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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

Spring Freeze Could Be Opportunity in Disguise

By Jane Eckert

As published in the Fruit Grower News & Vegetable Grower News, June 2007

A warm March followed by a long, hard winter freeze has just devastated the Midwest. It looks like many fruit growers have lost their peaches, apples, grapes and other tree fruit for the entire year!

What a shock.  We all know it happens, but it takes a few days for us to really absorb the situation: the farm and the family’s economic livelihood have been severely impacted for the entire year.

Yet as farmers we know we must go on.

The question for many is how?  How, if our primary crops are lost, can we get sales this year to pay the bills and pay ourselves?

For those of us in agritourism, it’s time to focus on the tourism part and to become more creative in our marketing.  That means not only the copy on our websites, brochures, newspapers-but also coming up with new special events, special offers and promotions to get people to come to our farm.

According to the 2002 Recreation survey, 62 million people visited a farm or ranch that year.  They were asked why, and here are their responses, in order of priority:

  1. To view the scenery
  2. Visiting friends and relatives in the area
  3. Participate in farm activities
  4. Buy agricultural products

As farmers, we tend to think that the produce should be number one, but its true – buying our products was number four on the list. And that’s good news, because now we can look at the top three responses and see how we can maximize these visitor interests to our advantage. 

Our goal is to get these people to our farms this summer and fall, even if we are short of our primary crops.  And for that matter, if you were fortunate enough not to lose your crop in this freeze, you might still listen up because this applies to all direct farm marketers.

Viewing our Farm Scenery
You see your orchards, your crops, the woods and the animals everyday, but they are new and special to the visitor – our urban guests.  It’s time to creatively market what we’ve got: the day in the country, ole fashion farm days, narrated wagon rides, a country fair,
marked walking trails, etc. Start thinking now ‘how can I allow my customers to better see and experience my farm setting.’ And then decide what you will charge them for these special activities.

Visiting Friends and Relatives
Our farm markets today enjoy a very loyal local customer following, and often the customers bring their out of town guests to come and enjoy “their” special farm. We just might have to find more reasons for them to visit us this year.  We might not have their favorite farm product in good supply, but we can certainly be the source for other local and homegrown foods.  

The entire country is seeing a “Buy Local” food movement and we all should recognize that we need to maximize our summer produce and fruit sales by selling product from other growers.  If you have the notoriety to attract the traffic, you can establish a great partnership with lesser known area growers who have good products for sale-and you are offering something special and important to your customers-fresh local fruits and vegetables.

You are a farm and people today want to buy local and fresh.  Capitalize on this movement and expand your typical summer produce line to offer everything from your area.

Participate in Farm Activities
We’ve all become very reliant on our fall and pumpkin activities, but what about creating special events and activities in the summer.  Yes, I know it gets hot, but people still go to other outdoor attractions-we really can feature more activities in the summer, and increase our revenue.

We have all learned that when we focus our activities on the children, the parents will come.  Here are a few ideas.  How about offering scavenger hunts for plants, a particular kind of feather, a certain kind of vegetable, and a special farm tool.  You could even offer twilight scavenger hunts, followed by a wagon ride or a campfire. 

Pie eating contests can often draw good crowds.  Perhaps get local civic groups, or the fire department and police department to challenge each other.  County fair games are often crowd pleasers-those inflatable slides and bouncers are likely in storage, so pull them out and get them set up.

What water features do you have on the farm?  Besides fishing, how about a tug-of-war across the creek?  How about an afternoon picnic, followed by a chance to explore the creek for fossils and arrowheads, followed by a campfire?

The point is, stop and think about things that kids like to do on a farm, and think of a little package that will make this an interesting and unique afternoon for summer family entertainment.

Buy our agricultural products

Once you get the customers to the farm, the goal is to increase the average sale.  Never will this concept be more important than a year when you actually have a shortage of your primary crop.
Whether or not you expect to have fewer customers, and that may well be the case if this freeze got to your neck of the woods, start thinking now about ways to get them to spend more money.

If you are not providing sampling and tasting of product, that should be at the top on your list.  It has been proven time and time again that your samples can result in significant sales increases.  On a recent trip to the Chelan valley in Washington State, I visited a farm that has over 200 busy sampling stations in the midst of their season.

You should also be aware that the “buy local movement” appears to be reviving interest in preserving those summer good flavors by buying product to freeze, can and preserve. Why not offer classes or in store demonstrations showing and helping people learn how to do this? 

You could feature a different product every week.  This week it’s about freezing corn, next week on canning beans or making preserves from the apricots. Sure it’s going to take a person, but often you may be able to get a person from your State Extension services to be of assistance.  Of course, whatever is needed for the process being demonstrated-the jars, freezer bags, pickle seasonings, sugar, and produce-should be readily available for sale.

Have you created a loyalty card for your best customers to give them an incentive to return again and again?  If not, this is the year that you must create one.  A simple card the size of business card can have a special offer, such as buy nine dozen ears of corn and get the tenth dozen for free.  Be creative, you come up with an offer and your best customers will respond.

If you have wanted to create your own signature bakery product, maybe this is the time.  Give it a clever name, like Grandma’s Sweet Dream, Crunchy Caramel Rolls, or Pumpkin N’ Pecans.  A signature product is one that a customer can’t get anywhere but your farm. You own it – it’s your brand.  Make it special and you’ll be surprised that people will actually drive long distances for a unique product not available anywhere else.

Perhaps it’s time to add the ice cream or the fudge to your food array.  New products, new labels and specialty foods are becoming bigger and bigger sales categories within our farm markets.  Again, the goal is to create larger sales per customer.

Create new events, create new products, and create new customers.  Crank up your website with a listing of summer events.  Invite more civic groups, and offer more “cause marketing” events (see the Feb. issue).

Farmers are the most optimistic folks that I know.  There is always next year in agriculture. Sure, for many fruit growers, this year will be an even greater marketing challenge. But it’s going to be a good year for implementing new ideas.

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.