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
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.
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.’"
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 University
“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
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.
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?"
Jackie LeBerth, farmer
“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, face barriers
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 products.
The most common response Inwood received
was, “I’ve been wanting to purchase local, but I had
no idea where to find it.”
“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 gap.”
been 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
Get in touch with taste
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, she said.
“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,
“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 marketing opportunity.”
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 of convenience.
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, Inwood said.
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