Overall demand for Pennsylvania farm products in the Philadelphia metropolitan region has risen substantially in the past few years, with corresponding growth in the number of regional farmers’ markets. However, while sales of fresh produce are flourishing at these markets, sales of locally produced cheeses have been paltry by comparison.
The reasons for poor cheese sales at regional farmers’ markets have not been formally studied, and gaining a better understanding of this problem is a key reason for our grant request. Because Pennsylvania is the nation’s fourth largest dairy producer, strong cheese sales are vital to the state’s dairy farmers.
The overall goal of this project is to recruit more local cheese vendors to the region’s farmers’ markets and improve their marketing efforts and profitability. As a first step, we will work with our partners to identify and resolve existing challenges to selling locally made cheeses at farmers’ markets. Armed with this information, the project team will work to recruit additional local cheese producers at farmers’ markets, and support these vendors with more effective methods to promote and market their products.
We had two main objectives. The first was to recruit more cheese vendors at our markets and have them succeed throughout the entire market season. The other was to learn more about consumer preference in order to help these vendors increase sales.
We had three farmers for the project, all of whom are cheese makers.
Elly Houshour: Patches of Star Dairy. Elly sells goat cheese, goat meat and raw goat milk.
Amanda Arrowsmith: Hillacre Pride. Amanda makes hard cheddar and many types of cheese spreads. She also started selling beef and pork products.
Sue Miller: Birchrun Hills farm. Sue is new to the cheese making business and makes only two artisan cheeses; she wants to expand her product offerings in the future.
Patches of Star and Hillacres have sold at Food Trust markets in the past but did limited business. Birchrun Hills is in only its second year of production of cheese but has been a working dairy farm for years. All three of these farms were vendors at the opening day of the Headhouse Farmers’ market in June, 2007.
The Food Trust operates the largest network of farmers’ markets in southeastern Pennsylvania, with 28 markets in 2008, up more than tenfold from the original two markets in 1998. While sales of fresh produce, plants, and herbs generally are flourishing, sales of locally produced cheeses have been paltry by comparison. Prior to the 2007 season, only one site (the Clark Park Farmers’ Market in West Philadelphia) had a local cheese vendor whose sales were sufficient to sustain her through almost the entire market season.
According to the USDA, about half of the nation’s milk supply is used to make cheese, and Pennsylvania is the country’s fourth largest dairy producer. The USDA reports that growing cheese demand is one of the most important forces shaping the dairy industry, with per capita cheese consumption now at twice the level of 25 years ago, with no signs of leveling. Farmers’ markets provide an important venue for local cheese producers to sell their products, offering an atmosphere that is highly conducive to educating consumers first-hand about the benefits and pleasure of eating locally-made cheeses.
The reasons for poor cheese sales at regional farmers’ markets had not been formally studied. Anecdotal information gathered from local dairy farmers and market managers points to several major barriers, including a lack of variety of cheeses at the markets, inadequate product promotion and marketing, the fragile shelf life of cheese, and time constraints on farm personnel to travel to and sell cheese at markets. Adding to this challenge is a dearth of hard data on these issues that could assist The Trust in more effectively recruiting cheese vendors and helping them improve their marketing efforts and profitability.
In summer 2007, The Trust opened six new markets in the region. The Trust also collaborated with community partners to open The Headhouse Farmers’ Market in Center City, Philadelphia. The Headhouse Farmers’ Market opened to rave reviews and featured 30 vendors, similar to the Greenmarket in New York City and the Dupont Circle market in Washington, D.C.
Because there is limited literature on the topic of local cheese sales at farmers’ markets, an initial qualitative phase of research was needed before developing a customer survey.
In order to do this, a stand was set up at the Trust’s larger markets. One of the markets, Clark Park Farmers’ Market has been operating for 10 years and draws a diverse group of shoppers from students to professionals. The other market, the Headhouse Farmers’ Market is Philadelphia largest outdoor farmers’ market with over 30 vendors. The market draws a large number of customers from around the city but the surrounding neighborhood is affluent.
In this evaluation of market shoppers, customers were asked to walk a research assistant through their decision to purchase cheese or not, and we had available to them a variety of sample products, some with and without labeling, some of more common types, some with samples and some without. Using the data collected from this research, a survey was developed and administered to a broader base of customers at several markets
A customer survey of cheese preferences based on the understandings gleaned from the initial phase. Staff surveyed 100 patrons at the farmers’ markets about their current cheese purchasing patterns, frequency and expenditure of last purchases and demographics. Customers were also asked to rate products to understand the relative importance of key characteristics. Consumers were asked to rank products with certain characteristics and these characteristics were teased out to determine their relative importance. Customers could rank items such price and flavor. (see appendix)
In the first phase of the surveys almost all customers had a strong preference for a wrapped portion of cheese with a label of the farm and a price. Customers said they felt uncomfortable about ordering from a block of cheese because they didn’t know how much to order and often purchased more than they wanted.
The second phase of the survey showed a greater range of opinions. At the Headhouse market many customer had no concerns about price but were buying for flavor. In general, the customers in this market were knowledgeable about cheese in general and preferred non-traditional styles. Artisan blue and specialty cheeses were their preference.
At the Clark Park market the customers bought cheese on flavor with a eye on the price. Many would not be willing to spend more that $10 per pound. This customer base showed a preference for cheese was locally produced and natural/organic.
During the course of the surveys customer would often purchase cheese right after the survey where they could sample the product. Hillacres Pride and Birchrun Hills sampled their products during all market hours. We provided these farms with domes, cutting boards and knives to safely sample the cheese in accordance with local health regulations.
Patches of Star does not sample their product. The owner has been selling for years at markets and felt that it did not help her sales. She tracked the amount of samples she gave out a few years ago and realized that it was costing her $6000 a season. In her case, all of her product are made from goats’ milk and fans of that style seek her products.
The producers had limited funds for signage so producing 3 x 5 banners for their farms helped with brand identity and customer recognition.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
A number of marketing tips for cheese vendors have been added to our Farmers’ Market Handbook. This handbook is given to every farmer that sells at our markets. Topics concerning sampling and signage where added as a result of the lessons learned during this project
We fulfilled our main objectives for the project. For the first time, we have three cheese producers selling every week at the Headhouse market for the entire season. These farmers sold until the last market day, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2007. All three producers have returned for the 2008 season and their sales have increased.
There was a noticeable dip in sales during August of 2007. The combination of hot weather and abundance of fruits and produce had a effect on sales. In September the cooler weather was evident in higher weekly sales.
All of the vendors have added products other that cheese to their market offerings to help keep their sales numbers stable. Hillacres Pride sells select cuts of beef and pork. Patches of Star sells prepared goat meat as well as raw goat milk. Birchrun Hills has started to sell ground beef and is getting a license to sell raw milk at their stand. This is a product that many customers have asked for that is not presently sold at the market.
Clear signage, packaging, and sampling are the key components to help all farms sell their products, in particular cheese and meat products. Theses items must be kept in a cooler at all times in order to sell them safely. Since they are not on display like fruits and produce, the customer often don’t realize that farmers have many other products that are not readily visible.