Farmers pursuing direct-zmarketing ventures are paying attention to customer demand to not only buy something but learn something, says NADFMA president
The Canadian Prairies’ lack of people and long distance between places doesn’t mean there aren’t good opportunities for selling direct from your farm, said a speaker at Manitoba’s Direct Farm Marketing Conference March 10.
“It’s about being really good at marketing and understanding your customer,” said Kerry Engel, president of the North American Direct Farm Marketing Association (NADFMA) and who gave the keynote address to the Gimli conference.
Engel has visited farms that direct market product or focus on agri-tourism all across Canada, the U.S. and parts of the U.K. and says a good business plan will make this work in lower-density areas too.
“It’s all about having a really good product and not spreading yourself too thin and doing one thing really, really well,” said Engel who works for the Alberta government’s rural extension department as the manager of its food and health unit.
She shared dozens of examples of direct-marketing ventures, large and small, and the marketing savvy that makes them successful.
Farmers are tapping into the voracious demand for local food by selling not only their farm-grown product but their knowledge of food production, said Engel. Farmers doing direct marketing are opening on-farm kitchens and delis, and teaching people how to preserve food, make sausage or prune trees, she said. The “new local” is about not just buying local food, but knowing how to grow, preserve and cook some of your own, she said.
The NAdfMA members’ innovative ventures include “farm to family” farmers’ market buses, or mobile farmers’ markets and observation hives at farms that sell honey. One farm that sells on-farm produce hosts a “Thursday night sunset” event inviting visitors to the farm to watch it. “Does that boost sales? You bet it does,” said Engel.
The most successful farms engage their visitors with creative and whimsical displays. Engel showed slides of farms selling bedding plants displayed in antique bed frames, and horse farms with real horse tails attached to murals of horses’ behinds. Other farms specialize in hosting birthday parties and weddings.
NAdfMA members are responding to current trends. One is a growing consumer demand to learn something while they’re being entertained. “People want to be edu-tained,” she said.
The other is demand for local. Engel said she predicted 15 years ago that consumers would start to want to buy direct from farmers and began encouraging farmers in the mid-1990s to start thinking about that. She also recalls the pushback she received, being told not to encourage direct selling of farm product.
“To say I feel vindicated now is an understatement,” she told the 130 participants at the DFMC. “We are in the throes of the local movement right now.”
Engel anticipates increasing interest not merely in buying local food, but in producing some of it oneself, plus continued demand for sustainability, authenticity, freshness, purity and ethics surrounding food production.
“And this sentiment comes with expectations,” she said. “The consumer is going to be harder on us. People are redefining quality. We are seeing a more holistic approach, thankfully, away from nutrients to whole food.”
Her presentation kicked off the second day of the DFMC which held workshops on culinary tourism, setting up great-looking farmers’ market booths and roadside stands, and connecting with consumers.
MAFRI staff organizing the conference estimated as much as one-third of those attending were first-time participants at the conference.
Among them was Gabi Sponagel-Ridder, a farm management instructor in the School of Agriculture at the University of Manitoba. Sponagel-Ridder said she was impressed with the conference content and would be taking home ideas to share with students. In the last couple of years she’s noted increasing interest among more students in taking direct-to-consumer approaches.
“We do have several students who are interested in marketing their own products,” she said. “We have students interested in direct marketing and farming on a smaller scale. There seems to be a lot of interest in that now.”
DFMC participants were also encouraged to gear up for a third Open Farm Day in 2012. The date of this year’s day-long event, where farms across Manitoba host visitors, will be September 16.