TALKING SHOP: Future of Our Farms Summit, Wilmington, DE, Dec. 4-5

The Key to Successful Direct Marketing: Use Your Head!
At the 5th Annual Future of Our Food and Farms Summit, an advanced course in direct marketing

By: Laura Sayre


S p o n s o r B o x
The Food Trust

Mission: The Future of Our Food and Farm Summit is sponsored by the Food Trust, a mid-Atlantic based non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring everyone has access to affordable, nutritious food. In pursuit of this goal The Food Trust brings their mission to the classroom, runs weekly farmers markets, helps local farmers get their produce into supermarkets and works with state and local politicians to influence public policy.

Founded: The Food Trust was founded in 1992, and started out by conducting nutrition education classes for inner-city children at Reading Terminal Market, the century old farmers' market located in the center of Philadelphia. After the Trust opened its first farmers' market at Tasker Homes, a public housing development in southwest Philadelphia, the organization began working with communities to develop lasting and stable sources of affordable foods.

For more information:
Visit online at:

Contact info:











"Farming is the most intellectually stimulating profession in the world," declared Jack Gurley, owner and manager of Calvert's Gift Farm in Sparks, Maryland. In early December, at the Future of Our Food and Farms Summit in Wilmington, Delaware, evidence of that stimulation was everywhere. Top-notch presenters in half a dozen sessions showed just how creative and varied direct marketing can be. "This is graduate-level direct-marketing," commented George DeVault, of Pheasant Hill Farm, near Emmaus, Pennsylvania, when he took his turn at the podium.

Building the new neighborhood grocery

The day began with Mary Seton Carboy of Greensgrow Farm, a 6 year-old urban renewal project planted on a 1-acre reclaimed brownfield site in central Philadelphia. Just five minutes from the Liberty Bell, Greensgrow began by raising hydroponic lettuce for sale to nearby restaurants; they have since added a garden center, a farmstand, a CSA, a non-profit educational program, and--perhaps most innovative of all--what Carboy describes as an "ad-hoc co-op with about 20 area producers." "There is no central core to our business--we do a little bit of everything," explained Carboy, adding that their small size has allowed them to respond rapidly to emerging market trends. Gross sales for 2003 topped $145,000.
"There's no reason to give over the garden center market to Home Depot."

Greensgrow is in a poorer neighborhood, and part of its mission is to serve that immediate market. Carboy and her colleagues started the farmstand when they realized that many people in the area couldn't manage the large up-front payment demanded by a CSA; and they're open on Saturdays because they know that many people get paid on Friday and have little cash left by mid-week. The garden center grew out of their 'bread and roses' philosophy--a belief that all people have a right not just to good food but also to purely aesthetic things like flowers and potted plants. "There's no reason to give over the garden center market to Home Depot," Carboy pointed out.

By acting as a wholesale buyer and distributor for farmers in southeastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey, moreover, Greensgrow helps bring high quality, locally-grown food into the urban center without asking distant farmers to commit to an inner-city farmers' market. "We pay as we go; we're not a broker," Carboy emphasized. They drive one collection route a week, buying eggs, meat, and cheeses, as well as vegetables and fruits, for resale at the farmstand and to Center City Philadelphia restaurants.

Maintaining good working relationships with those restaurants is one key to Greensgrow's success, Carboy said. "Restaurants are a great venue for getting the word out about local foods," she noted, and "communicating with chefs is a great way to stay on top of market trends." In turn, Greensgrow passes market information on to the farmers they buy from, "whether it's the latest fad among the 'white-cloth' restaurants--or a need of a local immigrant community." And while Greensgrow is not interested in expanding, they would love to see similar projects spring up in other cities or other parts of Philadelphia. "We are the new neighborhood grocery," Carboy concluded. "Philadelphia has Samoan, Liberian, Hmong neighborhoods--each of those areas could have small farms to meet their specific needs."

Doing homework in the kitchen

Jack Gurley told the audience not to let romantic ideas about farming as a way of life interfere with good business decisions. When Gurley and his wife Becky started Calvert's Gift ten years ago, their goal was to create a small farm that would employ them both full-time and support them financially. Today they have achieved that goal, with around 5 acres in cultivation (most of which is rented), a 40-member CSA, two farmers' markets a week, and standing accounts with several restaurants and an organic co-op.

The key to the operation, said Gurley, "is diversity, both in crops and markets." He continually seeks out new crops, new varieties, new forms of presentation. He and his wife are both enthusiastic cooks, testing what they grow every day in the kitchen. "We cook, we go out to restaurants, we subscribe to food magazines." At the farmers' market, Gurley said, "for everything you grow, you should be able to give a ten to fifteen-second recipe to the customer. That makes a huge difference for people trying new things."

Creative cooking has helped Gurley discover profitable crops where others would just see waste: he has made something of a specialty out of edible flowers, including flowers from crops that bolt readily, like broccoli and arugula. From a single planting of garlic he gets four crops: garlic scallions, garlic scapes, traditional garlic bulbs, and garlic roots--these are trimmed from the bulbs, washed, and sold by the clamshell to chefs, who use them for garnishes and in stir-fries. "Restaurants are trying to be different, trying to create something unusual too," he observed; "as a farmer you want to help them provide that."

Gurley's pragmatic market orientation doesn't mean he's not sincerely committed to organic principles. He underlined the importance of organic certification and pointed to ways in which the best management practices yield the best quality food. At Calvert's Gift they use no plastic mulch or drip tape on their tomatoes because they have found that "tomatoes are like grapes, they taste better when they're a little bit stressed." Instead, Gurley seeds white Dutch clover for combined weed suppression and fertility. He has also found crops that can do double duty for nutrient inputs and cash sales: when he sows Austrian winter peas as a cover crop, they harvest the tender tips for sale as pea shoots.

Finally, Gurley told the audience to take it easy. "We have two young kids--so we usually stop work at 5:00. In the winter, I spend a fair amount of time lying on the sofa reading." In order to be able to think and plan well, he said, "you need to rest, to read, and to relax. That's what sustainable farming is about, after all--seasons and cycles."

Rethinking regional markets

The direct marketing track continued in the afternoon with presentations by Kathleen Frascatore, market manager for the Oneonta Farmers' Market in upstate New York, and Michael Rozyne, founder and managing director of Red Tomato, a not-for-profit marketing venture based in Massachusetts. The two speakers described creative efforts to connect regional producers with local markets.

The Oneonta Farmers' Market is run by the non-profit Center for Agricultural Development and Entrepreneurship (CADE) on behalf of the city of Oneonta. Started in 2002, the market has grown to include 18 farmers, while total gross food sales have risen from $100,000 in 2002 to $130,000 in 2003--impressive figures given that the market is in operation just 20 half-days per year. (As a market manager, Frascatore strongly recommends gathering gross sales data from vendors: "No matter what your sales are, it gives you a base line, a place to build from," she argued. "It will help you evaluate the success of your promotion strategies from year to year.")

Although CADE secured some outside funding to develop the farmers' market and other initiatives, Frascatore had a publicity budget of just $500 for the first year, forcing her to come up with inexpensive promotional strategies. Many people's first marketing idea, she noted, is to do a postcard mailing or run a newspaper display ad--but both these methods are relatively pricey for the number of people they reach. Instead, Frascatore sent press releases to the local paper, got herself invited on to the morning show at the radio station, and put together a temporary window display in one of the downtown banks. Like many farmers' market managers, she also organized special events: a Children's Festival, including a scavenger hunt with questions about the different sellers' stalls; a Dairy Festival, highlighting goats' milk and goat cheese; a Watermelon Day, inspired by one vendor's bumper crop.

Other promotional efforts were based on reciprocity. To find musicians to come play at the market, for instance, Frascatore contacted bands scheduled to perform at local restaurants, so that by making an appearance at the market they could promote their evening gig. An 'After the Market' campaign involved restaurants featuring local farm products on their menus in exchange for promotion at the market. With the farmers' market located on a downtown plaza, Frascatore felt it was important to build solidarity with Oneonta's downtown merchants. "I didn't want to ask the downtown merchants for money, because really they're in the same boat that farmers are, struggling against the big-box stores. Instead, I joined the local merchants' association." Today the farmers' market is recognized as "the number one draw for downtown Oneonta on Saturday mornings in the summer."

Like the morning speakers, Frascatore emphasized the importance of educating consumers about food and farming, but she advised against making abstract arguments about things like the plight of family farmers. "Direct sales are about human connection--any advertising you do should reflect that." Either focus on the quality of the product, or appeal to fundamental values like children's health. "The challenge," she noted, "is to reach working-class, middle-class America," to show that "there are hidden costs to cheap food. It's a big job," she acknowledged, "you're trying to undermine fifty years of mass marketing education."

Cracking the challenge of efficient distribution

In a final session, Michael Rozyne described how managing the non-profit produce brokerage Red Tomato has been like "getting a university degree in each fruit or vegetable" they handle. Red Tomato works with about 30 medium-sized farms--fruit growers of 50-100 acres, vegetable growers of 25-200 acres--mostly in the Connecticut River Valley, brokering sales to Boston area supermarkets while maintaining the farms' distinctive product identity. Red Tomato's original concept, Rozyne explained, was to arrange sales and provide marketing materials while letting the farmers handle actual distribution. It quickly became apparent, however, that trucking is a big challenge for many farmers.

Now Red Tomato considers every possible trucking solution: farmer delivery, delivery by Red Tomato drivers, third-party trucking, and 'back haul'--buying discounted truck space on the return trip of somebody else's delivery, usually (ironically enough) trucks going into Boston to bring produce from the Chelsea Terminal Market out to supermarkets in western Massachusetts. The trick for Rozyne is to figure out how to match buyers' orders with the farmers' production, consolidate from many farms into as few shipments as possible, and all the while manage temperature and humidity to protect delicate crops like sweet corn and leafy greens. With flexibility, ingenuity, and a lot of good will, usually it all works out.

Before launching Red Tomato in 1997, Rozyne was a co-founder of the fair trade coffee company Equal Exchange, and he admitted that compared to coffee, profit margins in vegetable wholesaling are razor-thin. Typically, Red Tomato makes between 50¢ and $1.50 per box of produce they handle; operating revenue currently covers just 25% of their total expenses. (The balance is made up by grants and donations.) Red Tomato was founded with the goal of becoming self-supporting within a decade, but at the moment Rozyne thinks it might take longer. Nevertheless, he emphasized all the positive feedback Red Tomato has received. "Despite all the pressures of consolidation in the supermarket business, [the big chain stores] are willing to talk--they are interested in this kind of thing," he said.

Asked for advice on organizing other farmers' distribution and marketing projects, Rozyne response was similar to those of the other speakers throughout the day: inventory all the positive attributes of your farm or your area and then make the most of them. "You've got to study your particular situation and say, where's the opening, where's the crack? Where can I get a toehold here?" In the game of direct marketing, those who are thinking hardest can win.