February 14, 2014
Grow Your Farm Business with Customer-driven Marketing - Photo courtesy Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Thinkstock

Sometimes an idea for that perfect, unique farm product pops into your head and the only thing left to do is find the customer for it. However, it may be more advantageous to your farm’s bottom line to find the customer base first, and then develop a product to meet their needs. This concept is called value chain marketing.

Find a Customer
Finding an underserved customer base might seem difficult in today’s consumer-driven society, but plenty of opportunities for your farm exist. First, ask yourself: What do potential customers need that they’re not getting? They might not even know they have a need, so it’s up to you to figure it out and bring it to their attention.

For example, I grow a custom market garden for specific restaurants’ needs. The idea arose from a brainstorming session where I tried to think of something our farm could produce that could be marketed to restaurants. I identified the customer, then it was my task to narrow in on what they needed.

Develop Your Product
In my market-garden scenario, I started by chatting with local restaurant owners and fellow farmers who were supplying Nashville’s restaurants. Based on those conversations, I determined that chefs wanted specific local veggies in large quantities on a reliable basis but were having a hard time locking down a supply. It seemed that nearly every chef was struggling to find a consistent supply of the right veggies. So I thought, why not form a relationship with a restaurant, grow specific varieties and quantities of veggies, and know that my product is essentially pre-sold? And thus, the idea of a custom market garden was formed.

That same process can be applied across a variety of circumstances. For instance, visit local farmers’ markets, and ask yourself what’s missing. Many of the markets in our area lack organic herbs, both fresh and dried for spices. In addition, an herb gardener could create natural beauty products, teas, potted plants in the spring, et cetera.

If you can’t pinpoint a missing element, ask market shoppers what they wish they could find. Track down and ask the market manager the same question. Every market manager has a running wish list in the back of his mind.

Chat with people in your community. Find out what they’re buying online or travelling long distances to find. Smaller towns are often missing a natural-foods market where local produce and other local products are available. Perhaps you could set up a small shop on your farm that features goods produced from the farms and artisans in your area. The shift to mega-malls and shopping complexes is slowing down, and quaint shops with high-quality goods are gaining a lot of attention. Bringing it all together to serve the needs of your community can be a rewarding experience and also a great way to market your own goods.

Diversify Distribution
With the sudden shift in focus to locally produced products, many items are in demand, but local supply hasn’t quite reached demand. Local entrepreneurs have the chance to fill those roles. As a beginning farmer, a multitude of potential outlets exist for bringing your products to market: wholesale production for grocery stores and restaurants, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, online sales, on-site farm stores, and the list goes on.

Once you find success in a distribution channel, it can be easy to branch into other channels, as well. If you have a farm shop featuring amazing local products, combine them corporate gift baskets or bundle them and ship them to folks across the country. If you start an herb garden for farmers’ markets, consider selling herbs to grocery stores, too. Once you identify your original customer base, don’t be afraid to continue your growth by expanding into other arenas.

Beginning farmers have a blank slate and the freedom to be creative. Look around at the hurdles your customers are facing and create a solution. By solving problems, you’re creating value, which can make marketing your product a breeze.

About the Author: With no background or family history in farming, James Ray and his wife, Eileen, left careers in New York City’s fast lane to start Little Seed Farm near Nashville, Tenn. Thankfully, neither was disowned by their parents.

 



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