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