[Note to online version: The report for this project includes a large Appendix that could not be included here. The regional SARE office will mail a hard copy of the entire report at your request. Just contact North Central SARE at (402) 472-7081 or email@example.com.]
The goal of this project was to increase sales of locally grown organic foods in Fargo, North Dakota and its neighbor, Moorhead, Minnesota. The community population is approximately 125,000. Like many other small metro areas in the Midwest, Fargo-Moorhead had no established mainstream market for organic foods despite the growth of organic foods nationally. Consequently, producers sought to reach the growing segment of mainstream consumers who desired high quality, earth friendly foods, but who don’t have the time to search around town for particular products. Project coordinators knew that selling to a wider range of consumers meant developing a reliable supply of organics to local markets.
Successfully mainstreaming organics meant working closely with retailers as well as consumers. Project leader, Ben Larson, a researcher at North Dakota State University as well as local organic farmer, contacted the Organic Alliance in St. Paul to develop a marketing, consumer education, and media plan. That marketing strategy was then presented to the managers of three local grocery store chains. An agreement was reached with two of those chains to sell certified organic products. Contacts with the media resulted in numerous newspaper and television stories about the project (see appendix).
A local consumer survey indicated strong interest in organic foods, especially in locally grown foods (Braun, 1999). To simplify the grocery stores’ ordering procedures, coordination was established between local growers and grocers. One sales call was made each week to the grocery stores, offering them a wider selection of produce and reducing the number of calls that may otherwise have interrupted their work day. To promote the produce, each store was provided with attractive point of sale materials from the Organic Alliance in St. Paul.
Project leaders also developed a new farmers market devoted to local noncertified organic foods. Advertising was purchased on public radio and in newspapers to promote the availability of the organic foods, both at the grocery stores and at the farmers market.
A sub-contract with the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS) resulted in the coordination of rural farmers interested in marketing their produce in Fargo-Moorhead.
The result was an increase in sales of organic products at grocery stores and at the new farmers market. Sales to grocery stores started well. In the winter of 1998 1999, one grower’s packaged, certified organic potatoes sold much better than retailers expected, encouraging them to try more products. However, sales of other products were hit and miss. Muskmelons and watermelons sold well despite competition from lowpriced conventional melons. However, a locally grown, organic sweet corn proved too expensive compared to machine harvested corn, about four times less costly than the organic. Packaging and labeling of products (tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.) was difficult. The industry standard, PLU (Price Look- Up) number stickers project leaders had hoped to purchase, were only available in large lots (500,000 or more). Future research may find a solution by a number of grower groups around the country purchasing the labels together, perhaps a purchasing co-op to allow them to buy in bulk.
In addition to labeling, a lack of certified growers limited the project’s retail sales. The grocery stores wanted more certified produce than the organic farmers could supply. However, because of this project, five growers may seek organic certification and most of the grocer partners remain convinced of the consumer’s interest in organic products. They now stock organic items from national wholesalers.
While the certified organic farmers sold through the grocery stores, the noncertified farmers decided to initiate a farmers market. The market proved quite popular at its prime location on a busy street in an upscale neighborhood in south Fargo. Consumers said they liked the market’s convenient location and after work hours as well as its focus on organic foods. There was no rental fee for the farmers because the church that provided the parking lot site said it might attract new parishioners by providing the service, as well as helping local farmers, thus no fee.
Despite the success of the farmers market, it did not re-open the following year. The project leader grew weary of the hours and accepted another job, consequently down-scaling his own operation, and without his leadership the group apparently disbanded. Only one farmer wanted to continue, but did not. The group’s champion speculated that lack of motivation, consistency, and poor salesmanship skills may have hampered the growers’ progress.
Substantial progress was made to establish a market for organic and non-certified organic produce in the Fargo, ND and Moorhead, MN area. Partnerships were established early on with two local grocery store chains, in part, due to professionally produced sales material from an already established organic marketing group. Local farmers improved sales through direct methods — a farmers market and farm stands — as well as through retailers — two local grocery store chains.
Initial retail sales of certified organic products at grocery stores was promising, and served to demonstrate to produce managers that demands for organics does exist in Fargo Moorhead. Labeling and packaging local organic products proved difficult because only bulk quantities of bar codes are available. Three to four grocery stores are now carrying organic produce on a regular basis, consequently, the project leader believes he accomplished the group’s goal to develop a mainstream market for organic produce.
Producers learned many new skills through this project. They attended conferences and farm tours that gave them the knowledge to solve problems in their own operations, as well as share skills and information they discovered. Market power through joint sales proved significant, but the failure to sustain that alliance is a disappointment. The grocers and the public appreciated the organic product, but ironically, the producer supplier proved to be the main factor that was unsustainable.
- 1. Increase memberships in community supported farms (CSAs*).
2. Increase sales at roadside stands and farmers markets.
3. Increase sales of certified organic products at retail outlets.
4. Develop producers’ growing and marketing skills.
5. Form marketing alliances between rural and local producers.
6. Document the economic impact of local marketing.
* Community supported agriculture (CSA) offers a direct growing and purchasing relationship between the farmer and consumer. There are four types of CSAs: subscription or farmer-driven, shareholder or consumer-driven, farmer cooperative, or farmer-consumer cooperative (2000, Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas).
Increase memberships in community supported farms (CSAs).
After submission of the SARE grant proposal in early 1998, both CSA producers involved in this project saw their fields suffer from terrible weather in the summer of 1998. Knowing that recruiting in 1999 would be difficult, they aimed to maintain membership levels. What CSA producers tried were innovations in membership options. Ten members of one farm tried the “shopping share,” which gave them the flexibility to come and shop for their produce whenever they could fit it into their busy schedules. The CSA serving Fargo-Moorhead found it increasingly difficult to recruit members by going door to door, and found that radio advertising was even less effective. The ineffectiveness of traditional advertising reinforces the importance of word of mouth promotion in the growth of CSAs, suggesting that recruitment of friends and acquaintances of existing members is more effective. The three members interviewed for this final report are all faculty members at local universities. Perhaps their level of education validates the appeal organic foods have to a more knowledgeable population and future marketing efforts could be more focused on educators. Here are comments from some of the members of the Moorhead, MN CSA:
“It was great, especially in the middle of the project,” said a Fargo woman. She said she had a feeling of being a part of the agriculture community with people interested in the environment and the foods they ate. “You got the intrinsic feeling you were doing something good connected to agriculture.” She likes organic because it is friendly to the earth and she knows where it came from and what farming practices were used.
A Moorhead man said, “He was excited about the CSA because it allowed him to be connected with what he ate and to take a risk along with the grower. He found the farmer to be very knowledgeable, well read, and diligent about his use of organic methods. The farmer also seemed to have a commitment to the community and was also a good conversationalist. He was very principled in his approach.”
Another Moorhead man said, “The first two years of the CSA were really good, after that it appeared the grower was coasting to the finish line.” The farm stand was on the honor system the last year, and that was a problem. People appeared to be taking from one another’s food supply.
Increase sales at roadside stands and farmers markets.
Despite the risk of starting a new farmers market, three compelling reasons encouraged the group to do so. First, access. The existing Fargo-Moorhead farmers market excludes any new members. Secondly, six of the local organic growers were not, or have not yet been certified, so they could not sell to grocery stores as organic. And thirdly, we knew we could not sell all of our produce through existing CSAs or road side stands. The original location, at a city park, was denied three weeks before it was scheduled to open. So contact was made with churches and businesses, which unlike governments, could quickly make a decision. The decision was made to work with one church that enthusiastically allowed the growers to set up their market in their parking lot, which was located on a busy residential street in an affluent residential area. A formal agreement was drafted with the church, advertisements were placed in the local newspaper and on public radio, and a brightly colored sign was set up next to the market. The market started successfully and continued throughout the summer and fall. There was no cost to growers because the church believed it would benefit by increasing its own membership by providing this community service. Here are some comments from vendors at the farmers’ market:
“I thought the project went well in the summer of 1999,” said a Fargo woman. She enjoyed everyone except one grower who was told not to return. “That guy came on too strong, yelling at people as soon as they got out of their parked vehicles, yelling at them to come over to his particular stand. It is important to have a friendly, but calm, laid back atmosphere.” She made money selling specialty spreads and breads, but she doesn’t know how much. Although she wishes the farmers market continued in Fargo, she realized the growers didn’t want to come back and the public expected more vendors and more variety.
A farm couple said they grew frustrated with the standards set at the farmers’ market, i.e., magazine perfect looking produce. They prefer to sell at another local farmers market where it doesn’t have to look perfect and you don’t have to sell it yourself. They described themselves as introverts who found it hard to sell their own produce. They appreciated the times Larson sold for them. They have scaled back their farming operation because of low prices and now make most of their living in another occupation.
A Fargo vendor said she liked the organic marketing project at the farmers’ market because she enjoyed the people and repeat business. She doesn’t know how much money she made but appreciated the chance to get her name and product out to the public.
Increase sales of certified organic products at retail outlets.
Doubtful that small sales to small natural food stores would be profitable, the decision was made to only sell to larger grocery stores in Fargo-Moorhead. Since the project leader, Ben Larson, was unsure of the interest store level produce mangers would have in buying certified organic produce, he wanted to give them one option, to say “yes.” Consequently, he went straight to their boss (either the regional produce manager or the manager of several stores), hoping they would think selling “upscale” organic produce was an opportunity, rather than a risk. In preparing his sales pitch, Larson consulted the Organic Alliance in St. Paul, MN., a non profit marketing group that has successfully promoted organics to retailers. (Organic Alliance also helped the project leader plan the local group’s outreach and media campaign.)
The sales technique focused on the recent growth of organics in the Twin Cities and ways the Fargo-Moorhead growers could help the produce managers. Larson designed an attractive looking letterhead and business cards with the name of the growers’ group, Red River Organic Growers (appendix). These preparations prior to the initial sales calls worked. Of the three grocery store chains in Fargo-Moorhead, two agreed to start marketing locally grown organic produce. (The one chain that declined did so in part because its ordering is centralized through its Minneapolis area office.) The managers committed to work with certified growers (they did not want to sell any noncertified “chemical free” produce). Once they’d committed to trying organics, the managers set up meetings with their store level produce managers and the project leader to discuss the issues involved in buying and selling local organics.
The produce managers had many issues, and it was crucial to take their concerns seriously. They needed to know that the farmers would listen to their concerns; they seemed to like having an honest broker that would relay their concerns to the growers. Chief among their concerns was produce quality, appearance, and price. They said they only wanted good looking produce priced at not more than 20% above conventional prices. However, given an exceptional product, they would accept a higher price. For instance, the produce managers raved about the organic carrots one local grower sold to them years ago, which were so sweet and delicious that consumers loved them even though they looked the same as the competition and were considerably more expensive than conventional carrots. Also, one organic producer delivered exceptional melons in 1999 and the managers wanted more and more of them. It was clear that the produce managers’ sense of quality can be expanded to include taste and freshness (i.e., locallygrown) if they are provided with exceptional products. But produce managers do not share many of their consumers’ ecological concerns.
The other major concern the produce managers had was receiving too many calls each week from growers. One of the regional produce managers suggested the project leader coordinate with the local growers and send the produce managers a fax once a week listing the available produce and prices. This approach worked well for both growers and grocers. The growers were able to just make one call to Larson, and likewise, the grocers received only one call from the project leader. The produce managers also seemed to appreciate telling Larson about problems with produce rather than telling the grower himself. Once the growers had product in the stores, they provided the grocers with attractive point of sale promotional materials produced by Organic Alliance.
Here are some comments regarding the project from produce managers from the two chains in the Fargo area:
A northside grocer thought the project went well in the summer of 1999 and he appreciated Larson’s efforts to coordinate the growers. He explained, he doesn’t want ten growers calling him. He’d like to see it set up as a cooperative in the future with coordination provided for all involved.
Another Fargo grocer said he doesn’t deal with organic produce. He only sells Dole’s organic salads shipped in from California. He said his small store doesn’t attract organic shoppers.
A southside grocer got more involved in the project and attributes some of the success to his clients who are more educated and affluent than other Fargo residents. He said he likes the grower to call him at least a week prior to when his produce is ready and make a deal. Unlike some grocers, he doesn’t mind a number or growers calling him directly but he doesn’t want “a hundred of them calling.” It is difficult for the check out clerks to identify the more expensive organic produce from the conventional produce. UPC stickers are needed, he said, and he’s willing to put them on if provided with them. Since the local organic supply wasn’t sufficient, he deals with a California company but would like to support farmers in the area, consequently he is considering a southern Minnesota organic company.
A westside grocer in Fargo said the organic project “didn’t really do anything.” He doesn’t have a whole lot of people looking for organic produce because his store is located near numerous apartment buildings housing either young or elderly people who look for bargains when they shop. He also said it was difficult to deal with organic farmers at times because they were not consistent. “They appear to be very, very independent.” Quality was also an issue, “The shoppers are picky and too often the farmer was inflexible, delivering product that had been sitting too long and had defects.” Despite the shortcomings he said he is willing to try the project again and he still has the organic produce signage that he thought was well done, as well as the literature provided by this project.
A produce manager from another Fargo chain said he would definitely like to see a steady, local supply of organic produce but it just isn’t there. Currently he buys from a Minnesota wholesaler who ships in organic produce from California. Potatoes are the only organic item he receives from a local grower. He has seen a growing interest on the part of shoppers for organic items. He also mentioned the problem check-out clerks have identifying organic items and pricing them accordingly. Despite his support of organic food, he was concerned about the growers’ lack of reliability. It isn’t just the local farmers at fault, he said, a large California organic company also keeps his trucks waiting for hours at a time, time they can’t waste so at times they have to go to their next stop and eventually return to North Dakota without organic produce.
Two organic growers gave their perspective of the linkage this project provided them with grocers:
A Minnesota potato grower appreciated Larson’s coordination of the orders as he took the role of a middleman between the grocery stores and grocers. He learned the hard way that people want good looking produce if they are going to pay premium prices. Consequently, when his older, malformed potatoes didn’t sell, he removed the organic sign and sold them as just “potatoes” for less. He sells a lot of his produce in Chicago and Minneapolis but is frustrated with trying to find transportation.
A North Dakota grower was disappointed that his organic melons didn’t sell for a higher price in Fargo. He supplies stores elsewhere in the state and receives a much higher price (as high as 59 cents a lb. compared to a low of 30 cents a lb. in Fargo). He’d also like to sell three times the volume as he did in Fargo the summer of 1999, but he realizes cheaper, conventionally grown melons are beating out his produce at the store.
1. Increase memberships in community supported farms (CSAs).
CSA membership levels were maintained, which as a result of the difficult weather in 1998, was the goal CSA producers set. Cooperatively marketing produce benefits CSAs by providing a wider selection of produce to their members. For instance, one grower sold 1,500 pounds of potatoes to other CSA members. In the members’ 1999 year-end survey, many expressed interest in getting local, organic meat. Members also expressed interest in garden flowers and bread as additional products they’d like to receive through the CSA. Expanding the range of products and services provided to members is another way one CSA producer is expanding his operation.
Member surveys in 1999 indicated high overall satisfaction with the quality and quantity of produce received by the members. Over seventy percent of respondents said they were “very satisfied” with membership, and the remaining respondents said they were “satisfied.”
2. Increase sales at roadside stands and farmers markets.
The remaining roadside stand operator (the other quit farming) implemented improvements to his service and products as part of the marketing project. Display of produce was improved with specially designed produce shelves and better labeling with industry standard price channels. Advertising of the stand was improved in three ways: the operator paid for newspaper ads, put up road signs saying “organic produce”, and handed out “thank you” slips that listed the market’s hours. This last technique proved very effective and inexpensive. Selection at the market was improved by buying produce the operator did not have at the time from other growers. Service was also improved by expanding the hours.
All four vendors who sold their products at the farmers’ market on a regular basis increased their sales compared to the previous year.
3. Increase sales of certified organic products at retail outlets.
Retail sales at the two chains’ grocery stores were improved for three certified growers. Originally skeptical about demand for organic produce, the produce managers were surprised at sales and three stores (representing both chains) eventually started stocking small organic sections, which is the kind of reliable mainstream market the Red River Organic Growers wanted to establish.
4. Developed producers’ growing and marketing skills.
Producers developed many skills. Five producers attended the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in 1999 where they attended presentations on production and marketing organic crops and met other producers from around the Midwest. They also shared production skills with other organic growers in the Red River Valley at three farm tours. Four local growers attended the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS) summer symposium, where two organic vegetable growers gave farm tours. One producer enrolled in a specialty crop management course on crop nutrition and marketing, and also attended a workshop in 1998 on working with the media in promoting sustainable agriculture. Various informational materials, addressing such issues as cover cropping, weed management, marketing, and accounting, were shared amongst the growers. The most effective way producers developed their skills was through the frequent and ongoing conversations they had with each other at the farmers market.
5. Form marketing alliances between rural and local producers.
The Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society (NPSAS) compiled grower information and made it available on the Internet, see www.npsas.org/DirectMarkets.htm and in the form of a booklet — an effort to link interested consumers directly with organic growers. The North Dakota State Agriculture Commissioner also provided a link on his web site to the NPSAS information. Growers were also encouraged to contact one another to coordinate marketing efforts. A workshop is also offered at the NPSAS winter conference in February 2001 in Aberdeen, S.D.
Improving producers’ skills has had and will continue to have a crucial impact. For instance, in 1999 one farmer learned how to grow tomatoes and peppers in a greenhouse. Consequently he was able to provide more of his popular crops to his CSA members as well as customers at the farmers market and other farm stands. He also shared that technique with other growers. In another instance, a producer is raising beds to provide crops with better drainage and warmer soil, which promises to improve produce quality and value. Weed control is another skill CSA farmers are studying. Using educational materials provided through this project: a video on no-till vegetables, SARE’s handbook Cover Cropping, and the handbook Steel in the Field, producers are working to control weeds with cover crops and cultivation.
This project had significant financial impacts for five growers in 1999, and a modest impact for about eight others. It made a significant impact by helping five growers make between $2,000 and $10,000 in additional sales a piece. Because these growers have relatively low gross incomes, these increases represents significant growth. This project made a more modest impact on the eight other growers by increasing their sales by less than $1,000 a piece. However, some of those growers, just beginners at selling to the public, were impacted by more than the numbers suggest. All totaled, the project increased producers’ sales by about $49,000 in 1999.
Inroads were made through this project so that in the future, organic growers will be able to profit if they meet the public’s expectations. If they don’t, organic growers in California will continue to benefit, as is the case locally in 2001.
Eleven farmers participated directly in this project’s marketing efforts with five of those participating on an intense, long term basis, committing about 600 hundred of hours of labor and about $3,000 dollars in supplies and expenses. Three participating farmers handed out promotional materials to consumers at a local trade show entitled Women’s Showcase (Appendix, p.17); five contributed food and labor to the “Organic Harvest” meal; about eight came to three mid winter planning meetings; five went to the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference; four regularly marketed their products at the farmers market; three coordinated their sales to grocery stores; and about six participating farmers showed interest in forming a marketing co-op following the completion of this project.
Farmers improved many of their production, as well as marketing practices, as a result of this project. The farm tours allowed farmers the opportunity to learn from each other’s practices, i.e., growing greenhouse tomatoes and better cultivation methods, as well as each other’s machinery and operations. Washing and packing methods were also discussed and improved as a result. Farmers’ product display and marketing improved by seeing others’ methods. Farmers learned and discussed much at the conference. In our 1999 year-end survey, most farmers said they felt there is “great need” for farmers to work together on local marketing and said they found the marketing project “helpful” or “very helpful.”
Our project demonstrated that through cooperating, small, sustainable farmers can market their unique products despite the increasing integration of the food system. Consumers still prefer the taste of home-grown tomatoes and other produce; and a number of consumers are concerned with how their food is grown. People will buy from small farmers, if the farmers work together and make shopping easier for the customer.
Small farmers should stop perceiving other small farmers as their competition. Instead, what they are really competing against is the conventional food system and the attitudes upon which it depends. According to the project leader, the organic growers are competing against Dole, Del Monte, a handful of California lettuce growers, and people’s desire to spend as little money and time on their food as possible. Give consumers a reason to eat well, and eat thoughtfully, and the organic growers will have won the real “marketing” battle. Small farmers need to work together to build an alternative marketing system that makes this kind of food culture not only possible, but practical. Farmers’ markets, CSAs, farm stands and small sections of the produce section are where consumers will be able to directly participate in and prosper from this culture. In a world dominated by trans-national food corporations, and ever growing farms, this alternative marketing system will seem modest, even miniscule. But the importance of this food system lies not in its scale, but in its promise.
Involvement of other audiences
Through outreach and the farmers market, this project contacted hundreds of people and educated them about the farm products and organic farm methods. For instance, hundreds of people at a consumers’ tradeshow (Women’s Showcase) were surveyed in Fargo. A sample of that audience was surveyed to ascertain their perceptions about, and preferences for organic foods (1999, Braun). A copy of the highlights of that survey is included in the Appendix (p. 40-45).
At the weekly farmers market, held from June to late October in 1999, the growers met hundreds of interested consumers on a regular basis. Because the growers advertised the market as featuring local, organic products, they invited dialogue with consumers about their food and farming concerns. Identifying the products in this way appears to be one of the best ways to start dialogue with consumers. Also, in the fall of 1998, farmers sponsored and prepared a meal at a Fargo cafe featuring local organic foods. About one hundred people attended that meal. In the Summer of 1999, NPSAS and local farmers set up a booth at the Fargo Park District’s “Farming in the Park” event, working to educate parents and their children about local and organic foods systems. About 250 people were reached through that event. And finally, one farm held an heirloom tomato tasting party in September 1999 with about 30 people in attendance.
Educational & Outreach Activities
The Red River Organic Growers publicized their project through a variety of media. Larson produced a brochure on the organic farmers’ market and farms that sell sustainable/organic products to local consumers. In April 1999 the growers handed out hundreds of those brochures (see Appendix) to consumers at a tradeshow that attracted ten thousand local consumers (mostly women).
The growers’ media outreach plan succeeded in getting favorable coverage in local newspapers and television stations. A spring article in the major daily newspaper announced the beginning of our sales of organic products to grocery stores (1999, The Forum.) The growers published two stories in an alternative weekly newspaper, one on local farmers who sell their meat directly to consumers and the other on factory farms moving into the area (1999, High Plains Reader.) In the summer of 1999, Larson worked with a local television station that broadcast two stories, one on a local CSA farm and the other, a live remote from the farmers’ market (Stone, 1999). A large color photo story on the cover of a local publication featured other CSA farmers (1999, The Forum.) Two sustainable farmer-oriented newsletters with readers in the Dakotas and Minnesota, described the organic growers’ marketing project (1999, Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society Newsletter). All of these print pieces are included in this report’s Appendix.
Promotion of the farmers’ market included a weekly newspaper ad in the metro areas largest newspaper, The Forum (see Appendix) as well as daily announcements on the local public radio station, Prairie Public Broadcasting. Because of the project, one CSA farm is being profiled for an NDSU Extension publication on local farm marketing (North Dakota State University).
The project was featured at two conferences for farmers. It was presented to about seventy five participants at the NPSAS summer festival, and also at SARE’s Innovative Marketing Strategies Conference in Lincoln, NE, in November 1999.
Areas needing additional study
1. Remember that grocery stores have their own needs and concerns. Learn what they are, and then see if you can address them.
2. Go to the top when approaching a grocery store chain. The produce manager in the local store is concerned about day to day practicalities, whereas the regional produce manager or chain manager is more likely to see produce as a marketing tool that can attract high end customers that will keep them coming back. Also, if the boss is interested in organics, the produce manager is going to try harder at selling strawberries that spoil faster, lettuce that needs to be separated, potatoes that sprout, etc.
3. Organize the growers and market them as a group with a weekly availability list faxed to participating grocery stores.
4. Don’t deliver the group’s produce together, instead insist that participating growers deliver what and when they said they would to grocers.
5. Get good quality in store labels, signs, and other promotional materials from groups like the Organic Alliance in St. Paul, MN.
6. Avoid growing loss leader crops like sweet corn or pumpkins unless your stores commit to buying yours at a good price, in sufficient numbers, and you can trust their word to follow through with the purchase.
7. Start early. Fall is the best time to start working with growers and grocers for deliveries promised the following summer.
8. Don’t bother to do general market research. It’s already been done and it all shows the same results, namely, enough people will pay a premium of 20% to 40% for organically grown produce if it’s attractive, the supply is dependable, its convenient to buy, and they are educated on the merits of organic food.
9. Specific market research for your area is important, however. Remember to think like a customer, not a farmer. What do your customers want? How do they want it? Where do they want to buy your produce? How often do they want to buy it? When do they want to buy it?
10. Stop by and chat with the produce managers. They’ll never call you. The produce industry is tight in the sense that it’s dominated by individual brokers buying and selling increasingly larger proportions of vegetables. You need to act like you respect and care about your buyers. It may be in their economic interest to buy from you and your growers, but never take them for granted.
11. Get your friends and organic allies to talk to the produce managers. Hardly anyone does, except to complain. Many produce managers base their entire perception of the vegetables and fruit industry on their first hand experience, and if no one says they want organic food, far too many managers conclude that no one wants it. In contrast, if a few customers go up to them and ask for it, they may conclude that lots of people want it.
12. Remember to consider class and educational differences. Generally speaking, because of their economic status and high school education, producer managers may not have the same perception of organic food as the more successful organic customer. To most produce managers, fruits and vegetables carry none of the social, political and ecological connotations that matter to today’s organic customer.
13. Emphasize that your produce is local. Most customers respond to that, because it implies freshness, so you need to distinguish your items from the produce from California, Florida, or Mexico. Many customers will support local growers over outsiders if the product is as good or better than the competition.
We found a number of areas that need further study. One is the need to find ways for small organic farmers to buy and use industry standard labels, with PLU numbers, and packaging in order to preserve their products’ identity in grocery stores. The only economical way to purchase such labels now is in large quantities (500,000 or more). What small organic produce growers need is a broker of sorts who can resell PLU labels to them at reasonable prices. Larson contacted Angela Stearns, marketing director of the Organic Alliance, about that need and ways the Organic Alliance might assist.
Secondly, the growers need data on the effectiveness of different kinds of advertising (i.e., the importance of using a combination of radio, newspaper, portable signs, etc.) in promoting farm stands, farmers markets and sustainable/organic products. Also, they need to better understand how to encourage word of mouth advertising encouraging customers to recruit other potential customers
Finally, the growers encountered a range of topics that deserve further study:
1. Pricing remains a difficult area for small growers because most consumers use grocery store prices as a benchmark, but large conventional growers enjoy technological, economic and climatological advantages over small Midwestern growers, and as the Red River Organic Growers encountered, grocery stores sometimes use produce as a loss leader.
2. In terms of production, weed control and crop protection from diseases, e.g., blight on potatoes, are perennial problems.
3. Some growers reported problems in recruiting and keeping workers, a topic that could be addressed by compiling other growers’ successful recruiting and labor management practices.