So you’re excited to raise a flock of goats, or plant an acre of strawberries, or tend a dozen hives of honey bees. Terrific! Your energy and enthusiasm will be the driving forces that propel you early on. But tempting as it might be to stay up late reading about beehives, or watching cute goat videos, equal emphasis must be devoted to creating a marketing plan for each of these enterprises. Despite any specific passion you might have, your success as a farmer will depend on your ability to sell what you grow.
Seems academic, doesn’t it? Simply grow what you love, sell it to a customer, and make a profit. But from my experience, most new farmers are so enamored with the dream of growing something, that they assume that the sales will somehow take care of themselves This is a tremendous mistake. For a farm to stay in business, passion must go hand-in-hand with economic pragmatism.
I learned this the hard way. Early in my career, in the mid 1990s, I decided to raise free-range laying hens. I converted a defunct silage wagon into a mobile chicken coop, rolling it across the pasture each day so 100 hens could enjoy fresh clover, bugs, and sunshine. Of course, I was aware that once the eggs started rolling in, I’d need to sell them. But what better market, I told myself, than the local farmers’ market? The following Saturday, I headed to my local town square.
Boy, did I have a lot to learn. As a twenty-two year old newbie farmer, I had no idea that market applications occurred twelve months in advance. On top of that, there were already two farmers selling eggs in my hometown, and for a lower price than I knew I would need for mine.
The market manager took pity on me, however, and fast-tracked me into a market 45 minutes away, in another small town. The following Saturday, I took 25 dozen eggs, set up a little table with a sign, and waited patiently for the customers to show up.
After four hours, when market closed, I had sold five dozen eggs. Five measly dozen! I loaded up the remaining twenty dozen into my little pickup truck, and headed back to the farm. That was one long, contemplative 45 minute ride home. But this early experience taught me three valuable lessons:
1. I needed to step up my game. This was an easy one. Looking around market at other vendors, there were brightly colored tents, clear signage with farm names, and enticing displays of products. I, on the other hand, had shown up with little more than my pickup truck, a cooler, and a cowboy hat. There was no question that I looked unprofessional—and my sales reflected it.
2. I needed to explain why my products were special. Everyone loves a good story, and I was convinced I had a great one: pasture-raised hens, producing yolks bright as sunshine. However, even though there was little comparison, my eggs were 3 to 4 times more expensive than a dozen of “conventional” eggs for sale at the local supermarket. If I was going to get customers hooked on my products, I needed to share WHY they were worth the higher price.
3. I needed to diversify my markets. Finally, even if I succeeded at growing my business at that particular market, I was still figuratively putting all of my egg sales into one basket. That market only operated from April through October, and my hens would continue to lay year-round. As soon as possible, I’d need to reach out to other outlets, and secure multiple sales channels.
Growing my markets, it turned out, was every bit as important as producing the fabulous free-range eggs. But it demanded all the creativity, contemplation, and time I could devote to its care. At the end of the day, though, I can tell you this: There are few better feelings in the world than doing what you love, and getting paid to do it.
Next month: Rule #2, “Doing One Thing Well Is Better Than Doing Ten Things So-So”
Forrest Pritchard is a full-time farmer, and a New York Times bestselling author. His latest book, Start Your Farm, debuts in September, and is available fororder.
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