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
2 (b). to offer for sale: to give up for something else esp.
foolishly or dishonorably (sold his birthright for a mess
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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.
“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
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.
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.