Finding markets after disaster

Farming is an occupation that exists at the whim of nature. We can provide a great deal to overcome and minimize problems, but are still at the mercy of a host of things that are out of our control. Sometimes this means the only thing left to do is prepare as best you can and adapt. One shining example of this is in Tennessee.

Added to natural disasters, farmers deal with trying to get the most from too little money, with many considering or moving to value-added products. This increases sales as well as traffic. Value-added products can be a way to gain maximum profit from your farm.

Trees can take some time to come into production compared to other crops, but it can pay to make the most of each crop. Trees in bloom can provide additional income from agritourism.

Tennessee has a history in agriculture. Hard times and struggles are not new to farmers there, as anywhere. Roughly 60 years ago, Jack and Diane Flippen struggled to make a living with cotton, but cotton fields were slated for “something else” and the quest for another farm product was under way.

Nursery trees were available with a five-year payoff, so 600 apple and 300 peach trees were planted. Selling fruits and melons off a truck was early direct-marketing at its finest. Still, many farms struggled and the family sought to diversify. A market dilemma was topped with a hailstorm, and trees were damaged and apples weren’t in shape to sell, so they were bagged and frozen. Diane began looking for ideas for a pie mix, then made some up and began selling commercially fried pies.

At a festival in the area, long lines greeted them at 50 cents each, so the price was increased to 75 cents a pie. Demand increased to such a high level that a concession trailer was needed that could cook 20 pies at a time. They still couldn’t keep up, so they opened a small market at the farm. With seating for 17 people, there were doubts people would drive to the farm to eat, even for homemade meals.

However, buses began arriving and there was still a great deal of demand. The Flippens’ children, Pam, Hayes and Suzy, began working at the orchard at a young age, and the business expanded to begin wholesaling with distributors taking them to a new level. They invested in new equipment that made 800 fried pies per hour.

Today, sales of fried pies are still high, but it’s not just pies that the Flippen farm sells. When Washington moved into dominance of the apple market, all but 25 acres of trees were dozed. Peaches were planted on 100 acres and people travel from great distances for quality, tree ripened peaches. They also sell nectarines and pears, with all fruits sold whole as well as in the fried pies.

A garden area also can do multiple duty. This beautiful “flower” develops into a birdhouse gourd, allowing for income in the spring around flowers and with crafts for the final product. Such vines can be done against a strip of fence with little extra effort.

A small stand developed into a restaurant that started with burgers, but now features buffets with catfish, country ham, steak and chicken. Quality makes a difference and in a challenged market, people will pay for quality.

When the restaurant closed, it gave birth to another income: a cookbook of recipes. There’s also peach syrup for ice cream, homemade rolls, barbecue sauce, gift boxes and much more available through their website. There’s even a sugar-free section. The fried pies that made them famous are now available in nine varieties.

The Flippen family has made a business doing several key things to keep their farm moving forward while others sold out or went under:

  • Adapt to your market. Listen to what people ask for, provide it and ask for feedback. You won’t please everyone, but it sure pays to listen to constructive suggestions.
  • Try new things. Look at resources you already have and figure out what else can you do with them. This is additional farm income that could be left on the table, so to speak.
  • Know when to scale back or change directions. Orchards can’t really do fad items due to the longer time it takes to bring trees into production as compared to short, single-season crops.
  • Remember, disasters aren’t always a bad thing. Perspective makes a big difference if you’re willing to look at how to make the best of it.
  • You don’t have to do everything, just do a few things well. Attention to quality makes a big difference in happy customers.

Value-added products can be a way of addressing this. It might be jams or ice cream toppings or dried snacks. How can you market that imperfect appearing, but still tasty fruit? How can your nut crop be stretched beyond a few weeks? This is the first step toward finding a value-added market.

Consider farm cooperatives as a way to market direct to the customer. Working with other farmers, it is less of a competition. The dairy farmer sells ice cream and you sell topping while another farm provides snacks; the customer gets everything fresh from the farm and is happy. It allows a bigger piece of the financial pie to the farms.

Pooling resources is especially beneficial to smaller and medium-sized orchards. There is also an opportunity to reduce costs. If a commercial kitchen is needed for processing, what equipment can be shared for the benefit of all? An out-of-the-budget $8,000 piece of equipment split two or three ways is much more affordable. It also means scheduling the use of it, and could even mean cooperative work in processing at peak times, depending on the agreement between the parties involved.

Wood items are another possibility, as well as crafts. Perhaps an agritourism destination is a possibility for income from that scenic area. Another possibility is berries to complement the tree production.

There are many resources to help farmers seeking additional markets:

With a tough economy, there is no doubt it’s harder to make a dollar than ever. However consumers are clear and unwavering in that they will buy quality food at a fair price. There are many ways to reach consumers, but a variety of products, gift baskets and other items from the farm is an option that may be worth looking into.

After all, for the Flippen family, pies were just an idea to salvage a damaged crop. With value-added direct marketed products, it is more effort, but you keep more of your hard-earned dollars in your pockets. That’s something we all search for.

Jan Hoadley is a freelance writer and new contributor to Growing. She is based in Alabama.