Not too long ago in northwestern Indiana, I saw my first billboard for a farm; a large dairy with a major agritourism component.
Like it or not, marketing permeates our culture, and those who understand how to capture its power and influence are the ones who are going to have an advantage when trying to succeed in business, including farm business.
Because the prices of agricultural land and capital are increasing, it is becoming increasingly necessary for aspiring farmers to make greater profits on fewer acres. Coaxing more money from less land is not easy, but it is possible.
Growing high-value products such as vegetables, tree fruits, herbs, berries, meat or dairy will return more per acre than row crops such as corn or soybeans, but they are ventures that require plenty of labor and intensive management. Plus, the better those high-value products are marketed, the more profit they are likely to return to the grower.
As I get to know more and more unconventional farmers, I am continually reaffirmed in my belief that the most successful alternative farmers have as much time and energy poured into their marketing as they do into their production.
Farming is more than buying some dirt and a tractor, riding around all year, and then going to Florida for the winter. That perception is highly flawed. There is an incredible amount of planning and expertise that goes into farming, especially for those people starting alternative enterprises.
Agripreneurs need to be aware that food production and marketing are inextricably linked. Often, novice growers are so eager to get started farming, they plant a bunch of crops, buy a bunch of animals, and then halfway through the season (or later), realize they have not figured out how they are going to sell anything.
Aside from all the knowledge that goes into the process of growing food, successful alternative farmers need to know details about their cost of production, whether labor is available, exactly who and where their customers are, how to appeal to these customers, how much to charge for their products to earn a living wage, and how to get their products to market.
If none of these components appeals to the aspiring farmer, if pavement-pounding and relationship management only detract from their quality of life, then that farmer had better find a partner to do the marketing and promotions.
There are many strategies that market-savvy farmers are using to increase the demand and the price received for their products. Some are acquiring third-party certifications, such as certified organic or certified humanely-raised.
Some are adding value to their farm goods by turning them into finished products, such as selling salsa or pasta sauce rather than just selling raw tomatoes, peppers, onions and herbs.
Many are beginning to capitalize on consumer desire to reconnect with the land and to support local growers, who are using conscientious, progressive methodologies to grow high-quality food.
Taking advantage of such consumer consciousness is easier than it sounds; an appealing label that includes information about a growers safe/humane/eco-friendly production techniques, and images or history of their farm and their family will tug at a consumers heartstrings and, thus, loosen their purse strings.
Often, food buyers dont require something as specific as certified organic; they are simply seeking more clarity to help understand where their food came from and whom it will benefit.
Just like production, farm marketing has to be efficient, or it becomes a waste of time and money. Word-of-mouth is free marketing, and creating a buzz about your products is very effective. Just rememberyou only have so much control over what those mouths are saying, and, unfortunately, mouths spreading negative messages work much faster than mouths spreading positive ones. Besides, a bit of visibility will put more words in more mouths, positive images in many eyes, and curiosity in many brains.
Before you begin spending big bucks on ad agencies and marketing campaigns, knock on your neighbors doors, find out what they like and dont like about your products, and figure out how much theyd be willing to pay. All of a sudden, you are doing market research. Learn to focus your marketing efforts by speaking with folks in the Small Business Administration ( http://www.sba.gov/), SCORE ( http://www.score.org/), state government ( http://business.illinois.gov/), and people like me with University of Illinois Extensions Initiative for Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture (http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/iidea/).
The opportunity is out there, and there are people with the expertise to point you in the right direction. If you know this is the kind of lifestyle you want, a little extra legwork in the planning phase shouldnt put you off too much. Whatever stage of the game you are in, we are here to help innovative farm businesses succeed.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the March 29-April 4, 2006, issue