Direct marketing isn’t about selling ...
it’s about dreaming
A Pennsylvania farmer with years of experience selling on-farm and at farmers' markets shares his wisdom on how to meet the customers' needs

By Brian Moyer

Posted April 1, 2003:

“I’m no salesman” is what I hear from other farmers when the topic of direct marketing comes up. But to me, “salesmanship” is not a key element of direct marketing. There are many more important things to consider.

"You don’t have to stand there yelling 'Hey, have I got a tomato for you!' The customer definitely doesn’t want that. So, what do they want?"

Let's say you're selling at a farmers’ market. The fact that there are customers walking around the market means you don’t have to do any selling. They are already sold. They are sold on the very idea of a farmers’ market or they wouldn’t even be there. The only question that remains is what are they going to buy from you. You don’t have to stand there yelling “Hey, have I got a tomato for you!” The customer definitely doesn’t want that. So, what do they want?

After satisfing the three basic needs (food, shelter, clothing), people emerge from their humble abodes to gain as much information, entertainment and perceived value as they can get in one trip. They generally don’t go out to just buy a few veggies.

  • They want to meet the person who grew this food.
  • They want to learn how to prepare it.
  • They want to know why they should buy this heirlom variety instead of the conventional.
  • They want to hear if you are having a good season or if the drought is giving you problems.

They want to know because you know and they don’t. Most people no longer see first hand how their food is produced. They want to learn, but they don’t want to feel stupid. This applies to restaurants as well. Chefs can make a fabulous dinner but they don’t necessarily know how the ingredients got to their door. Just because they work around food doesn’t mean they understand where it came from. A few years back I met a man who worked for a large super market chain. When he found out I was a farmer he said, “I didn’t think anybody did that any more.”

It doesn’t matter if you are selling at a farmers’ market, farm stand or at the back door of a restaurant. The key ingredient to direct marketing is enthusiasm. You like what you do or you probably wouldn’t be doing it. If you are enthusiastic about what you grow and how you grow it, it becomes infectious. Customers want to share your enthusiasm because they want to feel confident in what they have purchased -- especially if it is a non-conventional item you are trying to get top dollar for.

Life's a stage and your farm's the show

Farms and the farm experience now fall under the increasingly broad heading of entertainment. But, entertainment isn't a song and dance. It includes things like information and education. People are looking for an experience. When folks come to my farm I don’t offer miniture golf or a petting zoo, but I do offer an on-farm experience. Most people come to my farm in the afternoon and have traveled a good distance to get there, so when they visit, I don’t want to just hand them their items, take their money and say “Thank you very much, see ya next month.” I want to make sure they know what's going on (if they want to know). I want them to have a vested interest in my farm so they see it as a vital part of the community.

"People are looking for an experience . . .
I don’t want to just hand them their items, take their money and say 'Thank you very much, see ya next month.' . . . I want them to have a vested interest in my farm so they see it as a vital part of the community."

If they are first time customers, I give them a tour and explain what we are doing and why. If they are regular customers, they generaly want a farm update -- what's happened since they visited last. Some even help with chores. Collecting eggs and feeding chickens is a great novelty, increases the value of their purchase and is a help to me. We both benefit.They can’t get that experience in a super market.

We sell poultry at our farmers’ market, so it's challenging to display our booth. Obviously, we can’t have chickens sitting out on the table for people to look at. Photographs can help. We have a piece of colored poster board with some photos of our chicken production and an explanation of how we raise our birds.

We also use colorful signs, a banner with a rooster on it, old wooden chicken crates and egg baskets -- anything we can think of to draw people in. Produce farmers have an easier time because the product is right there, full of color and textures. Still, it doesn't hurt to put out some photos of your farm with the fields full of vegetables. Signage can be critical to making the sale. A sign can explain what the variety is, where it comes from, how to prepare it . . . and even when it's in season. If the public understands that something is only available for a short while, they may be inclined to stock up.

Fulfilling a need gets you more than a single sale

There are two veiws of selling. One is just helping the customer part with their money. The other is helping to meet a customers need. Filling the customers need is what I’m talking about. If a customer passes by my stand without purchasing anything, it’s only because I didn’t have what they wanted or needed. Remember, they are already at your market, they are looking to buy something, so they should at the very least leave your stand with information about your farm. That could be a business card, a brochure, or just plain talking to them.

Heck, my wife Holley managed to get a vegan to try her goat cheese! All because of a discusion about our farm and Holley’s enthusiasm for what she does. Believe me, no one was more surprised than me. Holley is not as outgoing as I am. She is quiet and rather laid back. But, Holley loves her goats and is proud of her cheese, and it shows.

"Selling the farm"


Marketing needs to be in every aspect of your farm. Ask your self these questions:

  • How does my farm look?
  • When I make deliveries to restaurants do I just drop the stuff off and run or do I deliver when the chef is there to make sure he/she is happy with my product?
  • Do I have a farm sign?
  • Do I use nice invoices or just scratch one out on a piece of paper?
  • Can people write checks to the farm name or my name?
  • Do I have a logo?
  • (If you sell products through a CSA) Do I ever hang out and meet the shareholders?

Take a good look at how you answered these questions and you just might find an easy way to improve your marketing and boost your sales.

“The only thing I know about marketing is calling the truck driver.” This is what one farmer told me in a phone conversation. He called me because he was frustrated with trying to sell his pastured poultry and even more so when he found out we are selling ours at a dollar more per pound then him. He was selling at a market near a grocery store and figured people would rather pay less at the store. But that's not always the case.

To begin with, when customers come to the market they are clearly looking for something that they can’t get in the grocery store and pastured poultry they can’t get. I suspected this farmer didn’t have any information about pastured poultry, the benefits of eating this kind of chicken or even facts about his farm. Let’s face it, if I’m selling anything it’s the farm. That is, I’m selling the idea of our farm. That’s why we have photos and information at our farmers’ market, on our farm tours and in our cutomer newsletter.

Do you run a CSA? Most CSA’s will have special events during the season and we try to make an appearence to some of them. We also have a small demonstration pen that we can put on the back of the pickup along a few chickens so the shareholders at the CSA can see how the chickens are raised. We also leave copies of our newsletter on pickup days so shareholders can get to know us and our farm even better.

The key is building a relationship with your customers. We are on a first name basis with all of our customers. They feel perfectly confortable calling us to order or ask questions. They even ask if they can help out on the farm. Price is never a question when you have a relationship with your customers.

Building a farm community

Get to know other farmers in your area that are doing similar farming and business. Even if they are doing the SAME thing as you, it’s good to know them. We have increased our sales by building these relationships -- we refer customers to them and they refer customers to us.

"Get to know other farmers in your area . . .Building a network like this can make trips to the country more worth while for folks."

We have a neighbor who raises grass fed beef and pastured poultry. If our customers want beef we send them to this farm and they send people to us for lamb. Building a network like this can make trips to the country more worth while for folks.

So, I hope this gives you some ideas. Marketing has to be a part of your farm plan just like figuring out when to plant and harvest. Try to take time each day to dream. Dream about what your farm can be and how to get it there. Sometimes it’s hard to find time, but when all of my chores are done and the sun gets low, it just feels right to sit by the doorway of the barn washing eggs or just petting the dog and let my mind wander. Try it. You’ll be surprised how your sales can increase. Your not selling. Just dreaming.