In the Successful Small Farmers session, there were three farmers talking about their experiences and what they’ve learnt (leading to their advice to those getting started). This was a really interesting and useful session – a wealth of knowledge and passion punctuated by dry humour and a good dose of dungarees 🙂
Jim Cochran from the Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California.
Jim spoke mostly about the ‘stage’ that local and organic farming is at in California, i.e. there are a lot of small and organic farms, the farmers’ markets are saturated and an increasing number of engaged consumers.
But he suggested that we’re in the ‘pre-knowledge’ phase when it comes to supply chains. To take things to the next level will require a wave of innovation, and damn hard work, akin to that when they were setting up their first organic farms and no-one had any idea what they were doing! He talked about starting out by taking his strawberries to each potential outlet and convincing them that it was a superior product, worth paying more for.
His secrets to success were:
1. First you sell the product, then you grow it
As a farmer “your job is not to grow food, it is to sell food to customers”. He never grows anything if he doesn’t know who’s buying it or for how much.
2. Try everything, but slowly
- Try a wide variety of things to do with your product, outlets, supply channels, value-add etc.
- Work out how you’re going to price it – biggest mistake is to underprice (common early error)
3. Relationships and trust
- Never call and ask someone if they want to buy product, you have to take it in and let em smell it, touch it, eat it
- You have to give people credit . . it really hurts but even if it’s their fault (they ordered too much) you give them replacement / better product. Build relationships, keep customers happy – good strawberries for all!
- BUT do not give credit unless the product is returned
It takes a lot of work to move produce – you have to tell the story!
Tom describes himself as a city kid gone farmer (16 years ago). For his family, the story is about knowing where your food comes from and expecting the customer to make a commitment that they’re going to eat well. This has informed a direct CSA ‘one-to-one’ model.
Started off with 20 families picking up directly through the kids’ school and now have 800. They offer different proportion sizes: family share, small, budget, have just added an ‘eggs and bread’ line. Don’t want to get too big, apparently there are CSAs that have 15,000 household, but “I don’t think that’s a CSA anymore – connection w. customers is gone.”
Tom was pretty clear on the stress involved in being a CSA farmer. Also noted that the increase in CSAs and other models means they now have competition and have had to print brochures for the first time in years.
Direct connection is really important, but sees the web as a great opportunity to move the bounty (the excess seasonal produce).
Now reviewing and reshaping what they do, with more of a focus on who they are – strategy is becoming all about relationships. Forming a non-profit focused on education, getting people to the farm, workshops etc. His secrets to success and guiding principles seemed to be:
- Scale – keep one-to-one relationship (ethos)
- Reduce inputs – fuel, energy and fertilisers
- People – look after those who work for and with you
My note-taking was getting a bit slack by the end of the session, but Al focused mostly on a key points from the others i.e. being a successful farmer is not just about growing good food! He describes his time split as:
- One third marketing
- One third on admin., planning and product development
- One third farming (?)
A lot of the focus is on marketing and getting produce to good, high-paying markets. Frog Hollow has diverse products, brands, ads, packaging, graphics etc. They distribute via CSA, mail order, e-commerce, whole foods – and ship produce all over the USA (no discussion of the energy implications of doing so).
Al’s top recommendation was for “Guerilla Warfare Marketing” – which does look pretty interesting . . http://www.gmarketing.com/
also turns out that the guerilla marketing people are now working in Australia so for anyone that’s really keen . . http://www.guerrillamarketing.net.au/