Marketing Together Now
Farmers wear many hats. Not just wide-brimmed straw hats, baseball caps and wool beanies for the winter – many professional hats.
Yes. It’s very easy to think of your farmer as someone who just grows the seasonal delights you tote home in a CSA box or your farmers’ market basket. But growing food is only the tip of the iceberg lettuce when it comes to the laundry list of skills that one needs to run a small farm. A small farm is, after all, a small business and growing food is just a piece of the pie. The smiling, tan farmer who hands you your bag of spinach or dozen eggs does so much more than just grow food. She or he also serves as chief marking officer, along with a laundry list of other non-production oriented responsibilities.
Many folks are drawn to the farming life to work close to the land and nourish their community with delicious food. Undoubtedly, for some there is something so rewarding about laboring outside, toiling daily to the point of exhaustion and cultivating a product with your own hands (or hoe or tractor). However, getting your products ‘to market’, and actually selling it, is just as important as growing and raising the delicious edibles themselves. And for producers selling directly to their customers, sometimes it can feel like a marketing degree is required to actually sell anything. Just consider the branding, packaging, website, market signage, advertising, social media, CSA member signup, travel to the market and newsletter writing stands behind the food you buy. Ultimately though, the business end of the enterprise is only sustainable when the product actually finds a paying home. Sometimes growing food can be the easy part in comparison, and marketing activities take a big bite out of the time growers would like to spend in the fields (or sleeping at night), not to mention a chunk of the budget too.
Gratefully, there is a groundswell of support from local and national organizations, individuals and institutions all who want to provide some sort of market opportunity, advertising or educational benefit to support small, local farms. As a consumer, it’s easy to think about websites like Sustainable Table, publications including Edible Communities (be sure to look up the nearest to you) or online databases such as Local Harvest as an easy way to find a local farm or learn about the benefits of sustainable agriculture. From the grower’s perspective, these are advertising outlets and campaigns that help boost a market demand for their products. And thank goodness, resources now include everything from CSA coalitions, searchable databases of local farms, food hubs, websites promoting the environmental and health benefits of eating local and many more. You may call it Marketing Together Now, but it’s just another way people who believe in local agriculture join forces to increase opportunities for farmers and consumers.
Here’s just one example. It’s 2012, and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) concept is becoming more and more common, almost mainstream. In this model, customers ‘join’ a farm, pay the farmer at the beginning of the growing season and then receive regular ‘shares’ of the farm produce regularly throughout the season. Farmers receive much needed cash flow at the beginning of the growing season, CSA members share in the risks of farming and food can be harvested with the knowledge of exactly where it is going.
In the early 1990s, just a handful of US farms operated as CSA farms, and the concept was unfamiliar to consumers. In the beginning, farmers and local food advocates collaborated to educate the community about this new model, planting the seeds for future success. By 1999, these community efforts to enthuse potential customers blossomed, with an estimated 1000 CSAs taking root across the country. And the groups organizing around CSAs grew too. Many became official organizations with a mission to promote CSAs and provide a community for producers too. Their work is instrumental in the rapid growth of community supported agriculture, with 4,571 CSAs listed on Local Harvest at the beginning of 2012.
MACSAC is a perfect example, but you can see them in Portland (PACSAC), Kansas City, New York City and Dubuque. Now they are non-profits, farmer lead, or have a small staff – but are close to the farmers.
A CSA Coalition may play many roles. Most are membership groups, loosely or formally organized, with the mission to promote CSA farms and provide community for farmers. Many promote the concept of CSAs and educate about their benefits. Some of these organizations go further, hosting annual CSA sign-up events, a chance for people to meet their farmers and sign up for a share in person. Some raise funds to subsidize shares for those who can not purchase a CSA at full price. Others organize classes on cooking or food preservation. The pinnacle of positive work is by the Fairshare CSA Coalition of Wisconsin. They partnered with local health insurance companies, encouraging them to offer rebates to those who join CSAs.
The work of a CSA Coalition is not just for the consumers, many provide a way and a place for farmers to gather, unite, have fun and learn through workshops, listserves or events. This is the nature of good food, built on a strong foundation built by growers and eaters alike – while providing much needed ‘professional services’ to make farms more visible too!