Selling, whether products or services, in person or online, requires a level of promotion that many farmers are uncomfortable with, and a level of interaction that’s challenging for individuals inclined toward being alone. But the truth is that farming is as much about selling as it is about growing, unless you sell all of your crop as a commodity to one buyer.
The image of the farmer as taciturn or introverted just doesn’t fit with the successful farmers I know, all of whom are good at marketing themselves, chatting with customers, and generally being charming and charismatic. If that seems like a high bar, remember that they aren’t like that all the time. As with many people, they have a limited supply of extroversion, which they recharge by being alone.
Making an Impression
I work alone basically every day throughout the year, with the exception of Christmas tree season, and even then, I’m alone (or with my crew) on weekdays. On weekends, I chat and laugh with customers for eight hours straight each day, and I come home tired from socializing. I need the quiet at the beginning and end of the day to balance out the rest, but when I’m on, I’m on, and if you do direct sales, you’ll need to figure out how to develop this skill too. People know when you’re disengaged, grumpy, impatient, or desperate for a sale. You’ll need to cultivate an easy cheerfulness, not only because this will draw customers to you, but also because it’ll keep you happiest in the long run. I don’t fake my sociability, but rather refill my well by making sure I have time alone.
Remember that selling is about serving someone else’s needs. If what you’re selling is excellent and fairly priced, people will be drawn to you. It’s much more fun to ask people how you can help them than it is to try to convince them to buy. If you’re at a farmers market, be willing to act goofy as a means of breaking the ice. Wear a Hawaiian shirt. Wear one of those fake noses with the eyeglasses and mustache. If people come to your farm, make a playlist of songs to set the mood. I listen to all kinds of music when customers aren’t around, but when they are, I find the absolute best kind of music isn’t Christmas carols (which we’ve all heard too many times before), but a carefully curated list of Motown and soul classics. Put on Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin, and watch people start to smile and sing along. Because I don’t have electricity at the Christmas tree grove on the farm, I use my phone or an iPod plugged into a portable speaker.
The power of music to set the mood isn’t a new idea. Al Pieropan, my former landlord and mentor, used to park his truck down at the You-Cut grove, open both doors, and tune the radio to classical music. The doors did a good job of projecting the sound up the hillside, and people still reminisce about how lovely it was to trudge through the trees in the snow with opera wafting up from below. Al used this same technique to listen to music while he worked in his sections of the grove in the early years of us taking over the farm, and I had to go jump his truck on several occasions when he accidentally drained his battery.
As you evaluate your land and your core opportunities, take a moment to think about what level of daily or weekly customer interaction would be a good fit for you. If you love schmoozing, then a farmers market, community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, or farm store is probably a smart choice. If you’d rather not make small talk with strangers, then wholesale might be a better strategy. With this system, you’d only have a few customers that you could touch base with as needed. For me, the intense — but brief — period of social interaction from Thanksgiving to Christmas is balanced out by the rest of the year, when I work alone.
Display and Organization
My first season selling wreaths, I quickly realized that hanging them without a backdrop made them difficult for customers to notice. The next year, I built a simple 6-by-6-foot display wall out of rough-sawn boards, with legs to prop it up and cross braces that allowed me to store two poles of wreaths under the slanting backside of the wall. I attached a tarp to the top edge of the wall, which hung down the back and protected the wreaths from rain and snow. For a few years, this space was big enough to store a reasonable reserve of wreaths, but when increasing demand and production required more storage space, we created a simple hanging system in the barn, and then later built our tarp barn to store up to 20 poles of wreaths. This amount of space isn’t needed for most of the season, but it’s completely full for the couple of weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, just before it all gets delivered to wholesale customers.
The wreath wall holds three small wreaths across the top, three mediums in the middle, and two larges at the bottom. I try to keep it fully stocked at all times, and I keep the dark-red bows positioned to the left, the berries in the middle, and the bright-red bows to the right. This might seem a bit rigid, but I prefer the organization aesthetically, and it drives people toward the middle choice of the berries and cones, which has a higher profit margin because there’s no ribbon to buy. I keep a backlog of undecorated wreaths, as well as prewired clusters of cones and a pile of winterberry branches, so that I can replace the wreaths as they run out. I tend to tie bows as needed, although I do try to create stockpiles of tied bows for large wholesale orders to make decorating them easier.
These sorts of marketing details may seem overly finicky, but I believe they’re critical to success, whether selling at a farm stand or at a market. They create a cohesive experience for the customer, make your farm stand out from the competition, and make your operation as efficient as possible. For our purposes, it’s perhaps most useful to divide these details into two categories: “front-end” and “back-end.” Front-end details are what your customer sees: the displays, the choice of materials, the aesthetic, the fonts, the colors. Back-end details are everything they don’t see that’s strictly for you: your system of stacking boxes, the order in which you load the truck, your storage, which supplies you keep on hand, your ability to anticipate demand through good record keeping. Quite often, something must serve a front-end and back-end function at the same time. For instance, if you have limited storage space, you might store supplies out in the open in a visually striking way. Or, consider the way you handle money when making change. Or even what you choose to wear. Find the right balance between functionality and the public image you’re trying to create. Put on a clean shirt to go to market. Get a nice tablecloth. Maintain your truck.
This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but I’ve tried to include a few of the more important details that often get overlooked.
Elevate your market or display table. People tend to notice things better when they’re at a height between their bellybuttons and shoulders. Most folding tables are too short, meaning customers often walk by without actually seeing what you have to offer. Use cinder blocks to raise them up, or, better yet, lengths of pipe that can slip over the existing table legs.
Use a full tablecloth. Make sure your tablecloth extends all the way to the ground to hide any bins or tubs you might have underneath. Solid-patterned tablecloths keep the customer’s focus on what you’re selling rather than on the cloth. If you use a bare wood surface (like the display area at my farm), use rough-sawn lumber, if possible. The imperfection of the wood makes anything you put on it look more perfect by comparison.
Hang your signs high. Propping a sign on the ground against the table is easy, but it’s hard to see, both because people don’t read signs unless the signs are (literally) in front of their noses, and because anyone standing in front of the signs will block others from reading them. Also, don’t assume a sign explaining something (buying procedure, prices, etc.) will have any effect. Signs rarely get read, and understanding which signs work and which don’t will come with observation and experimentation.
Present yourself well. No one needs to see your dirty clothes. Even if you think you’re portraying an authentic view of what it takes to farm, I guarantee that’s not the association created in people’s minds. You don’t want your heirloom tomato associated with a holey T-shirt. Similarly, maintain your vehicle. It doesn’t need to be pristine, but it does need to look like you make an effort to patch the rust and apply a passable paint job. Remember, every visible aspect of yourself is part of your image in the public eye. You don’t need to be squeaky clean and brand-new. But you do need to present as someone who maintains a certain level of cleanliness and order, as the quality of your product is linked with people’s impression of you.
Consider every aspect of the design. When you’re creating a space, whether it’s a vegetable stand or a market booth setup, keep things as clean and uncluttered as possible. Ask a friend for their first impression. Ask yourself what’s essential and what you can do without.
Don’t flash your money around. When making change, either use a money box, which keeps the whole transaction out in the open, or, if you keep all the bills in your pocket or money belt, keep a small wad of ones and fives in one pocket to make change with, and keep the rest in the other pocket. Nobody wants to see you pull out an enormous wad of cash just to hand them two singles.
Back-end details are about process. This means all parts of the process — not only the fieldwork, but also sales and office work. In no particular order, here are some important things to consider.
Packing is important. If you regularly need to set up and break things down (at a farmers market, for example), think about packing order. Are the things you need first in the front or on top? Are there things you don’t need? Can you pack all of your small items in a designated tub?
Stuff breaks. Do you keep an inventory of spare parts so you can fix things when they break? What’s most likely to break? What can you do about it ahead of time?
Stay organized. Do you have a designated space to pay bills, enter sales, collect receipts, and prepare deposits? Keep an accordion file to collect receipts. Keep an adding machine, and learn how to prepare deposits the way your bank wants them. Regularly back up your computer to an external hard drive. Keep a filing cabinet or box to collect bills, statements, and tax documents.
Be efficient. Analyze your production methods to determine where you can improve either production capacity or efficiency. Low-hanging fruit includes simply doing less. In a messy, semi-wild system, such as the one my farm uses, it won’t always be clear what you need to do, as opposed to what doesn’t need to get done, so doing less is always an option worth exploring. This category also includes doing more, because scaling up production sometimes means you’ll make better use of the infrastructure you already have and the time commitments you’ve already made. Alongside these big changes, there are innumerable ways you can tweak your processes to save time and effort. Always be thinking about this.
Be neat. When you’re done with a task, put things away. Have places where things live, and stick to that. Habits of cleanliness and neatness help with both back-end and front-end details.
Emmet Van Driesche and his wife operate Pieropan Christmas Tree Farm in western Massachusetts. Van Driesche also edits scientific manuscripts and sells his hand-carved wooden spoons at EmmetVanDriesche. This is an excerpt from his book Carving Out a Living on the Land (Chelsea Green Publishing).