TALKING SHOP: Marketing your Livestock Products, Montpelier, VT

More than one way to skin a cat
NOFA-Vermont workshop focuses on diverse marketing strategies for small-scale livestock producers.

By Helen Whybrow

Posted April 19, 2005: “It’s not what I know, it’s the network of people I know that makes the difference,” says Chef Harv of Gourmet Central in Romney, W. Va., a family business that sources local foods to make gourmet products for resorts and restaurants. Speaking at a "Marketing your Livestock Products" workshop hosted by NOFA-Vermont (www.nofavt.org) and held in Montpelier, Vt., in late March, Chef Harv lived up to his reputation as a boisterous, passionate spokesman for finding innovative ways of linking farmers with markets.

Harvey Christie grew up on a dairy farm in West Virginia. There, he said, he learned to work hard and be self-sufficient. He also learned he “never wanted to spend time under a cow again.”

His fondest memories were of helping his mother with her catering business and helping his grandmother preserve food from the garden. When Harv left the family farm after high school, he thought he was leaving forever. He went to work for IBM, where his sales position often took him into the kitchens of big resorts, and soon he found that he was learning as much from the chefs about cooking as they were learning from him about computer systems. Although he was absorbed in this faster-paced, urban life, Harv found that when his daughter was born he longed to return to the rural community of West Virginia to raise his family.

He didn’t want to farm, but it troubled him to see so many farm families losing their way of life because they could no longer make a go of it. “I’m tired of looking at houses,” he said. “When you plant a house on a piece of ground nothing else will ever be grown there.” Harv knew he loved small family farms, food, and cooking, and so he set out to make a living by combining all three. “Do what you’re good at and be passionate about what you do,” was a strong part of his message to the fifty or so farmers gathered at the workshop.

Harv and his wife launched a business that they originally called D.N.A, or Diversified Nature Associates, and later re-named Gourmet Central. Although they have their hand in a great many projects linking local farms with consumers, their primary function is to work with farmers to identify and fill niche markets for value-added products. They also help restaurants figure out what changes to make in their menus to put out a message about local food to the public, and then where to find the best local food products.

So, for example, when an apple grower came to Chef Harv because he was making less than $12 a bushel for his apples at the local farmers' market, Harv created some recipes, got to work in his production kitchen, and helped the farmer sell them to a specialty retail market as apple butter and chocolate-dipped apples for a profit of $5,760 from 18 bushels.

An economic and environmental partnership

In another, larger instance, Chef Harv worked with several other groups in the Potomac watershed to organize eight farms to produce grassfed beef using “river-friendly” methods and market it under the name Headwater Farms Petite Beef. Many of the farms along West Virginia’s Potomac headwaters are being sold for development, while the farmers that remain face mounting concerns over the impacts of their practices on the river's health.

The niche market for Petite Beef was tested in 2000, and provided strong evidence that customers who knew the whole story valued not just the meat's taste and health benefits, but also its role in supporting family farms, preserving open space, and keeping the river clean.

A partnership made up of farmers, the Cacapon Institute (www.cacaponinstitute.org), the West Virginia extension service, an economic development agency, Gourmet Central, and USDA-NRCS created Petite Beef as an experimental model for raising beef in a way that is both more profitable and more environmentally sound than standard beef production. The cattle are raised on grass and taken to market at about eight months, meaning that they do not have to be overwintered in input-intensive feedlots. The animals are lean, are not given hormones or antibiotics, and are rotationally grazed on well-managed pastures to prevent erosion and protect vegetation along the river.

The niche market for Petite Beef (named for the size of the animals, which are about 750 pounds at slaughter) was tested in 2000, and provided strong evidence that customers who knew the whole story valued not just the meat's taste and health benefits, but also its role in supporting family farms, preserving open space, and keeping the river clean.

Chef Harv helped target key markets through mailings, tasting events and the distribution of a recipe book with each order. In the second year, about 200 customers (40 of them repeat customers) paid an average price of $5 a pound, about 25 percent higher than typical market prices. “People worry about the influence of agriculture on rivers and streams and the quality of our water—this is a chance to make change happen with your dollars in a very direct way,” said Neil Gillies, Cacapon executive director.

Inspiring change in traditional markets

Making change happen is what Chef Harv says he’s all about. He sees himself as part of a growing movement of people concerned with supporting sustainable agriculture through the promotion of local, healthy eating. To do this, he says, requires changing mainstream attitudes.

Although no one in the room needs convincing on these points, Chef Harv's enthusiasm is infectious. Dressed in a white chef’s jacket emblazoned with his web address (www.chefharv.com), baggy cotton pants with a bright red-and-orange chili pepper pattern, and sporting a chili pepper earring, Harv pointed to his attire as part of his marketing strategy. He said “being a total nut-job” draws people in—at farmers' markets, fairs, or even when walking through an airport. He’s been known to tattoo (temporarily) his bald head with his web address.

Harv’s advice to the shy: Do what you do best and get someone else to help you with the marketing. His second piece of general advice: Price your product so that your time is valued appropriately. Farmers need to start valuing themselves, he emphasized, or eventually there won’t be any farmers left.

But Harv is quick to acknowledge that most farmers aren’t as extroverted as he is. “How many of you would rather breathe diesel fumes than sell something?” he asks; and hands (along with laughs) rise up all across the room. Harv’s advice to the shy: Do what you do best and get someone else to help you with the marketing – perhaps a gregarious summer intern or your more outgoing spouse. His second piece of general advice: Price your product so that your time is valued appropriately. Farmers need to start valuing themselves, he emphasized, or eventually there won’t be any farmers left.

But how can small farmers price their product at its value and remain competitive? Harv offered a number of ideas that he has put into practice.

First, he is a big advocate of sharing resources. Don’t ever buy new equipment, he advises; share equipment and facilities with your farming neighbors if you can. If you’re delivering your products to retail accounts yourself, fill up the truck with products from other farms to make the trip more worthwhile.

Second, he said, don’t try to do what everyone else is doing, even if it’s going well for them. Be creative in thinking about specialty products: he does well with his line of salsas, sauces and jams, marketing them to restaurants that can’t get such unique items from their wholesalers. If farms each have their own specialty, they can team up to offer restaurants and retail accounts a broader line of goods. This makes it easier on the customer, too, especially when it comes to restaurants.

“Chefs don’t want to make more than one phone call,” he says. Everyone wants convenience now. Harv has even gone so far as to offer a line of precooked meats and dinners, because even his clientele is looking for a version of “fast food” these days. “Precooked meat – how bad is that?” he asks. “But if that is what people want then I want them to buy meat that I care about and I know where it comes from.”

Caring about their product and knowing where it comes from is something most farmers have down cold. And these things can become key selling points, Harv reminded us, if we do our homework to are able to articulate the superior quality of what we are selling in order to educate consumers. It’s helps to be able to explain to consumers the environmental and health benefits of grassfed meats over other meats, for example.

Adding 15 seconds of advice on how to cook it doesn’t hurt either. Food education and cooking demonstrations — including work that he does in schools and with 4-H youth groups — is a huge part of Chef Harv’s success. And you can be sure those demonstrations are entertaining.

Putting it to work on the farm

After lunch, the workshop switched its focus to a couple of small farms in Vermont and how they are marketing their unique products, both wholesale and retail.

The first to speak was Amy Huyffer, who together with her husband, Earl, owns and operates Strafford Organic Creamery, a small, organic bottled milk operation in Strafford, Vt. The Huyffers milk between 25 and 40 mixed-breed cows, bottle five different kinds of milk (including skim, "creamline," and chocolate milk), make butter and ice cream, and sell wholesale to food co-ops and small grocery stores around the state.

Amy explained that they regularly give away ice cream at public events, and always see a surge in sales the following week. They've also done a little bit of marketing to restaurants through the Vermont Fresh Network. But overall, they've had to do very little promotion, simply because they are so unique. “We had one write-up in the Burlington Free Press,” says Amy, “and basically the phone has been ringing ever since.”

After just three years in the value-added dairy business, the Huyffers say the biggest challenge they face is deciding what size to be. Demand for their products is so great that they often can't quite fill all of their orders in a given week. They could grow to meet the market, but on the other hand they've had trouble finding good employees and they like the high standards they can maintain on a small scale. With such a perishable product, moreover, balancing supply and demand is a very delicate business.

Scout Proft of Someday Farm in East Dorset, Vt, also operates on a small scale by most standards, but her message was one of diversity. She and her family (she and her husband have five home-schooled children who also work on the farm) produce organic vegetables, compost, eggs, maple syrup, meat birds (6,000 chicken, turkey, geese and pheasant) and saw logs.

Most of their income comes from a 100-member CSA, where families purchase shares up front and then benefit from the farm’s diverse offerings year-round. The Profts also sell their produce at farmers' markets and at a farmstand on a busy road near the farm. They don’t sell wholesale at this point, but they know they need to remain flexible as markets and competitors evolve.

Scout described how Someday Farm has broadened its markets by developing value-added products: offering apple-wood smoked chicken and turkey doubled revenues on their poultry sales; selling sausage and ground turkey proved to be a good use for birds not in perfect condition when processed. The Profts also try to make maximum use of all of their buildings, raising winter greens in the greenhouses in the off season and using the sugarhouse to dry herbs and flowers in the summer.

Having so much variety keeps customers happy and coming back to the farm year-round, which is important in a place where summers are short. “Selling our game birds to restaurants keeps a foot in the door when we don’t have peas and lettuce to sell to them, so they don’t forget about us,” Scout explained.

Chef Harv wrapped up the day by helping participants solve individual problems. Most of the producers at the conference were farming on a very small scale, as is typical in Vermont, and so how and where to focus one’s efforts was a common concern. It’s okay to start small – in fact it’s better – was Harv’s message, but at the same time don’t be afraid to be creative and take risks. “It’s about building the relationships and finding someone to help,” he emphasized.

This three-part NOFA-Vermont marketing class is helping farmers do just that. A SARE grant will continue the learning for any participant who wants to sign up for the farmer mentor program, in which farmers partner with one another to advance these ideas and others like them.