Innovative Farmers of Ohio conference
emphasizes marketing efforts
The production part is easy, says IFO president Charles Eselgroth

By Matt Reese

Posted March 3, 2003: Sustainability, the latest buzz word in agriculture, has a lot of farmers rethinking the future of the American farm. Despite all the recent attention, sustainable agriculture is not a new concept—just ask any of the 150 members of Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) who celebrated their 10th and annual conference this winter.

So what exactly is sustainability? The definition continues to be debated. “Over the years we’ve gotten into a lot of discussions about sustainability,” said Charles Eselgroth, president of IFO and an organic farmer from Greenfield, OH. “It has to be profitable for the farmer, it has to be environmentally sound and it has to support our local community. That’s the test I use for sustainability.”
"The production part is the easiest part. We know how to do that. That’s what farmers like to do. It’s the marketing that can leave us scratching our heads.”-- Charles Eselgroth, president IFO

It’s the profitable part of Eselgroth’s test that had organizers of the IFO rethinking the conference’s mission. In its first decade of existence, much of IFO’s effort was focused on the environmental aspect of sustainability through the study and promotion of ecologically sound production practices. This year the focus was shifted from passion to practicality.

Motivated to Market

“We are putting a much bigger effort into marketing than we have in the past,” Eselgroth said. “We feel that marketing is a very important part of economic sustainability and of supporting our local community.”

“We need to figure out how to get more consumer dollars into the hands of producers,” Eselgroth said. “The production part is the easiest part. We know how to do that. That’s what farmers like to do. It’s the marketing that can leave us scratching our heads.”

For this reason, the 2003 IFO convention focused on direct local marketing and consumer education. Brad Masi, coordinator of the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Alliance (NOFA), entitled opened the event with his presentation titled, “The Food Chain in Ohio: Marketing to Restaurants and Institutions.”

Masi has found marketing solutions that work by creating a system of food production that allows the farmer to capture more money from the consumer while adding efficiency to the current system of food production. “The average food molecule travels about 2,000 miles from the farm to the plate,” Masi said. “There is great concern about the energy used for hauling food all over the world, so we want to focus on local marketing.”

The first step was locating a reliable outlet for locally grown produce. Masi had success marketing to Oberlin College, a private institution near Cleveland, by working with area farmers. While the $120,000 of local produce purchased for use in the Oberlin dining halls is only a small percentage of the total food budget for the college, the direct marketing success was a significant step towards increased efficiency.

Direct marketing is a particularly hot -topic for Ohio because of the high number of urban areas and significant agricultural industry in the state. For Masi and NOFA the future lies in the ability to link these two pieces together. NOFA is exploring options for local marketing in the seven- county area surrounding Cleveland, a nearly $7 billion market. “The ultimate benefit is the transfer of some of those dollars to the surrounding countryside,” Masi said.

Educational Meals in Iowa

Rick Hartman from the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) continued the discussion on direct marketing, this time with an outsiders view, in his talk, “Lessons from Iowa.” He began the session by explaining to attendees how All Iowa Meals, one of the most popular PFI projects with consumers, found success. The farmer-based initiative serves fresh Iowa-grown food to more than 15,000 people across that state.

“We’ve found that the All Iowa Meals have much more value as an educational tool than a market,” Hartman said. “People love these meals.” The program targets banquets at hotels and conference centers to reach a broad spectrum of the population. The menus educate the diners how the food got to their plates and where it came from.

Hartman also touched on efforts to develop niche markets for pork and other consumer educational efforts going on in his home state. PFI is working with cooperative marketing, price contracts and legal issues associated with directly marketing farm goods to consumers. “I think this is more than a trend,” Hartman said. “It’s a movement that’s going to be around for a long time.”

"Our prices are not the cheapest ones around, that is not our goal,”--Pam Benike, dairy farmer and presenter, during her presentation "Marketing and Distribution Through a Farmer Network."

The 42 farmers in the Southeastern Minnesota Food Network LLC (SMFN) hope he is right. They too are trying to capture consumer dollars by providing fresh food locally. “What we wanted to do was get the good food we were producing on our farms to the people around us,” said Pam Benike, a dairy farmer who has been instrumental in the development of SMFN.

Members of the SMFN focus on producing high-quality products for restaurants, buyer’s clubs and other local institutions. “Our prices are not the cheapest ones around, that is not our goal,” Benike told IFO members. “Our goal is for a decent price for our products and the best way to get good prices is to sell as directly to the consumer as possible.”

High-end restaurants account for roughly 75 percent of SMFN’s business. For the farmers to receive top-dollar for their products, meeting their self-created quality standards is crucial.

“Most producers not only meet these standards but exceed them,” Benike said. “If there is ever an issue with quality, the producers themselves handle it. Every single one of our producers is committed to quality.”

Because of the high standards of the SMFN, their customers cannot find other products that compare. “Our products are so high in quality, it’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Benike said. The producers stand behind their quality because each shipment is labeled according to the farm it came from. Some restaurant menus feature photographs of the farmers who produced the food.

Reliability, quality, relationships

A reliable supply of quality food is also necessary for maintaining a good relationship with customers. “We feel it is important to know exactly which farm the product came from,” Benike said. “Creating that relationship based on trust is a key to success. That trust has to be there—a lack of commitment will make it fall apart.”

Creating relationships was part one of a two part theme that would be echoed over and over during the two day conference. The second half hinged on old that business cliché, think outside the box. Attendees learned that direct marketing is routed in finding the market and building relationships. Not all marketing opportunities are obvious fits but with a little communication a multitude of options can open up.

Farmers need creativity and persistent communication to open up new marketing channels. Just ask Masi who is looking to Cleveland’s restaurant market after successfully establishing the Oberlin college connection. A number of chefs in the Cleveland area are interested in purchasing locally grown food, but meeting their needs brings a number of new challenges. “The most critical thing is the farmers’ willingness to work with others,” he said. “Growers have to work together to get an adequate supply of the right kind of crops.”

Matt Reese is a freelance ag writer from Pickerington, Ohio.