Farm Fresh Perspectives: Making the most of your marketing

So you’re thinking about starting becoming a food and farm entrepreneur. After reading my article last week, you know such a venture must be undertaken with marketing at the fore.

Alternative farmers have to put just as much effort into marketing as they do into production. Consumers in America are very lucky to have easy access to an incredible variety of safe, affordable food products, so you need to find a way to make yourself, and your product, stand out in a crowd; you need to find your niché.

Fortunately for you, American consumers also have some of the most diverse demands in the world, so it’s seldom impossible to find a growth market that will allow your business to get a toehold. Once you know your likely consumer base, you just need to find your customers and figure out how to develop the relationships that will help you gain access to them. I think I have a resource that can help you do exactly that.

Although there is no substitute for good, ol’ pavement-pounding when trying to determine what people like about your product, the University of Illinois Extension’s Initiative for Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture (IDEA) has created an online tool that can help you move your marketing plan to the next level. University of Illinois MarketMaker ( is an interactive mapping system that locates Illinois consumers and food-related businesses, designed to forge links between growers, eaters, and all those others who fall somewhere in between.

An intuitive Web interface allows any user of this free service to search for Illinois food enterprises by location and line of business (including farmers’ markets), an Illinois direct market farm by geography and product (along with that product’s specific attributes), or a group of Illinois consumers by demographic, including income, education, ethnicity, family type and country of origin, as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau. It’s a lot of information that can all be integrated into some very useful market research.

I have received a number of inquiries about marketing meat goats this year, so let’s use that endeavor as an example. Let’s say you are raising high-quality Boer goats for sale into the ethnic meat market in Chicago. Although goat may not be customary Western fare, many around the world eat goat as a staple of their diet, including people from Mexico, the Mediterranean, other parts of Europe, Western Asia, much of Africa, and the Caribbean Islands (you can learn more about this with an IDEA fact sheet at (

So how can MarketMaker help you access that market? First, you can use the “Find a Business” function to look up other farmers raising goats in Illinois. These folks may be contacts for production information cooperative marketing strategies, or basic experiences. Then, you can use the “Find a Market” function to determine where, say, the highest concentration of consumers in Cook County with Hispanic heritage and a specific income level are located.

You can zoom in on the map all the way to individual Census tracts, and then overlay the locations of Mexican/Latin American food stores. Using the “Identify” tool, you can retrieve information about each store, including name, address, contact info, line of business, approximate sales volume and number of employees. Then, you can overlay a map of the roadways to figure out exactly how you would deliver your product to them.

Now the hard part, making that first sales call…

MarketMaker contains records about more than 38,000 food-related businesses in Illinois. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t more out there.

If you have a food-related business in Illinois that is not already indexed on MarketMaker and would like to have that kind of visibility, take a moment to register for free.

Also, the only way we can get individual farms listed on our producer database is to do some pavement-pounding of our own; there is no master list from which we can gather such information. So, you farmers out there looking to break into the food business, you can register for free, too.

Be assured we will not sell your name or information, but also be aware that your business information will be posted on the Web and become public access (which, for promotional purposes, is a good thing).

And if you need any help using the site, don’t hesitate to give me a call. I can help you walk through a query, or even come to do a presentation for a group, if you have that kind of interest.

As this service grows (and it is, Iowa MarketMaker recently came online), MarketMaker will be useful to help you create a network of consumers and entrepreneurs, even across state lines.

Happy marketing!

Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or

From the April 5-11, 2006, issue

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