REAL TALES OF HIGH VALUE FARMING
Letter from Pheasant Hill Farm, #2, JANUARY 17, 2003

What To Grow?
There is no mystery to it, as long as you understand quality --
and what sells.

By George DeVault

George washing his gold:
Their lettuce, fresh, clean and attractively presented at local farmers' markets, sells quickly and at a premium.

Editor's NOTE

George DeVault was editor of New Farm® magazine from 1981 through 1991 -- and a long-time champion of local food systems and innovative direct marketing approaches to high-value farming.

He, his wife Mel and 23-year-old son Don farm near the village of Vera Cruz, PA, a little over an hour north of Philadelphia. They've been farming there organically since 1985. They extend their growing season with 6000 square feet of greenhouses, and sell cut flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables through farmers' markets and directly to customers on their farm through a subscription service.

George continues to edit the Russian language version of New Farm® magazine, and in their spare time, he and Mel have edited and published six books on farming and market gardening.

Almost immediately after I was hired to create the New Farm® web site, I called George for ideas and help ... and he responded.

He showered me with articles he'd written for the Russian New Farm® which had never been printed in the U.S.: a two-part series on Joe Salatin's poultry operation, and a great profile of Steve Moore's innovative greenhouse operation. And he snagged us a translation of a fascinating story about one woman's successful effort to homestead in Russia.

He also passed on many helpful observations, including a recent email note: "Looking quickly at NF web site, struck me that maybe it's a little heavy
on traditional crops, livestock and marketing." "You're right," I answered, "we haven't gotten up to speed on high-value crops, diversification and
direct marketing. Want to help us get started with a monthly column?" And so was born this Letter from Pheasant Hill.

George and Mel will also be working with us on developing a series of articles on the basics of sustainable farming to help beginning farmers get a leg up. Many of you asked for this in email notes, and we'll get it up and running as soon as we can.

A final note: Earlier this year George was selected as a Food and Society Policy Fellow. This fellows program brings together leaders in health, consumer education, aquaculture, local food policy, nutrition, sustainable agriculture and organic farming. Fellows use the media, scholarship, public education and outreach to promote food systems change through the creation and expansion of community-based food systems that are locally owned and controlled, produce goods and services needed by residents, exercise environmental stewardship, and provide quality jobs. Click here for more on the fellows program.

For more on Pheasant Hill Farm, click here.

It’s the question most often asked by producers who want to boost income with some form of diversification: What to grow?

The best answer is another question: What sells?

Or, you can combine the two questions into one statement that becomes the prime directive for your entire marketing strategy -- Grow what sells.

Grow only what sells! Forget the rest.

First, though, take a closer look at the word “sell.” It’s neither as simple nor as innocent as it may seem.

Quite the contrary. According to Webster it’s most often a nasty four-letter word:

1. to deliver or give up in violation of duty, trust or loyalty: BETRAY -- often used with "out"
2 (a). to give up (property) to another for something of value (as money)
2 (b). to offer for sale: to give up for something else esp. foolishly or dishonorably (sold his birthright for a mess of pottage).

Other meanings -- “to deliver into slavery ... to his enemies,” “impose on,” “cheat,” “betray the faith of,” “deliberate deception” -- keep digging the hole ever deeper.

And rightfully so, it seems to me, especially when applied to farmers and farming these days. When it comes to selling what we produce, we farmers are often our own worst enemies. We knock ourselves out to produce a bumper crop, then take it to market and say, “What’ll you give me for it?”

Can you imagine John Deere doing that with tractors and combines? Grain merchants and supermarkets don’t do that. They take the bounty of your fields and put a price on it that assures them a hefty profit.

Wanna buy their products? Then pay their price. Take it or leave it.

When I say “sell,” I mean high-value crops in such demand that they will consistently put a hefty profit in your pocket.

To get the best price, you usually have to sell directly to consumers. Forget the wholesale market. Forget the retail market, other than to use it as a guide for setting your own price.

So, what should you grow? What sells?

The ideal crop mix will mean different things to different people in different places. Vegetable growers in New England just aren’t going to sell much okra. Oriental greens won’t play well in Peoria with a largely meat and potatoes crowd. But just about everyone everywhere loves really good, vine-ripened tomatoes, farm-fresh strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, peaches, apples, new potatoes, sugar snap peas and salad or leafy greens of some kind.

Looking at the big picture, only three things “sell” -- and sell well -- anywhere on Earth:

  1. Quality.
  2. Flavor.
  3. Freshness.

Whatever you grow, wherever you sell, focus on those three things and you can’t go wrong. It may take a while, but with a little strategic consumer education and a few free samples you’ll eventually win customers among the ranks of people who just want cheap food and lots of it.

QUALITY IS JOB #1

“Your stuff always looks so nice! How do you do it?” one of our fellow vendors would ask every Saturday morning when we joined a sidewalk farmers’ market on South Street in Philadelphia a few years ago.

“Oh, we just leave all of the junk in the field,” became my stock answer.

Actually, there is a lot more to it than that. Besides protecting our crops from insects with floating row covers we wash, trim, chill and then “prep” them just like they would in an up-scale supermarket.

We have sold at three different farmers’ markets in the last six years. At every one, other farmers had lettuce, too. They didn’t start out to grow lettuce. After seeing how quickly and well ours sold out each week, they yanked some out of the garden on their way to market. The roots were still attached. So were all of the muddy, mushy and broken bottom leaves. They flopped their lettuce onto a table -- muddy side up -- and left it in the sun, expecting people to buy it. They didn’t. At the end of the day, their sorry excuse for lettuce ended up in the nearest dumpster.

In contrast, our lettuce and salad mixes are clean enough to eat on the spot, although we always caution customers to wash this and all fresh produce again when they get home, just to be on the safe side. Head lettuce goes in perforated, clear plastic sleeves. (A case of 1,000 sleeves costs $59.99. That adds nearly six cents to the cost of each head, but it’s money well spent. The sleeves make the heads easier to handle and minimize damage. They make the lettuce look absolutely luscious.

We also spent $23.99 for an optional metal stand that holds the sleeves upright and makes loading them a breeze. Both items are available from www.hubert.com. The Hubert catalog contains more than 24,000 items for food handling and display. Phone toll-free 1-800-543-7374.)

Salad mixes, spinach and other greens are washed, spun dry and bagged, usually in half-pound units. Everything goes right into the walk-in cooler, which is set at 40 F. (Think you can’t afford a cooler or a decent, high-capacity salad spinner? Think again. More on that in a future column on essential equipment.)

On market day, the chilled produce goes into large Coleman coolers that are kept closed until we need to replenish supplies. Sometimes we add crushed ice or ice packs. Everything is kept in the shade and out of the wind.

Customers notice little things like that. Anything you do to show that you care passionately about the quality of your produce will quickly be repaid.

That is why we don’t grow traditional grain crops. They just don’t make it on a small acreage. We have only 19.2 acres (that’s nineteen point two acres, not 192), only about 15 of which are tillable. We don’t have enough land to make grain pay. Same goes for a lot of small farmers, including our nextdoor neighbor.

“He’ll be lucky to make the taxes,” our Extension marketing guru said gazing at the neighbors grain field a few years ago. He won’t even come close this year. His soybeans are still standing in his snow-covered field in mid-January. Why bother?

We don’t, which is why you won’t read much about traditional farming or traditional crops in this column.

FLAVOR FETISH

“The market cannot be glutted with good fruit,” Edmund Morris wrote in 1864 in the book “Ten Acres Enough.”

“It is the best fruit that sells the quickest and pays the highest profit,” he wrote. “It is in the grain market that panic often rages, but never in the fruit-market. If it ever enters the latter, the struggle is to obtain the fruit, not get rid of it.”

That’s still true today. The same thing can easily be said of the best produce of any kind.

“You grow Cherokee Purple tomatoes?” gasped one of our customers in Philly. “I would do unspeakable things for Cherokee Purple tomatoes. Please set two boxes aside for me for as long as you have them. I will buy them every week.”

We did. And he did, week after week. We also had regular fans for kohlrabi, Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, fresh Edamame (also known as butterbeans or vegetable soybeans) and salad mix, as well as my wife’s cut flower bouquets. We’ve never been able to keep up with the demand for salad mix. That’s why we’re modernizing that operation this year, but that’s another story.

FOREVER FRESH

From the beginning, our customers everywhere have told us that their children really didn’t eat or like vegetables until they began buying our farm-fresh produce. Now the kids can’t get enough of veggies.

Case in point is two little girls at the farmers’ market in Telford, PA, last summer. Their mom bought a big bag of veggies that included a washed and chilled Suyo long cucumber. The trio then took a ride in the surrey with the fringe on top driven by market manager Gary Schuler and pulled by Bonnie the Clydesdale. The girls gobbled down the whole cucumber on the brief ride, so mom came right back to our stand and bought two more cukes -- for $1 each.

There are also delayed reactions. Every year, some people go on vacation and leave a bag of lettuce in fridge. They come back three weeks later expecting it to be a rotten, soupy mess that they will have to pour out of the plastic bag.

But it isn’t. “It looked just as good as what you see in the supermarket! Maybe better,” they say. “Oh, there were a few brown ends. We just broke those off and ate it, anyway.”

When produce keeps that well it makes people feel they really got their money’s worth.

Freshness demands that you get your products to customers immediately. So keep in mind that when you diversify production, you have to diversify your marketing as well.

Diversity . . . that's what this column is all about.