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
||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
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
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
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,”
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.