Customer Identification and Communication Education for Scale Specific Commodities

2011 Annual Report for ONE11-135

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2011: $14,986.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Grant Recipient: Cornell University
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Laura Biasillo
Development Specialist

Customer Identification and Communication Education for Scale Specific Commodities


Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County proposed a multi-layered approach to address the needs of of direct market farmers who do not possess a marketing plan, nor have an easy way to implement customer identification and communication mechanisms that are scale and commodity specific. Seven farmers/agri-business owners representing a wide diversity of direct marketing locations (farm stand/store, farmers’ markets, restaurant, website sales, etc.), agreed to serve as Collaborating Farmers. The 16 month project involves pre and post assessments of the farmer’ knowledge and attitudes related to customers and marketing, at least 60 customer intercept interviews per farm, pre and post education and trials, reviews and updates of business plans, development of tailored customer tracking and communications mechanisms, and collection of data to assess achievement of project goals related to increases in numbers of customers, increased repeat customer sales and increased revenue from sales.

Six farmers and agri-business owners met in-person to discuss the overall goals and timeline of the project. Then plans were made to meet with each individually to set a baseline of knowledge, goals to be achieved with regards to increases in numbers and types of customers, sales and types of marketing methods and tools integrated into their operation; as well as information to be obtained by the end of the project through customer surveys.

Information gathered from the surveys included customer location, how they access information on buying local as well as the particular operation, frequency and amount of purchases, items they would like to see the operation carry and how they might be encouraged to purchase more products. These surveys included methods such as a map at the u-pick operation to determine where customers are coming from to online surveys using both FaceBook and to printed surveys with postage paid to return to the office of the project manager.

To date, approximately 300 customer surveys have been collected through in-person and online methods. Next steps include meeting with the six participating farms and agri-businesses to discuss the survey results and aid them in gathering information to start the writing, or updating, of their marketing plans.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Tasks/Objectives for First Six Months Accomplished:

– In the first six months we have been able to accomplish most of our tasks: the development of a resource notebook for each of our partnering farmers; an orientation meeting and a pre-assessment of knowledge, skills and attitudes towards their customers and aspects/tools with respect to marketing; and customer surveys at each of the operations.

– None of the cooperating farmers possess marketing plans so we are working with them to understand the need and develop a document that can be easily updated. Many of them felt they had a good understanding of their current customers but not how to access those they would like to shop with them as well as how to assess their current infrastructure. This has been on-going since the first meeting. Information gleaned from the surveys will aid in helping them gain a better understanding not only of who their customers are and their purchasing habits, but also how they access information and what types of marketing might appeal to them most.

– The customer service training originally slated for Nov 2011 had to be postponed due to scheduling. It will be taking place in late Jan of 2012 when all their operations will not be as busy.

– In the original one-on-one meetings with each of the cooperating farmers goals were set with regard to information they would like to learn about their customers, mechanisms they would like to trial as well as which type of customers they would like to market to but are having difficulty currently doing so.

– Each of the participating farmers and agri-businesses has kept records of all transactions during the 2011 season thereby establishing a baseline for changes in purchasing behavior by customers. Several also started gathering customer contact information (mainly emails) through both the customer survey as well as other mechanisms to enable the trial of other communication and marketing methods.


– We set out to collect 60 surveys for each of the participating farms/agri-businesses. We did this through multiple methods, including in-person, online and printed for pre-paid mailback. For several we greatly exceeded the data collection numbers (more than 100 at two locations). This was due to the methods we used (both a survey at the location as well as electronic gathering of surveys). Two of the locations were devastated by the floods of Sept 7, 2011 – leading not only the loss of some of the survey data being held there, but also business and customers who could have aided in data collection. We also ran into the unanticipated stumbling block of scheduling. Since many of the farms participating sell at the same direct marketing venues we could not be at multiple stands at the same time, thereby cutting down on the number we could be at. This is when we instituted the electronic gathering of the surveys. This worked well, but was started later in the gathering so we were not able to get the 360 surveys we hoped to gather. We also ran into many of the customers being surveyed at a farmers’ market and it was not the right atmosphere or they did not want to answer. Also the producers sometimes were not as willing to help in encouraging their customers to fill out the surveys. We feel that gathering close to 300 surveys in the first phase of the project, even though each operation did not individually gather that many, all will still benefit from the information gathered once it is aggregated. We will be modifying our data collection to 40 surveys for each location at the end of the project to ensure each will have enough data to make informed decisions about modifications they made to either their marketing tactics, product availability or other goals set in the beginning. We will also be addressing the importance of the information gleaned from the surveys to the producers to hopefully encourage them to encourage their customers to participate in the second phase of data collection.

– Each farm set individual goals for accessing customers and understanding and trying out marketing tactics. This was done through the pre-assessment at the beginning of the project and one-on-one discussions. This helped inform some of the survey questions. During Jan 2012 we will again be meeting to discuss the survey results and how they can use this information to target their marketing to both existing customers (through the customer location and information access data) as well as marketing tactics which either needs to be better marketed (customers don’t know that a specific farms offers a quantity discount or will deliver) and new tactics to try (discount card, freezer/variety packs, etc…). These will be tracked during the 2012 season. Several of these operations exist year-round so this will give a great base for data collection.

– None of the participating farms possess marketing plans, so in the winter of 2012 each farm will be met with individually to discuss the importance of the marketing plan, information that is needed to construct it, and starting data collection to populate it. The marketing plan will be designed to be a living document and easily updated so it will be useful and not shelved after the project is completed.

– The customer service training scheduled for Nov 2011 was re-scheduled due to operations gearing up for the holiday season and indoor markets. It will be taking place on Jan 23rd when things have calmed down. Integrated with this training will be a food safety training due to the increased focus and exposure of food safety issues at direct marketing venues and for direct marketers in general.

– The resource notebook for collaborating farmers was populated with both general information (marketing tactics, social media information, articles, resources, etc…) as well as information specific to their operation (their pre-skills assessment and goals for the project, aggregation of data from customer surveys, marketing plan template and template for collection of sales data and success (or failure) of marketing tactics tried and possibilities for why it failed). This will be given to farmers in Jan 2012 to make conversations on the marketing plan more informed. This is also the time of year they can best process information since it is not during the growing season.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

The impact on the participating farmers has been great. Most have taken the importance of understanding their customers to heart and were very engaged in the data collection. They are very excited about the possibility of expanding their customer base and learning about what aspects of their operation are most important; and conversely which are either unknown or unimportant. Since they are their best marketers, this next phase of the project where the marketing plan and tactics are introduced will be key. Outside of the measurement of sales and purchasing habits, the post-assessment will also be a great way for us to measure impact as it will point to the sustainability of tactics and behaviors we are attempting to foster and institutionalize through this project.

There has also been an impact on secondary audiences, mainly extension educators. We have been to multiple trainings (Strategic Marketing Conference run by Dyson School of Economics and Applied Management at Cornell University and Agricultural Economic Development track at the Agriculture In-Service) and spoken about this project. We have also been asked to write articles for Small Farms Quarterly and Country Folks once the first stage of data collection has been completed to aid other direct marketers to better understand who those are participating in the buy local movement, how they access their information and marketing tactics to best access different types of customers. We will be created a display in the coming months to be used at other (annual) conferences including the Northeast Organic Farmers Association conference, the Empire State Fruit and Veg conference, the Farmers’ Market Federation of NY conference, the Strategic Marketing Conference and the Cornell University Agriculture In-Service which will create on-going impact for not only our primary audience – direct marketers but also secondary audiences who will be educating that primary audience and other stakeholders.


Lorraine Kemak
Grants Administrator
Cornell Cooperative Extension-Broome County
840 Upper Front St
Binghamton, NY 13905
Office Phone: 6077728953