MT. VERNON, Ohio—Despite mad cow discoveries,
a rough planting season and general, daily farm challenges,
2003 was a good year for agriculture in Ohio. With crop prices
at a notable high and markets not greatly affected by mad cow,
it appears as though farmers here have had a stroke of luck.
But for some -- like Charlie Eselgroth, co-owner of a natural
beef operation in Ross County, Ohio -- luck had little to
do with his success. As he shared during opening comments
at the recent Innovative Farmers of Ohio (IFO) annual conference,
his preparation was key to finding sleep at night when other
cattle farmers were caught up in the mad cow fallout. His
customers knew the origin of their products, keeping Eselgroth’s
markets more stable.
“Luck had nothing to do with this,” said Eselgroth,
who also is president of IFO. “[My wife and I] spent
six years building this business, learning and taking a lot
of lumps along the way.”
Eselgroth’s comments resonated with the conference
attendees, all differing in sustainable ag experience, but
all seeking advice in “transitioning to profitability.”
He said the positive trends in Ohio agriculture this winter
give farmers a little breathing room in which to consider
transition in how they farm and market.
"So that the next
time the crisis hits --which will happen -- all of us will
be able to say, ‘Yes, aren’t we fortunate,’
while at the same time thinking, ‘Yes, because we
Eselgroth, president of IFO
“We can use this time to help us get started on a new
enterprise, or a new way of doing things, or help us fine-tune
some things that we are already doing to help us move on down
that road to sustainability,” Eselgroth said. “So
that the next time the crisis hits --which will happen --
all of us will be able to say, ‘Yes, aren’t we
fortunate,’ while at the same time thinking, ‘Yes,
because we prepared.’”
That preparation, Eselgroth said, takes time to adopt and
adapt new practices. When done well, it can be profitable
in both money and in character.
Profiting berries and B&B
Jackie LeBerth and her husband, Mike Neeley, agree. They
are co-owners of Bramble Creek Bed and Breakfast in Little
Hocking, Ohio. LeBerth and Neeley are building on their experiences
as beginning farmers to prepare for the next step: profitability.
They started Bramble Creek Farms 1997, then planted 40 acres
of blackberries and raspberries three years ago. Over the
past two years, the couple also has added Concord grapes and
strawberries. They harvested 21 gallons of blackberries in
2003. LeBerth said they expect a profit on their new enterprise
after the 2004 picking and processing, according to Ohio State
“Our goal is to sell (the berries) any way we can,
but so far fresh, frozen and value-added have been our primary
ways,” LeBerth said. “Our production has not exceeded
our demand at all … and that’s sort of my message
here today: Diversify, diversify, diversify.”
Successful farmers of any type know their customers and what
they want, said LeBerth, a small-business consultant.
Bite the bullet: do a business plan
The key is to identify potential markets and customers, then
to outline an approach to serving them in a business plan,
LeBerth said. Thoughts of such plans often leave farmers cringing,
but a good plan helps farmers visualize their goals and systematically
move toward them.
“The number one question that you have to answer is:
‘Who is going to buy what I have to sell?’”
LeBerth said. Her second point: “You are not your own
customer, so we don’t care what you want. Your customer
is whose head you need to crawl around in. What makes them
let go of their hard-earned cash to buy what you have to sell?”
Farmers need to figure out the benefit they are trying to
sell, the customer to whom it will be sold, and then work
to communicate that benefit to the customer, LeBerth said.
And part of marketing that benefit comes from doing research
on a product and becoming an expert.
one question that you have to answer is: ‘Who is going
to buy what I have to sell?’” LeBerth said.
Her second point: “You are not your own customer,
so we don’t care what you want. Your customer is whose
head you need to crawl around in. What makes them let go
of their hard-earned cash to buy what you have to sell?"
“If you can create an atmosphere that you have a special
knowledge of what you’re producing, people will come
to you and buy your product because they believe that you
are the best there is at that,” Neeley said. “Networking
is a great way for people to feel and understand that you
have a special knowledge of what you’re doing. What
you’re doing may not be a lick different than what the
guy down the road is doing, but if he won’t talk to
people, they won’t go to him.”
Explaining innovations on a farm can be a sign of expertise.
Visitors are always excited to learn more about the solar-powered
water system used by Bramble Creek Farms, Neeley said. For
that reason people have come to believe Neeley and LeBerth
are berry experts and are willing to pay $8.50 per quart of
frozen berries and $10 per pint of canned berries.
Survey says: local and organic favored,
Building awareness of locally grown food helps develop markets,
agreed Shoshanah Inwood, a graduate student at Ohio State
University. Inwood shared her research on local-food interests
during a session on “Serving New Markets.”
During recent research, Inwood surveyed Ohio restaurants
and retail outlets, conducting 100 interviews. Out of those
surveyed, 72 percent reported purchasing some locally grown
foods, and 55 percent reported purchasing some organic foods.
Around 90 percent of the respondents wanted to increase their
local-food purchases, but have been unable to do so citing
these top constraints: extra time and labor, the inability
to find producers, lack of distributors, and seasonality of
The most common response Inwood received was, “I’ve
been wanting to purchase local, but I had no idea where to
“The majority of the time that was the reaction I got,”
Inwood said. “There is very clear interest out there,
but also a very detrimental communication gap and advertising
wanting to purchase local, but I had no idea where to find
Most common response
given to Shoshanna Inwood in her survey of 100 potential
commercial food buyers in Ohio.
Sustainable ag producers need a new distribution system.
Restaurant owners and retail outlets want locally grown food,
but do not want the hassle of searching for it, nor the hassle
of providing vast amounts of refrigerator space for it, Inwood
said. They want to receive local food according to their volume,
quality and tight schedule constraints.
With or without a distribution system, natural foods have
an advantage: People purchase based on taste. And according
to Inwood’s survey, 98 percent agree that local foods
taste better. Ten percent of the respondents indicated that
organic foods taste better.
Get in touch with taste diversity
Growers need to get in touch with the tastes of their local
markets. For instance, there is a huge cry for specialized
fruits and vegetables, Inwood said. At the same time, there
is little demand for grass-fed animals, which do not suit
the palates of Ohioans as of yet. But the biggest opportunity
is in dairy with artisan cheeses, which are what chefs prefer,
“The other thing is that Ohio is a really diverse place,”
Inwood said. “Ohio is made up of a lot of ethnic heritage
groups--Italians, Germans, Irish, but we also have a lot of
other ethnic heritage groups--Arabic, Hispanic, Asian.
“And when we think about it, we all define ourselves
in a lot of ways by the kind of food we eat,” she explained.“And
each of our unique tastes and preferences also represent a
By reaching out to ethnic markets, producers open a whole
new door of specialty products. Smaller retail outlets carry
more specialized foods. If they are willing to carry one locally
grown product, they will probably carry more just because
Currently, specialty stores look to markets outside Ohio,
such as organics from California, to get a consistent, year-round
supply. Season extension is critical in developing a market,
In line with growth reports of 20 percent per year for the
organic food industry, 32 percent of her respondents were
willing to pay up to 10 percent more for locally grown organic
foods – for quality attributes of freshness, taste,
texture and color. Ohio has 200 certified organic farmers
that cultivate over 41,460 acres, she reported.
Embracing the complexities of sustainable production and
niche marketing alone can be a daunting prospect. There are
only so many hours in a day, and farmers have only so much
energy, said Jackie LeBerth.
To best utilize their time and energy, farmers need to look
for new opportunities with their competition as well as networking
and partnering with their colleagues. LeBerth said these relationships
are vital for small producers to survive in large markets.