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"I want the family farm - the backbone of our country's heritage - to thrive and survive for future generations."

Articles/Press Releases

Direct Marketing the Next 50 Years

By Jane Eckert

Where will we be 50 years from now?  When the editor of this magazine called me to write an article on this topic I was at first overwhelmed.  Where would I start? What would I say?  Then it came to me that in order to write this article I had to talk to direct marketing families that already been around 50 years and had successfully passed the farm on to the next generation.

The multi-generation direct marketers that I chose to interview for this article were Evan & Nathan Milburn of Milburn Farms in Elkton, MD; Stan and Dave Brown of Brown’s Orchards in Emigsville, PA and Lary and Chris Eckert of Eckert’s Orchard in Belleville, IL.

All of these families have been in direct marketing for over fifty years and have been in tree fruit production for much longer. While their histories may vary, they all agree that they would not have stayed in business if they had continued selling their fruit only to the wholesale market.  “We just could not keep up with the larger producers,” said Evan Milburn.  He then quoted his dad as often saying “if you can’t play along with the big boys, get back up on the porch.”

Direct marketing has in fact saved these farms, and propelled them into the next generation. The Milburn’s now are farming with the fourth generation, the Brown’s the third generation and the Eckert’s the seventh generation. So, for these farms, seeing another fifty years was not so very difficult.

All three farms started with modest roadside stands that have grown into large successful farm markets with bakeries, deli, prepared foods, fresh fruits and vegetables, gifts and much more. However, for the Milburn family, Evan said the best decision for them is when they entered into agri-tainment, which has been for nearly twenty years.  The Eckert family began pick your own fruit in 1964 and has been adding entertainment ever since.  The Brown family has not moved into entertainment, however, that appears to be their next new venture.

The challenges these farms see for the next fifty years were very similar. At the top of the list was the amount of government regulation related to food safety, GAP certification, availability and use of pesticides, and the ability to keep getting farm labor at a reasonable cost.  These are real issues that certainly are on the mind of everyone in production agriculture today. In the case of the Eckert’s, it may also mean moving more of the farm production further from the retail base and housing density, as has been done already in many of the East coast farms.

Another recognized challenge was the increasing competition by our box stores and supermarkets to mimic the look and feel of our markets.  They are also promoting the buy fresh and buy-local angle within their stores. However, Chris is excited by the increased customer interest in buying “locally grown” foods and that these same consumers are actually willing to pay a premium for these products when they come to the farm market. Consequently, Eckert’s is looking to potentially grow more by expanding into blueberries and some high tunnel products.

Our key advantage over our competition, says Chris, “we offer the experience to go out our back door, take a tractor ride and go directly to the field to pick our fruits at the peak of the season. No grocery store or Walmart will ever be able to offer that experience.”

The value of agri-tainment was recognized by both Nathan and Chris as helping to build upon a multi-generational guest following. “When you hear a customer with a young child say, ‘my mom used to bring me to the orchard and now I’m bringing my child,’ you know you’ve got them hooked” says Nathan quite proudly.
“The ideal weather this past fall season brought crowds in such huge numbers that we had issues in just getting the cars parked,” said Chris. “That is a good problem to have but we are looking for ways to better serve these record days of attendance. “

All of these farms are also currently in the process of passing the day to day management of the farm onto the next generation.  While the senior generation knows it’s time to do so, it is not always easy for them to phase out of the farm. The younger generation on these farms all have a desire and passion to continue the family legacy and are proudly doing so.

It truly is very fortunate when the next generation steps up to lead the family farm.  As far as the children of Dave and Chris, it is still way too early to know if any of their children would want to take over for dad, but Nathan has a daughter who will be going to college next year for production agriculture.

What all of these farms seem to do best is to deliver quality products, exceptional service and a family pride in all that they offer. From a marketing point of view, our names are our brand.  As long as we can continue to have a passion for agriculture and serving each and every customer as a welcome guest, then farm marketing will surely survive the next fifty years.

Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.