March 15, 2007: Allentown, Pennsylvania – On
a cold and snowy February morning, I was one of 12 farmers
gathered at the Lehigh County Cooperative Extension building
in for a workshop entitled “Selling Direct to the Wholesale
Marketplace: Developing New Market Opportunities.”
The event was part the Philadelphia Fair Food Project’s
Farmer Outreach Project, funded by a grant from the USDA’s
Risk Management Agency. Fair Food is part of The White Dog
Cafe Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing locally
grown food to the Philadelphia marketplace and promoting sustainable
agriculture for the Greater Philadelphia region.
This was one of several free workshops Fair Food is giving
in the Southeast region of Pennsylvania to help farmers connect
with the urban marketplace. One version of the workshop is
for beginners wishing to enter the wholesale marketplace.
This workshop was for advanced or experienced direct marketers
who may wish to increase their business.
Having raised and direct marketed our farm products for nearly
a decade, I was glad to see this was not just a “how
to” workshop, but more like a roundtable discussion
facilitated by Fair Food. The farms represented a wide range
of products reflecting the food diversity available in the
region, such as:
- Grass-fed meat and poultry farmers.
- Small-fruit variety farmers.
- Organic produce farms selling to restaurants in Philly
and New York.
- A multi-generation tree-fruit farm changing from selling
to the only remaining processor in their area to driving
two and half hours to markets in Philadelphia.
- A third-generation potato farmer, one of three left in
an area that was mostly potato farms and now has no infrastructure
left for processing and marketing. He now sells to small
grocery stores, restaurants and a farm stand but only operates
at half capacity because he can’t find a market for
the rest of his potatoes.
- An organic farm, Wills Valley, that produces value-added
products such as sauerkraut, kimchi, jams and jellies.
We all shared our views of the marketplace, how we got started
and what we saw as our needs or barriers to doing business
in the region.
All these growers are forging their futures in a region that
at times struggles with a consolidating global corporate market
that leaves farmers with insufficient resources, infrastructure
and, sometimes, good choices.
Quality is everything
Mark Dornstreich from Branch Creek Farm started the discussion
by describing his nearly 30 years of experience growing organic
produce and selling to some 25 restaurants in Philadelphia.
Mark and his wife, Judy, purchased their farm, which was already
being farmed organically, in 1978. The farm is located 42
miles north of Philadelphia between the towns of Quakertown
and Doylestown. “Organic was a difficult label in 1980,”
says Dornstreich, “and I didn’t want to do farmers
markets or a roadside stand. So I loaded up our used station
wagon with our produce and drove to Philly. Now we sell to
25 restaurants 52 weeks a year.”
Dornstreich suggested that whatever market you are looking
at, you should consider these things:
- What does this market want or need? Are there items or
products that would complement or would serve a demographic
- What are they (restaurants) paying too much for? Maybe
they are getting something shipped at a great expense that
could be produced locally.
“What you do and how well doesn’t matter if the
market doesn’t want it,” Dornstreich says. On
the topic of growing and sustaining your market, he suggests:
“Quality is everything. Quality is your guarantee that
you will have a market. Chefs know each other, so if your
quality, taste and uniqueness are consistent, chances are
they will know you. Also, if a chef moves on to another place,
they may take you with them if they respect your quality.”
How does one maintain quality with a diversified marketing
plan? This is not always an easy thing to do with a small
business. The consensus from the group was to start by offering
a limited number of products and build on that. If customers
come to trust the quality and consistency of your current
products, they will be more inclined to purchase your expanded
product line as you grow.
An example of this came from Dave Garretson of Beachwood
Orchard, a 195-acre multi-generational tree and small-fruit
farm located in Pennsylvania’s Adams County, southwest
of Harrisburg on the Maryland border. Overseas imports have
greatly hurt tree-fruit farms, even in Adams County, which
leads the state in tree-fruit production. There’s only
one regional processor left to buy at the wholesale level.
Garretson has decided to diversify his commercial wholesale
operation by taking up direct marketing. He uses 60 acres
of his production to sell to small stores, and farmers markets
in Philly. “I’m looking to scale down and grow
up with my markets,” he says, explaining that he is
looking to transition from mostly wholesale to mostly retail.
How does one find, maintain and grow a customer base? It
has been my experience that marketing better be an important
part of your business plan because it will take around 30
percent of your time each week. This is a different notion
than how most farmers perceive themselves. This means more
than just working in the fields. It means putting orders together,
talking with customers, packaging, invoicing and delivery.
What we get for all this is more of our share of the food
Increasing Scale and Labor
As we all know, labor can be a major problem on farms. Finding,
training and keeping good help at a wage that is fair to them
and you is very difficult in an era of “cheap food.”
The question may come down to whether you wish to manage people
or not. In my case, I don’t care to be a personnel manager,
so I try to increase efficiencies in order to expand my production.
Neither is easy to do.
Those in the group who have experience in hiring labor weighed
in. The majority felt that hourly wage was a better motivator
then piecework. This might depend on the product, though.
For example, I know a poultry processor who pays his help
by the number of chickens processed rather than an hourly
wage. The workers like it because they can potentially make
more per hour, and they appreciate a well-raised chicken coming
through the processing shop because they can process it faster
than, say, an overgrown, too-fat chicken, which slows the
Also, if you can provide year-round work, you can get better
and more reliable labor. Garretson of Beachwood Orchard suggested
“If you can provide housing and security, you can all
share the wealth of a consistent, quality product.”
“I didn’t get into farming to be separated from
my spouse,” says Jane Wessner from Best Berry Farm.
Wessner echoed the comments from many of the attendees that
sometimes you see less of your spouse and other family members
than if you worked an off-the-farm job. Some of the farmers
balanced this with taking off one day during the week or closing
down for a month in the winter or even taking a week’s
vacation somewhere. The fear is your customers won’t
tolerate not having your product, but this is usually unfounded.
Only the beginning
The farmers in this group may have come away with more questions
than answers at this workshop, but such is maybe the case
when you are building something from nothing.
In the air were questions such as: How do we create some
kind of distribution system to help farmers get product to
market? How can we have an effective wholesale system that
doesn’t eat into the profit margins of the farmer and
retailer but still sells for a reasonable price? These are
questions that The Fair Food Project hopes to find answers
for as they continue to work with farmers and buyers. However,
with the variety of experience present, farmers were able
to provide advice to one another throughout the day.
As the sustainable agriculture movement matures, a shift
in how we educate farmers appears to be happening. Farmers
are no longer depending only on organizations or universities
for solutions. They are looking to each other for help and
advice on how to build networks to make local food access
easier for everyone.
This was one of several workshops on direct marketing to
wholesale The Fair Food Project has presented. I’m sure
there will be more as we try to build relationships with customers,
other farmers and like-minded organizations to create not
only sustainable food systems, but sustainable community with
agriculture as its foundation.
For details on The Fair Food Project visit www.whitedogcafefoundation.org.
For a list of future workshops contact John Eshleman at email@example.com.