This project pursued a strategy of encouraging diversification, developing new and direct markets, and strengthening business skills in order to enhance the economic viability of limited means producers. Growers have indicated continued interest in activities related to new crops, development of business skills, and selling to Ohio University. The Good Food Direct! marketing project provided benefits, especially to newer producers; growers expressed a strong interest in continuing the project. However, the project structure is highly labor-intensive, and sales volume was far from sufficient to cover operating costs. In addition, efforts to expand Good Food Direct! into nearby urban markets proved largely unsuccessful. A sustained multi-year marketing effort might eventually result in market penetration, but would require a substantial infusion of capital with no guarantee of success. Other opportunities, such as selling to Ohio University, are more compelling. The success of the Good Food Direct! Holiday Catalog, which attracted sales from across Ohio with relatively little effort, indicates that it may warrant more attention than a regular-season catalog.
Background and Context for the Project
Appalachian Ohio is a region with a history of extractive “boom and bust” industries, including coal, oil and clay extraction, leaving widespread poverty. Farms are generally small, averaging 180 acres, and economically precarious. Counties in the region have total annual agricultural production ranging from $2.7 million to $12 million, as contrasted with $70 million to $110 million per county in Ohio’s grain belt.
These circumstances, combined with increased property taxes and low prices for farm commodities, have led to steep declines in the number of farms in the region. Between 1952 and 1992, Athens, Meigs, Vinton and Hocking Counties all lost more than 50 percent of their farmland, and between 1990 and 1995 each county lost approximately 3,000 acres of farmland. This loss of farms and farmland threatens the social fabric of our communities.
Farms in the region are mainly small, family-owned operations with unsophisticated marketing strategies and limited business skills. As a result, many are marginal, hovering on the edge of economic disaster. At the same time, there is increased demand in our region and nearby urban areas for high-quality fresh produce, particularly organic produce, and consumers are willing to pay premium prices for quality products. More than 10 million people live within a four-hour drive of Appalachian Ohio; the nearby city of Columbus, with more than a million people, has experienced an economic boom. Recent indications that the time is ripe to capitalize on these trends include:
§ a tremendous response to a front-page article in the Columbus Dispatch about the 2000 Good Food Direct! Holiday Catalog;
§ preliminary surveys and pilot projects in Athens and Columbus showing that restaurants in both cities are interested in purchasing more local produce;
§ continuing sales growth from our Good Food Direct! multi-grower catalog;
§ interest from Ohio University in purchasing local produce for its food service and catering operations.
Based on these indications and our knowledge of grower interests and needs, we designed a strategy that would harness local and regional market interest and connect farmers with customers willing to pay more for quality local produce. The strategy was built around our innovative Good Food Direct! program.
Good Food Direct! is a multi-grower catalog of local Southeast Ohio farm products. Customers order on a weekly basis throughout the growing season, and also receive a Holiday Catalog featuring value-added and other gift items. Between 1997 and 2000, sales doubled, with 2000 sales totaling $26,000. It seemed likely that by increasing marketing efforts, reaching into the Columbus market, expanding restaurant sales, and further developing the Holiday Catalog, sales could be doubled again.
In addition, we planned to link larger producers with food service managers at Ohio University (OU). OU is by far the largest food purchaser in Athens County, serving more than 10,000 meals each day through cafeterias and also generating sales through convenience stores, a Food Court, and a catering business. While OU pays wholesale prices for produce, eliminating the “middleman” can give producers a significant advantage.
OU’s catering operations also purchase specialty items such as shiitake mushrooms and quail eggs. Foodservice managers have expressed interest in purchasing ten percent or more of their produce from local growers, presenting a major new marketing opportunity.
In addition to providing marketing assistance, our strategy included training and technical assistance activities to build growers’ capacity to evaluate their operations and bring them into greater profitability. We offered a toolbox that included workshops on farm taxes, specialty crops, and merchandising at farmers markets; training and assistance for development of both Internet and print marketing materials; and information about high value alternative crops and farm products through additional workshops and conferences.
Approach, Activities and Methods
As a membership-based organization, Rural Action projects are steered by members. Policy for the Good Food Direct! (GFD!) project is set by the producers who participate in the program. Other project decisions are made in consultation with the Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board, comprised of farmer members and partners, natural resources agency personnel, consumers and interested community members.
Planned project activities included:
· development of Web pages for farmers involved in GFD!;
· establishment of GFD! domain name and on-line credit card sales for participating farms;
· a catalog, ordering system and marketing effort targeted at GFD! restaurant customers;
· development of brochures and marketing displays for interested produce growers;
· business development workshops in cooperation with the Small Business Development Center at Ohio University, including workshops on pricing, marketing, selling, merchandising, taxes and bookkeeping;
· organizing of workshops on organic and specialty crops with promising markets;
· negotiations with Ohio University to purchase local produce;
· support for information sharing and joint action among regional farmers’ markets;
· networking local farmers with a mid-size value-adding processor through a subcontract with ACEnet.
Projected Outputs were:
· participation of 150 in workshops on business skills and alternative crops;
· ten or more Web pages showcasing local farms on Good Food Direct! Web site;
· two catalogs with 20 producers for Good Food Direct!;
· sales of $50,000 for Good Food Direct!;
· five hundred customers purchasing through Good Food Direct!;
· technical assistance and food science expertise for a mid-size processor.
Projected Outcomes were:
· geographically expanded markets and capture of new customers on the Internet;
· increased networking, information sharing, and sharing of materials among regional farmers’ markets;
· increased understanding of and experience with active marketing on the part of farmers;
· Better business practices and crop selection.
Desired Outcome: $50,000 in retail sales for farmers through GFD! and restaurant sales
Activity/Output: Retail catalog for 20 producers and restaurant catalog with 10; 2 GFD! catalogs and 1 holiday catalog
Actual Result: 35 producers selling $44,372 through 2 versions of GFD! involving 3 catalogs.
Desired Outcome: 20 producers marketing products through GFD!
Activity/Output: Recruitment of new producers
Actual Result: 35 producers participating for all 3 catalogs
Desired Outcome: Increase number of GFD! customers by 60 percent to 500
Activity/Output: Promotions, advertising, tastings, recruiting
Notes: Expansion into Columbus proved slower that expected
Actual Result: An increase of 20 percent to 370 customers
Desired Outcome: 40 farmers have tools to implement business improvement practices
Activity/Output: Workshops on pricing, business planning, bookkeeping, marketing, merchandising, ag taxes, marketing plans, selling to restaurants, pricing, selling, advertising, merchandising, customer service
Actual Result: 51 total workshop participation;
15 farmers experiment with planting new crops; 150 attend new crops workshops; 185 attended conference and workshops on medicinal herbs, fruit crops, etc.; 30 experimented with new crops
Desired Outcome: 5 farmers sell $10,000 worth of produce to a mid-size produce distributor
Activity/Output: 10 local farmers are networked with mid-size produce distributors
Notes: Subcontract to ACEnet
Actual Result: They focused on value-added instead; increased value-added products from local foods to $15,000
Desired Outcome: $2000 in sales beyond GFD! from new marketing tools
Activity/Output: Web pages and brochures developed for 10 farmers; brief web pages with photos on new domain goodfooddirectnet.com for 22 GFD producers, but less interest in brochures.
Actual Result: Concrete sales outside GFD! difficult to assess; several producers stayed in the catalog for the advertising benefit, not for actual orders
Desired Outcome: Database of farmers in Athens and surrounding counties derived from an agricultural assessment
Activity/Output: Survey farmers and landowners to determine existing crops and commodities
Actual Result: We conducted a customer survey and received 170 replies, and cooperated with OSU Extension on a survey in Washington county (Extension has survey results)
Desired Outcome: $5,000 in sales to Ohio University by local farmers
Activity/Output: Meetings with OU and farmers identified in assessment
Notes: Will develop more as OU and producers gain experience working together
Actual Result: $5,326 in local food purchased with interest in expanding dramatically
Good Food Direct! (GFD!) provided a catalog and Web site as a direct marketing mechanism beyond farmers markets, CSAs and wholesale sales for a group of producers. GFD! used various marketing techniques, including catalog distribution throughout the community, advertising on the local National Public Radio affiliate station, media releases and a weekly e-mail newsletter. Other activities such as product sampling and tasting events raised profile and visibility. The GFD! Web site was established on its own domain (goodfooddirectnet.com).
In 2001, customers ordered through Rural Action and farmers brought produce to a pick-up site for customers to collect. In 2002, the catalog included contact information for producers and acted as a marketing mechanism without a labor-intensive central ordering system. Customers ordered directly from producers and interested producers could use a shared pick-up site.
The first season’s Good Food Direct! pick-up was at ACEnet community Kitchen on Columbus Road in Athens, Ohio. The next season’s pickup was at the Village Bakery on East State Street in Athens. Producers involved were located in Athens, Meigs, Washington, Morgan and 2 other Ohio counties.
Workshops on specialty crops were offered as stand-alone events in Athens and surrounding counties, and also as part of Rural Action’s annual “Income Opportunities from Field and Forest” conference. Presenters were primarily producers or Extension agents experienced in a given area. Business workshops were held on weekday evenings in Athens and were taught by small business development experts, farmers, restaurateurs and others. There was also a “business skills” track at the conference.
Ohio University Sales
Sales to Ohio University (OU) were very successful for a first effort. The Cowdreys, family farmers from Meigs County, were very pleased with the outcome. The same amount of produce they’d previously sold generated significantly more income with no broker or distributor involved.
The Cowdreys say they will continue working with Ohio University and plan to increase sales to them. They are also planting new crops specifically for the OU market. Randy Shelton, director of food service at Ohio University, also says he is happy with the process. He is currently buying from eight local producers and says that the quality and freshness is outstanding.
The business workshops were generally successful. A total of 51 people attended, not including those at workshops that were held as part of the landowners conference. Producers said that the content was useful and returned positive evaluations.
We are concerned that the farmers most in need of business assistance may not participate in workshops because they aren’t aware of the difference that good business practices can make to their profitability, and they may not even know that there are gaps in their knowledge. Word-of-mouth advertising from satisfied growers may help overcome this obstacle.
A total of 185 producers attended specialty crops sessions at the annual “Income Opportunities” conference. Topics included agroforestry products (such as ginseng and goldenseal), orchard and vineyard crops, beekeeping, rotational grazing, and production of field-grown Chinese and Western medicinal herbs. Field crop sessions at the conference were attended by 74 producers, and 111 attended the forest-oriented crop sessions. We also sponsored a number of stand-alone workshops on forest cultivation of ginseng, goldenseal and other medicinal herbs, as well as mushroom production and Paw Paws.
In addition, the interest of Ohio University in Chinese medicinal herbs spurred us to identify local resources for production of these herbs. Ohio University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine is one of a few medical schools in the United States that has begun teaching Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which relies on a number of medicinal plants, many of which are not readily available in the United States. Currently there is not high demand for these plants in the United States but the market is growing. The TCM program at OU College of Osteopathic Medicine will potentially develop a significant pool of doctors and practitioners with emotional and social connections to Southern Ohio. If we can introduce these TCM practitioners to local farmers growing quality products while they are students here, we may have a pool of “salespeople” across the country committed to Southern Ohio herbs.
We participated in several exploratory meetings with OU personell and farmers, and offered sessions on Chinese herbs at the annual “Income Opportunities” conference. About 20 people attended the two sessions on Chinese medicinals.
We have continued to explore this idea, most recently bringing in Steven Foster, an internationally known researcher and author on medicinal herbs, to consult with Rural Action staff and high-level administrators at Ohio University. We also met with representatives from Chinese universities and a prominent Hong Kong businessman interested in exploring the potential of production of high-quality herbs in Ohio. We are focusing our energy on the developing domestic markets, as large-scale production for export is unlikely to be feasible or profitable for the farmers with whom we work.
Local Food Distribution and Value-Adding
Our subcontract to ACEnet to carry out value-adding and distribution work focused primarily on value-adding. Of particular interest were two efforts at utilizing the abundance of tomatoes and peppers produced in the region. Local grower Rusty Cummings developed a salsa product and produced yellow-tomato salsa with a $9,000 value in his first year from his excess production of tomatoes. Local restaurant Tomatillos purchased local peppers for production of an additional $4,400 worth of salsa.
Good Food Direct!
While the Good Food Direct! project’s total sales approached goal levels, it faced considerable problems resulting in major changes during the grant period. In late 2001, we were informed that a State of Ohio grant that subsidized project operating costs would not be renewed. At the same time, the Corporation for National Service announced major changes in the AmeriCorps VISTA program that would reduce the number of VISTA staff persons assigned to this project from three to one or none by the 2003 fiscal year.
As a result, we were forced to take a hard look at the project’s viability, despite its popularity with producers and a committed core of consumers. The structure of the project was labor-intensive: Consumers called in, dropped off or e-mailed their orders to the Rural Action office each week, with most orders involving items from several different producers; project staff and VISTAs then compiled all orders into a list for each of the 22 producers. Each producer received their list of orders by phone, fax or e-mail and brought the products ordered to a central pick-up site each Wednesday morning. The staff and VISTAs pulled together all items ordered by each consumer to have them ready for pick-up on Wednesday afternoon. Consumers made one payment for their entire order by cash, check or credit card, and the staff then broke all the payments out by producer and issued checks to the producers every two weeks. The program operated in both Athens and Columbus, so someone had to make the trip to Columbus each week to deliver orders to the pick-up site there and receive payments. In addition, some Athens consumers paid an extra fee to have their orders delivered. And then there were all the marketing activities!
All of this required one full-time staff person and three VISTA volunteers to operate. In the absence of substantial grant funding and the VISTA volunteers, the program, using this structure, would be too costly to continue. Through a series of meetings with the GFD! steering committee and all participating producers, we learned that producers were not able to absorb more of the cost or labor of running the program. Further economic analysis demonstrated that a sales volume of nearly $500,000 per year would be required for the program to generate sufficient operating revenue to cover all costs. We reluctantly decided to completely restructure the program.
For the 2002 season, consumers had to both order from and pay farmers directly. A small group of growers continued to offer a convenient weekly pick-up site at a local bakery that had gotten its start through Good Food Direct!. Other growers required that orders be picked up at the local farmers market, and a few offered delivery.
The new structure was more burdensome for both the consumers and the growers, and as we expected, sales were significantly lower: less than $6,000, versus more than $44,000 the previous year. However, this structure did eliminate the 15 percent fee that was paid to Rural Action in previous years to help with operating costs, and it made for a stronger relationship between farmer and consumer. At this point it’s not clear whether the producers will continue the project in 2003.
We have had considerable interest in this model from other regions in Ohio and other parts of the country. It is possible that in a setting with better access to a larger customer base the model could work, especially with more use of on-line ordering by customers so that the process could be streamlined. Despite the need to restructure, Good Food Direct’s successes were significant and bear examination and discussion.
Incubator for New Producers
Good Food Direct! served as a useful “incubator without walls” for new producers, allowing them to test-market in a supportive environment. The catalog and other marketing materials provided a low-cost, low-risk way to get visibility in the marketplace and secure orders from customers and to receive market feedback about which offerings were appealing to customers.
In contrast, the Athens Farmers Market is extremely successful but can also be a difficult market to access for newer producers. The Market typically has more than 50 vendors, many of whom have been there for more than a decade and have substantial consumer loyalty. It is difficult for new farmers to compete with these established and recognized firms.
Access is also a barrier; there is a waiting list for stalls at this popular market. There are not many other successful markets in the region.
Overall, the Athens Market is a good investment for farmers able to participate and sell hundreds of dollars of product in three hours. On the other hand, a farmer going to the Morgan County farmers market may spend much of the time waiting for customers. Farmers markets have significant fixed costs for producers (most notably labor) which are easily justified in a successful market but which are not immediately justified in a smaller market.
The Athens Farmers Market succeeded through the efforts of a core group of extremely dedicated persons who stuck with it over time. SARE might consider investing in projects that determine ways to enhance marketing of emerging farmers markets and provide support to early “innovator” farmers. Policy work focused on leveraging greater state and county support for farmers markets also seems compelling area.
Incubator for New Producers: Test Marketing
The experience of baker Christine Hughes illuminates the function of Good Food Direct! as an incubator. Christine had been involved with food businesses before, most recently as a worker-owner at Casa Nueva restaurant in Athens, Ohio. The Good Food Direct! catalog and marketing mechanism allowed her to test the waters for a business of her own with relatively limited risk exposure.
Christine offered several different specialty breads through the catalog under the name “The Baker’s Trade.” While she didn’t receive enough orders to “quit the day job,” she was able to get a great deal of feedback from customers about product preferences. The Good Food Direct! staff also received both positive and negative feedback that was valuable to Christine.
Christine’s participation in Good Food Direct! also gave her a track record for successfully marketing her products that was helpful in securing outside financing for her venture.
After her successful year in the Good Food Direct! catalog, Christine was confident that customers wanted and would pay for her product. She launched the Village Bakery and Café on East State Street in Athens and is now grossing $12,000/month in her first year.
Without the low-risk marketing provided by Good Food Direct!, Christine might not have taken the bigger risk to open a bakery, and the ten local producers from whom she currently buys ingredients would not have the additional market she provides. In addition, through networking with local farmers on the Good Food Direct! steering committee, Christine offered her bakery as a drop-off/pick-up site for GFD! in 2002 to the benefit of all involved.
Incubator for New Producers: Quality Control, Customer Interface
In addition to providing feedback about customer preferences, Good Food Direct! also helped producers understand the importance of providing a quality product that meets consumer expectations. GFD! staff members were able to tactfully communicate any quality concerns.
For example, during periods of drought, some farmers brought in produce that was not of the quality that customers wanted. Several consumers communicated this to GFD! staff who then worked with farmers to improve product quality.
Some farmers expressed some resentment about what they perceived as a customer’s desire for perfection even if it required additional resources (irrigation in drought periods, significant amounts of time spent on cleaning of produce, etc.). These conversations, though sometimes challenging, helped producers supply products that would not only sell but would lead to positive referrals.
Many farmers put their heart and soul into their products and believe that will automatically result in a market. Long-term success requires that growers see the product from the customer’s perspective–the essence of marketing. A mediating system like Good Food Direct! can help farmers understand quality concerns and can give consumers a better understanding of the hard work, sacrifice and risk factors, including weather, in farming.
Other Outcomes and Benefits
The GFD! Holiday Catalog was one of the program’s most successful ventures, and offers a promising mechanism for future farmer cooperation. While the 2002 holiday season was relatively short, sales in this period accounted for 23 percent of overall sales and required far less effort than sales efforts in Columbus and Athens for regular season. Some items offered moved beyond the low-price strategy that farmers often adopt; these had higher profit margins and were put together as gift items that added value to the individual farm products.
With further market research it might be possible to develop higher-value products that are competitive in the marketplace, particularly in the corporate gift category. If a Web site were combined with the word-of-mouth marketing that has helped GFD! grow, it could generate significant business for farmers outside of the limited local market.
Ohio University graduates–4,000 each year–are a particularly interesting potential market, because many still feel connected to the region. Follow-up on this strategy would require producer interest and the availability of capital to “upsize” this effort to a self-sustaining scale.
The marketing of Good Food Direct! in Columbus allowed us to assess interest in local products and the feasibility of breaking into that market. We determined that there was significant interest but that we did not have the capital to capture enough market share to justify transportation costs. Selling larger quantities using a larger truck could have made the economics different but we did not capture enough customers to justify using a larger truck. The connections we made there are still serving local producers as two producers have maintained contacts and continued to sell there after Good Food Direct! ceased operations in Columbus.
While the final fate of GFD! may not have been as inspiring to farmers as we had hoped, it did involve grower cooperation and was viewed as a positive project. We’ve helped to establish relationships between numerous producers, strengthening the groundwork for future cooperation. Indeed, in 2002 there were two producers who, independent of GFD!, cooperated on supplying local produce and meat to customers in Columbus, following up on market interest generated by GFD!.
In addition, many producers are still active participants on Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board and have expressed interest in forming one or more Grower’s Associations for cooperative marketing and distribution. The disappointment that comes with the termination of Good Food Direct! has had a negative impact on Rural Action’s ability to work with a few farmers, but the ability of local growers to work together has been strengthened, and that was, after all, the ultimate goal.
We discussed some of the impact of the results of the Good Food Direct!(GFD!)program in the Results section. Our activities provided a launching pad for the Village Bakery, run by a Good Food Direct! producer who now sells $12,000/month and purchases from 10 local producers. Bill Shores of Green Edge Gardens also successfully launched his farm business using GFD! to gain visibility and identify prospective customers. The GFD!-involved farmers who are also on the Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board now have a track-record of working together and are better positioned to take on future projects. Good Food Direct! provided a good model and generated a total customer base of 600 customers that producers can use for direct marketing in the future.
The $5,000 in sales to Ohio University (OU) set the stage for expansion of local food purchasing by the institution, which serves 10,000 meals each day. Some producers have diversified their farms to expand into new crops in demand by OU, and the University’s director of food service is interested in buying up to 10 percent of its total produce purchases from local growers.
Good Food Direct! has helped increase visibility of the issue of locally produced food in the media through advertisements, public service announcements, events, newspaper articles, and radio interviews.
We conducted a marketing survey of 175 persons to provide baseline market information for producers and information about consumer shopping habits and interests. This information will help individual farmers as well as the development of other innovative marketing options.
Good Food Direct! linked two farmers with customers and a marketing venue in Columbus (the parking lot at the Bexley Coop). Good Food Direct! also earned $44,000 in sales for farmers, with only a small percentage taken out for operating costs. We established a customer base for holiday gift baskets and earned $10,000 in sales for the 2002 holiday season. These customers should be “portable” if farmers pursue them. Margins on these items are higher, with an overall greater return to farmers, than many other marketing options.
With more than 200 people attending workshops, we see farmers increasingly engaged in learning about new crops and business management skills. While we did not do an analysis of the specific impact of each workshop we did have certain indications of overall workshop program successes. For instance, our agroforestry activities (beyond just this grant’s activities) resulted in sales of 185 pounds of ginseng seed to growers. If all goes well this will account for an additional $370,000 of income for producers with very low capital and labor inputs.
The most important determination of our economic analysis is that Good Food Direct! (GFD!), while an exciting and innovative program, was not feasible in our local context given our capitalization.
The amount of time required for customer service, order processing and coordination of the pick-up was too high for the overall scale of the operation. We intended to move, over time, from $25,000/year to $500,000/year, with a broader market area.
Our growth was significant, reaching about $44,000 for the first season covered by the grant. We had several good strategies for making “quantum leaps” in sales through development of more convenient options and expanding our market area. We also significantly increased efficiency of order processing and financial analysis by instituting a computerized system using Quickbooks software. With these streamlining and labor-saving steps, we cut out operating expenses by about 25 percent, but that was not enough to make continuation of the program feasible.
Access to capital was the most critical issue. If we had been able to access capital to scale up and really penetrate the Columbus, Ohio, market, we believe we could have created a system that covered its costs. It would have taken significant capital, and Rural Action was not in a position to take on the private-sector debt that would have been required.
With VISTA dramatically cutting back in their investment in our program and the precarious funding climate in the country it seemed prudent to re-evaluate our pursuit of the GFD! strategy. Given the resources we were able to realistically anticipate, and the capital required to make GFD! fly as a self-sufficient venture, we concluded that the project could not expand to the scale we needed within our timeline.
While this is a disappointing situation, it also frees us to pursue other strategies now within our capacity. When the initial committee assessed GFD! as the best option, there were fewer alternatives. If Ohio University had been as willing to purchase local produce and be very flexible in working with farmers I have no doubt that that would have been a focus for Rural Action. Now that option is viable, and we are in a position to engage conventional farmers while supporting more local food purchasing and enhancing farm-profitability by eliminating the middleman.
As Rural Action has established a stronger track record for effective project development, and gained a reputation as a credible and significant player, we may be better able to influence public policy that supports local farmers, be it through increased state support for farmers markets or by creating incentives for purchasing of local foods.
Fifty-one people in total attended the business-oriented workshops (some farmers participated in multiple workshops). We do not have survey numbers on how many of these farmers adopted new practices based on these workshops, but feedback was positive and conversations have indicated good uptake of new business practices.
The specialty crops workshops had total participation of over 185. Again, we don’t have comprehensive assessment numbers, but the Roots of Appalachia Growers Association has increased membership from 40 members to 70 members. We believe that at least 50 persons have begun experimenting with new crops as a result of our workshops.
Other individuals were led to experiment with new crops more indirectly. The Cowdreys, who sold to Ohio University (OU) are experimenting with new crops because we connected them with OU (and with a steady market for diverse products).
The work with OU appears initially successful; eight farms are working with them and we anticipate that number to expand significantly. Sales were modest–less than $6,000–but farmers plan to engage more with OU in the coming year.
Thirty-five farmers were involved in GFD!’s targeted marketing activities, developing retail-oriented produce baskets and other items aimed at customers interested in high-quality local food, especially organics. Through this effort, all received experience with retail-oriented strategy and with the interests and needs of these positively inclined customers.
Farmers received feedback from customers through end-of-year customer surveys and a general public market survey, all implemented by Rural Action staff in cooperation with the growers steering committee.
We did not conduct a follow-up survey to determine which of these customer-centered marketing and product development strategies were further implemented. Some farmers, notably Bill Shores of Green Edge Gardens, have pursued this strategy very assertively. Bill Shores has established a loyal customer base by establishing visibility through his initial Good Food Direct! involvement and his presence at the Athens Farmers Market. He has expanded his own marketing efforts and now uses a variety of methods to creatively market his produce. His core customers consist of a few dozen restaurants and retailers; this emphasis on a few higher-volume loyal customers is a model for other growers.
Ten producers got involved with cooperative action through the Good Food Direct! steering committee. Fifteen people, many of whom are producers, are involved with the Sustainable Agriculture Advisory Board and are participating in ongoing discussions of sustainable agriculture strategies and priorities.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Our publications included:
§ The 2001 Good Food Direct! catalog
§ The 2002 Good Food Direct! catalog
§ GFD! Holiday Catalog
§ GFD! Web site
§ Weekly GFD! on-line customer updates
§ Landowners Conference brochures
§ Business workshop fliers
§ Specialty crops workshop flierss
§ Background briefing for farmers on what OU purchases of selected items
§ PSAs, advertisements, under-writing announcements and other marketing materials for GFD!
§ GFD customer surveys
§ Public marketing survey
Profiles of two forest-grown medicinal herb growers appeared in Farm and Dairy newspaper and the Athens News.
Workshops and conference sessions included:
§ Intro to Management Intensive Livestock Production: 19
§ Basic Beekeeping: 15
§ Large scale organic herb production: 11
§ Commercial scale herb cultivation: 25
§ High value specialty crops: 21
§ Orcharding Basics: 25
§ Growing Chinese Medicinals: 27
§ Perennial fruit crops and berries: 15
§ Cultivating ramps for fun and profit: 5
§ Wild simulated ginseng growing: 75
§ Value-added herb products: 12
Business-skills workshops included
§ Planning a sustainable business: 20
§ Selling to Restaurants: 9
§ Agricultural Business Taxes: 7
§ Developing a Marketing Plan: 12
§ Pricing Your Product: 11
§ Selling, Merchandising and Advertising: 7
§ Customer Service: 5
Areas needing additional study
Several areas present ideas and directions for future study or activity. Specialty crops workshops have proved very productive. This is especially true of those concerning agroforestry products such as medicinal herbs, but initial interest in other specialty crops may suggest more follow-up in this area. Conference sessions and workshops on orchard and vineyard crops, bee keeping, rotational grazing, and production of field-growing medicinal herbs involved 147 participants and seemed to warrant additional attention.
The agroforestry products have had a more comprehensive support strategy than field crops, largely due to the amount of time and attention it took to maintain the Good Food Direct! project. For forest-cultivated crops, we have provided educational programming to more than 1500 persons, developed the Roots of Appalachia Growers Association, developed
various educational materials, and initiated a site-visit service.
Developing a comprehensive support package for growers of various crops could have significant positive effects. Our Agriculture Advisory Board has identified the development of growers associations and related support functions as a priority. It fits well with our organizing and capacity-building approach. Development of such associations could result in organizational capacity that could continue education and promotion of these products beyond Rural Action’s interventions.
Medicinal herbs used by person practicing Traditional Chinese Medicine also warrant future study and activity, harnessing local knowledge about Chinese herbs and the training of medical practitioners at the Ohio University (OU) College of Osteopathic Medicine. Interest from upper-level staff at OU can also bring to bear research capacity to explore both cultivation and business development relating to these herbs.
The business-development workshops were well received by a number of farmers and can be an important key to the economic viability of farms. We believe that in some cases careful analysis of farm finances will reveal that they are currently operating at a loss and are relying on assets that are paid off (farm and house), but are not re-investing. Some farms can be made more profitable through more strategic management. Policy work could also be served by an analysis of farm profitability.
We see possibilities for other interesting spin-offs in raising awareness of and support for local farmers. One farmer (not in our area) conducted a financial analysis and realized that his hourly rate of pay was tragically low. He informed subscribers of his CSA of that fact and let them know he would have to raise his prices to make a decent living. His customers responded very favorably and stayed with him when they might not have if he had just raised his prices dramatically without that rationale.
Further analysis of Good Food Direct! would be very beneficial, as would an effort to develop such a project on a larger scale or with a different market focus (a larger urban area).
Further work on the Holiday Catalog or other such mechanisms for creating value-added gift baskets seems compelling.
Support for struggling farmers markets also seems to be a key area for study and activity. Learning from the significant study of farmers markets nationally and promoting information-sharing and mutual support between farmers markets seems to be a prudent step in creating local markets where the “numbers add up” and the markets are truly beneficial for farmers. We have not conducted a comprehensive review of all the activities already ongoing in this regard so cannot make recommendations as to what next steps with this would look like.
Producers involved in GFD! and/or GFD! Holiday Catalog
Green Edge Gardens
Healing Heart Herbals
Big Chimney Bakery
Four Seasons Soap Company
Stauf’s Coffee Roasters
Yankee Street Farm
Harmony Hollow Farms
Ohio Farm Direct
John Gillogly Orchards
Doak Laser Cutting
Rockin’ B Farm
The Good Ole Way
Far Corner Farm
Ali Baba’s Kitchen-n-Katering
Village Bakery and Café
King Family Farm
Perk’s Coffee House and Roastery
Frog Ranch Foods
Ginger Spice Company