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Taking on Food Justice with Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm

As a creative educator, regenerative farmer, writer and activist, Leah Penniman is an exceptional leader for food justice. She is best known for her work at Soul Fire Farm, which she and husband Jonah Vitale-Wolff started as an organic family farm committed to “the dismantling of oppressive structures that misguide our food system.”

Soul Fire Farm is entering its ninth year of growing healthy food for the couple’s former urban neighbors in Albany and Troy, New York. Since coming to the land over a decade ago, they have transformed a patch of marginal mountain ground into rich topsoil, faithfully provisioned a sliding-scale CSA whose members often lack access to fresh produce and created a vibrant, welcoming community of learning and admirable influence.

Nurtured by her childhood connection with the natural world, Penniman got hooked on agriculture as a teenager at a summer job with the Boston-based Food Project and has never looked back. Before graduating from college, she worked at the Farm School, co-managed Many Hands Organic Farm and co-founded the YouthGROW urban farming program. Until this year, she has been a full-time environmental science and biology teacher for which she received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching.

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Food Hubs Connect Growers, Consumers

Across the country, small to medium-sized farms are forming regional wholesale food hubs to market, aggregate and distribute locally produced food from farms to restaurants, hospitals, schools, universities, grocery stores and other institutions.

Locally grown tomatoes

Local tomatoes sold through the Puget Sound Food Hub.

These hubs help level the playing field with the competition from cheap, industrial produce trucked long distances, while benefitting the environment by reducing fuel emissions. They help bring communities together, furthering USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Initiative, and strengthening the farm to table connection.

The Puget Sound Food Hub (PSFH) serves Western Washington. PSFH is a farmer-owned cooperative operating in the Puget Sound region. It was originally conceived of and started by the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC), a nonprofit that works collaboratively with farmers and businesses to increase the economic viability of local agriculture. Continue Reading →

Agritourism: Tips for Getting Started

Agritourism as an additional revenue stream for the farm can be tempting for some. Possible experiences for farm visitors may include education about farming such as sheep-shearing demonstrations, entertaining activities such as gourd-painting classes, or simply the opportunity to observe the crops and animals on a working farm. Visitors can range from the local community to international tourists.

A local artist attracts the attention of two young farm visitors during a lavender farm’s summer festival.

When non-farming citizens come directly onto the farm enticed by enjoyable experiences, the farmer can benefit in multiple ways. In some cases, farm-owners use agritourism as a marketing platform to draw customers to the farm to buy and pay for the farm’s crops directly, eliminating both the need to deliver crops as well as the middleman.

Agritourism sometimes adds direct revenue to a farm’s offerings by charging a fee for workshops or tours. And though agritourism can range from a one-hour herb drying class at a backyard herb farm to overnight rural B&B stays, here’s one example concerning revenue from the well-known October pumpkin agritourism venture described by Jane Eckert, founder of Eckert AgriMarketing.

“While the average pumpkin sale might be $4-$8 per customer, they will generally spend at least $20 per family just to have a fun day on the farm. Fall season revenues might start for farms at just a few thousand dollars. But with a little bit of ingenuity, hard work and a good product mix, $100,000 is not a difficult goal for a farm to reach in October. After several years, many farms are approaching sales up to $500,000 and more. Most farms I know exceed $100,000 annually from their October season. The concept is to start small with pumpkins and then start adding the products, food sales, school tours, etc., and the revenue quickly builds.”

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Industrial Organics Competition

salatin-industrial_photo1by JOEL SALATIN

“Wal-Mart is the largest vendor of organic products.” This headline began appearing in news outlets about five years ago and announced a major change in the integrity food game. Hailed by some as a major positive breakthrough, others, like me, see it as a new threat to the ecological farming movement.

In a recent farm tour, I surprised myself by saying to the assembled group: “industrial organics is now just as big a liability in our food system as Monsanto.” The statement came on the heels of questions regarding why our farm was not certified organic or any of the other certifications currently lauded as third-party verifications for animal welfare, fair trade, or Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).

At the outset of the organic certification movement, I remember suggesting that what we really needed to certify was the reading material next to the farmer’s toilet. All of us involved in the fledgling clean food protocols realized that this was more of an idea, a lifestyle, a worldview, than it was a list of dos and don’ts. And yet the do and don’t list is exactly where the idea went with the passage of the National Organic Standards.

Although it took awhile for the federal government’s ownership of the word organic to sprout legs in the food and farm culture, it certainly did …big legs. In the past five years, I’ve sensed a major shift in the organic market that does not bode well for the local integrity food movement built on neighbor trust and transparency.

Recent shenanigans from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), from stacking oversight toward industry representatives in defiance of the enabling legislation’s clear intent, to eliminating the mandatory sunset clause for questionable substances indicate a profound adulteration of the organic idea. Constant litigation and exposure by the watchdog outfit Cornucopia, as wonderful as it is, seems to do little to arrest the juggernaut of adulteration within the industrial organic fraternity.

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Starting a Small-Scale Livestock Venture: Understanding Market Considerations

Kelly Klober

Farmer sitting near pigsA number of years ago a neighbor called with questions about starting a purebred swine operation in our area. It was going to be based on a breed not already present in the area, but one that was well-regarded and had been used often to produce some good, rugged cornfield shoats across the Midwest.

I agreed that it was a good idea as the breed was one that we had once considered. I was about to advise a small, careful start when he told me that they had already purchased 30 gilts and two rather pricey breeding boars. Within two years they were out of the purebred swine business. It was a case of too much too soon.

MARKET RESEARCH
A livestock venture and the market for it tend to begin small, and it will take time for both of them to develop. Along with acquiring needed skills and experiences, the producer must determine to what level of production the venture can be grown and continue to garner good selling prices and returns.

Price is set by the quality of the output and the demand for it. The producer can certainly shape the quality and, to an extent, have control over the amount of output (at least from his or her farm into nearby markets where most direct sales are generated). Before selling a single boar of his chosen breed our neighbor had the numbers in place and the money spent to be producing them by the score.

It is a mistake that we have all made, and some of us have made it several times. A young man of our acquaintance once ordered 50 quail chicks, grew them out with comparative ease and sold them quickly for a tidy profit. He next placed an order for 1,000 quail chicks, and the results were disastrous.

Small creatures though they may be, 1,000 quail chicks taxed his facilities, almost immediately problems began to arise that were beyond his level of experience, and a market that bought 50 and wanted a few more had no need for them by the hundreds. His losses of birds and dollars were substantial.

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Tips for Marketing and Selling Your Pork

446px-American_Pork_Cuts.svg

How to Get Started with Marketing Pork

When marketing pork, you get to pick the level of information that you share with your customer tribe on a regular basis. It has been my experience that most folks are interested in the general picture, but not the nitty-gritty details. That said, maybe your tribe is. Follow your heart to find out what your farm brand is all about. Developing a unique voice, the one you use for all of your farm brands marketing efforts, is part of the work of cultivating your tribe of die hard customers who absolutely love your products.

Using a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and a farm website in a cohesive manner is an effective way to put your farm presence out into the world. A well-designed website with information about you, your farm, your farm products and regular updates on your activities provides a professional backbone to the rest of your Internet presence. I highly recommend updating your website’s blog at least once a week — it is hard to do that in the busy seasons, but it will grow content for your website that otherwise would become a static and boring page that is not often visited by even your most loyal fans. Keep the look of your website updated, and streamline the information and features so that people can easily find what they are seeking. You can never go wrong with a post that includes baby animal pictures. DIY ideas are very sought after, as well as cooking ideas for your products. In fact, including cooking ideas and pictures of your product is one of the most important aspects of your web presence — the more delicious ideas for your products that you can share, the better the odds are that a potential customer will buy your products to try them out for themselves.

Tips for Marketing Pork

• Begin by making sure you have all your bases covered in regards to
rules and regulations.
• Get your pig transportation and pork delivery methods set up, or at
least have an idea and a plan of how you will go about solving these
critical logistics.
• Create the backbone of your Internet presence — your website — with
the help of web-savvy friends, business partners, or pay for professional
web design services.

Marketing pork

Offering samples is a smart way to get the word out about your pork

• Begin your social media campaign immediately, and spend time every
day updating it all.
• Go out into the world and sample the heck out of your product.
• Work with event people to be showcased at relevant gatherings.
• Make sure your pork ordering webpage is clear and attractive. Include
information on payment, shipping costs and delivery schedule.
• Set up your inventory system so that you have a general idea of what
you have on hand at any given time. You should be ready to fulfill
orders when you add an email link or phone number for customers
to submit orders and begin to advertise your pork and request orders
on your social media or any other marketing materials you produce.
When a customer emails you or calls you with an order you can now
create an invoice in Paypal or other format. Utilizing online invoicing
or a simple invoice pad and cash/check system is up to your preference,
but definitely keep an ear open and listen to what your customers
want. After you receive your orders for the week, it is time to map
out your delivery route. Your invoices become your packing list.
• Deliver your products on the correct date and time with a smile.

Andrew French and his wife, Khaiti, own Living the Dream Farm (www.ltdfarm.com, www.farmerkhaiti.wordpress.com) in western Wisconsin, a 39-acre small-scale and diversified eco-farm, raising pastured ducks, geese, chickens, turkeys, pigs and produce for a unique CSA program.

These tips appear in the October 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.