’ve expressed interest in locally grown food.

Because the festivals are well attended by church and school groups, a targeted mailing is prepared for those audiences. Over the years, the family has found that it is worthwhile to purchase a mailing list from a mailing service. Compiling addresses in-house resulted in many returns from the post office.

Even more efficient are postcard mailings handled by an outside firm. Miller Farms works with a company to advertise its festivals, and during the winter, the company and the farm design the postcard. When it is time to announce a festival, the promotional company prints, addresses and mails cards to a targeted audience. Patterson says the entire cost for this campaign is about half of that for the in-house mailing to community groups.

Finding community support

There is a lot of interest in bringing growers and communities together, and direct marketers know that is vital to building a steady clientele. Four-year-old Coon Rock Farm (www.coonrockfarm.com) in Hillsborough, N.C., has more than doubled its business annually by engaging with consumers.

Coon Rock’s full organic vegetable line, along with pasture-raised meats, is distributed through a 150-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) organization, on the farm and at three farmers’ markets. Owner Richard Holcomb says repeat customers do business with people they like, so personable interaction is key for direct marketers. To build that loyalty, an enthusiastic salesperson who works well with the public is essential.

“Lots of people sell tomatoes,” he says. “You need to be good at growing a great one, but you also need to be engaging and informative about selling them in order to truly be successful.”

Meeting and greeting has paid off for Holcomb in the form of a 1,000-member e-mail list. A listing of available products is sent weekly, generating up to 100 orders. This system is Coon Rock Farm’s most successful promotion. E-mail orders are delivered at one of several drop-off points, including a restaurant that Holcomb co-owns.

Tapas restaurant and wine bar Zely & Ritz in nearby Raleigh brings locally grown, organic foods, primarily supplied by Coon Rock, to a clientele that may never visit a farm. Named by Organic Style Magazine as one of the nation’s top 20 organic eateries, the restaurant whets diners’ appetites for the farm’s fresh produce. Not many entrepreneurs have found a way to capture consumers’ restaurant and grocery dollars.

Web Resources for Direct Marketers

Marketing Postcards
www.easypostcardmarketing.com
www.postcardmania.com
www.postcardsmart.com

Mailing Services
www.printingforless.com/mailingservicesguide.html
www.usps.com

Web Site Developers
www.farmwebdesign.com/hiredhelp.htm
www.thebarnworks.com

There is no doubt that direct marketing is here to stay. For growers who leave their comfort zones behind and employ 21st-century tools, there’s no better way.

The author is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.