Marketing Success Stories: Organic Farmers Share Their Successes and Challenges
Excerpts from conversations with Ed Fry and Chris Petersheim

By Michelle Frain

Farmer Recommended Resources:

The Rodale Institute
611 Siegfriedale Road, Kutztown PA, 19530
(610) 683-1400 info@rodaleinst.org www.rodaleinstitute.org www.newfarm.org

Appropriate Technology Transfer For Rural Areas (A_TTRA), Business Management Series: "Direct Marketing"
PO Box 3657
Fayetteville AR, 72702
(800) 346-9140
www.attra.org

Stockman Grass Farmer
(800) 748-9808
www.stockmangrass
farmer.com
.

Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO). (814) 364-1344. http://hometown.aol.com/
paorganic
.

Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) (814) 349-9856
www.pasafarming.org

Maryland Department of Agriculture
(410) 841-5700. www.mda.state.md.us/

The New Farm
www.newfarm.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Today, the average farm is twice the size it was 30 years ago. There are a lot less farmers, but the land base is larger. l think the only way to maintain a small family farm these days is to Find a niche market. The smaller the farm, the more you need to have a niche."
-Ed Fry, Maryland Farmer

Farming has never been easy, but it has become increasingly demanding in the 21st century. Farmers are finding themselves overwhelmed with increasing costs and inflexible prices. Competition. Too much product and not enough demand. All these factors reduce profit for the average small family farmer. What's more, environmental factors have come into play, making many farmers wonder if conventional pest and soil management is worthwhile, given the risk to their health, their families, and their land. But many farmers have found ways to combat these challenges, through ingenuity and calculated risk. In their own words, two of them share their stories with you.

Ed Fry, Fairhill Farm, Chestertown, Maryland
Summary of Operations:
Farming for 30+ years
Grain (Organic):
400 acres, certified since 1999: Corn, Alfalfa, Pasture, Straw
Dairy (Conventional): 240 Milk Cows
Third Party (Organic): Subcontracts other farmers to grow hay and corn for horse farms and dairy clients, to cover surplus demand. Read a complete profile of Fairhill Farm.
"I made a conscious decision to start farming. My father had bought this farm in 1960, and after looking at other options I decided that the best opportunity I had was in the family farm.

I got into organic farming, because it was an opportunity to get a niche market that financially would be better for me. I could lower my cost of production, increase the value of my product, and help the soil in the process. I think that in agriculture, because we're a world market, it's important to create a niche. If you try to do what everybody's been doing for 50 years, you'll have very little opportunity to advance yourself beyond what anybody else is doing.

I've been certified organic since 1999 for 400 acres of corn, alfalfa and pasture. I've been very happy with my results so far. In 1999 and 2000 my organic com actually out yielded my conventionally grown com. 1999 was a very dry year, and with the organic com we saw that it looked full a lot longer, because the organic nitrogen-because it was organic-was being released at a much more desirable rate than on the conventionally grown com. In 2000 our organic corn yield was 181 bushels, versus our 177 bushels conventionally grown. That's not a significant amount, but our production costs are lower. Sure, the labor per acre is higher, but we don't have to farm as many acres for the same amount of profit. Last year, to produce a bushel of conventional com was approximately $2.23. The cost to produce a bushel of organic corn was $1.79. We got $2.25 a bushel for the conventional and a premium price of $4.00 for the organic.

For the hay, by providing high quality product, and by trying to market it before it's grown, the number of clientele exceeds what I grow. It means that there's demand, and I can charge premium prices.

More than words: Certification can open markets, such as retail and resturants, that may otherwise be closed to organic farmers selling on their word alone.

I've learned a number of things through this process. Farming organically you must plan much further ahead. You must have adequate labor, whether physical or mechanical. Weeds are my biggest challenge, but given good practices like rotating crops, I've alleviated that challenge. It's also important to have a source of nutrients. I use my own dairy, poultry and green manure from my winter crops, and nitrogen from legumes.

You must also purchase your seed in advance in order to get untreated seed. And you must market your product before you ever grow it. And that's a different take than for conventional farming, where you often grow your product and then do the marketing. If you have these ingredients, then organic farming is relatively easy and profitable."

"We started farming in 1980, and we've been farming organically since then. In the beginning, we only had about one third of our farm on organic. We weren't certified yet, so we started a roadside stand, to sell our product, to get a feel for what people might buy, and to determine how much we could get off that amount of space.

Once we were certified we were able to sell our produce to a much larger audience. We now sell everything to natural food stores, restaurants and cooperatives in Lancaster, Philadelphia and Reading areas. We sell direct. We do everything by phone. We have a price sheet that goes out twice a week to clients. The demand has increased a lot over the years. Ten years ago, we would deliver 12 cases of produce every two weeks to a given store. Today, we deliver 30 cases twice a week to the same store. Fifteen years ago, we started with 5 stores, and kind of grew from there. We have over 20 stores now. Nothing has changed except the demand.

In my point of view, there are plenty of outlets to market produce. The main thing is to have enough variety to make it worth taking into the city. If you have good assortment, wide variety, it will get people's attention. But if you have just 3 to 6 varieties, it doesn't work.

Chris Petersheim, Paradise Organics, Paradise, Pennsylvania
Summary of Operations:
Farming for 20+ years
Produce (Organic): 4+ acres, certified since 1987: Cucumbers, Beans, Leeks, Winter Squash, Kale, Collard Greens, Lettuce, Basil and other herbs, Tomatoes, Potatoes, Onions, and Peppers.
Third Party (Organic): Subcontracts other organic farmers to supply clients during winter and as part of overall marketing strategy. Read a complete profile of Paradice Organics
Because we only have a small amount of acreage, we try to make the best production off of what we have. If we had to rely just on our own farm's production, it would be a struggle. But we contract with other farmers. For example, I grow just a little bit of potatoes that we dig early to be able to have something to offer early. Then, we have a farmer who grows a few acres of potatoes to cover the rest. We sell corn, but don't grow any of it here. We get this from other farms. I offer a very wide variety of produce. Some of it we grow in part, subcontracting the rest through other farms. Some of it we don't grow at all.

Quality is an issue for direct marketing. A consistent fresh product and quality is absolutely necessary to have a successful market. To make sure my produce looks and tastes good, I use a combination of techniques. For example, I rotate crops to keep weeds down. And I use sticky insect tapes in the rows, to keep insect populations down.

Once you get in the door and you've got great quality, customers are going to be there for you week after week."