Promoting Pennsylvania cheese at farmers' markets

Project Overview

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2007: $9,212.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Pennsylvania
Project Leader:
Patrick Gorman
The Food Trust


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Farm Business Management: farmers' markets/farm stands, market study, marketing management
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems

    Proposal abstract:

    Overall demand for Pennsylvania farm products in the Philadelphia metropolitan region has skyrocketed in the past few years, with a parallel surge in the number of regional farmers’ markets. The Food Trust operates the largest network of farmers’ markets in southeastern Pennsylvania, with 22 markets in 2006, up more than 10-fold 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. For example, among the Trust’s 22 markets this 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.

    Strong cheese sales are vital to the state’s dairy farmers. 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 have not been formally studied, and gaining a better understanding of this problem is a key reason for our grant request. 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.

    Next year will be an especially opportune time to expand market sales of locally made cheeses. In summer 2007, The Trust will open 6 new markets in the region. The Trust also is collaborating with community partners to open a large-scale market in Center City, Philadelphia. This “destination” market will have up to 25 vendors, and be a major attraction that showcases locally grown and made products, similar to the Greenmarket in New York City and the Dupont Circle market in Washington, D.C.

    Although there have been other attempts to promote sales of local cheeses in Philadelphia, these efforts have not been part of a strategic, cohesive initiative. For example, the annual “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” week has promoted local cheese in several ways, such as a dinner featuring local cheeses at Django, a restaurant that highlights local, seasonal food on its regular menu. A promotional event also was held at DiBruno’s, a gourmet food purveyor in Center City. The PA Secretary of Agriculture was on hand to promote local cheese as a part of the PA Preferred program, a marketing campaign that encourages consumer to support products grown or made in the state. The Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) holds an “Art of Cheese” session at their annual conference, which is attended by many PA cheese makers. All these efforts are a great marketing tool to raise awareness of the general public. However, we propose to engage consumers when and where it counts most: as they shop at our markets.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Our overall goal is to recruit more local cheese vendors to the region’s farmers’ markets and improve their marketing efforts and profitability. We plan to accomplish this goal through a three-step process that will involve:

    Identifying existing challenges to selling locally made cheeses at farmers’ markets. From our experience running farmers markets, we have observed that cheese vendors often find it difficult to finish out the market season due to slow sales. Our project partners, Elly Hushour and Amanda Arrowsmith, highlighted specific issues that this project can address. Lack of consumer education about locally produced cheese is one key issue. For example, a common misconception among market patrons is that all cheeses are high in fat and contribute to unhealthy cholesterol levels. Consumers will benefit from a better understanding and appreciation of the many types of cheeses, their nutritional value, and, especially for health-conscious shoppers, types of cheese that are lower in fat and calories or low in lactose.

    Recruiting additional local cheese producers at farmers’ markets, and supporting these vendors with more effective methods to promote and market their products. To assure a successful fit between cheese vendors and markets, we will interview market managers to learn which product mixes will work best for their target audiences. We also will survey market customers about their preferences and expectations with regard to the variety and prices of locally made cheese. Armed with better information about customer preferences, we can tailor marketing to each particular site, such as with customized promotional items, signage, taste testings, and recipe cards. Another key element is allowing customers to sample cheeses before making a purchase. Most vendors have said that the likelihood of a sale increases exponentially if the customer can first sample the product.

    Sharing our lessons learned with a wider audience of Pennsylvania dairy farmers and cheese producers. The Trust will closely monitor and measure our progress (see section 4) to evaluate which strategies work best for increasing sales and profitability of locally made cheeses at farmers’ markets. The most successful methods, as well as useful resources gathered during the course of the project, will be summarized in a downloadable guide, available at no cost through our project partners, including the Pennsylvania Women’s Agricultural Network (PA-WAgN). This purpose of this guide will be to help other dairy farmer/cheese producers to start or expand sales at farmers markets, and to assist farmers’ market managers in identifying cheese vendors who have an interest or experience in selling at farmers’ markets.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.