A good life, if you can do it: selling
direct to the wholesale market
A dozen Pennsylvania farmers grapple with the challenges of scale, labor and time management.

By Brian Moyer


Photo illustrations provided courtesy of the Pennsylvania
Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA www.pasafarming.org).

General Tips for Successful Selling Direct Wholesale

Fair Food put together a handout for the workshop called “General Tips for Successful Selling Direct Wholesale”. In it are a lot of good suggestions such as:

How to make customer contact:

  • Consult with neighboring farms and non-profit organizations in your region (such as Fair Food Project).
  • Make in-person visits so potential buyers can have a look into your farm and have a price sheet and samples so they can taste how great your product is.
  • Follow-up and be persistent. These folks are as busy as you are, so if you leave a message and don’t hear back, call again.

You are building a relationship and trust with these customers and here is what Fair Food called “The Big Four”:

Honesty: Be clear about who you are and what you produce. If a buyer asks for something that you can’t provide, it is better to say ‘no’ than to let them down with failure.

Communication: Buyers hate surprises! If you can’t deliver something or you will be late, call and communicate the problem. Some notice is better then non at all.

Consistency: Product consistency is vital. Create a schedule for taking and delivering orders.

Deliver what you promise: You will frustrate a buyer if you guarantee 10 pounds of something and only deliver 6 pounds.

The handout reminds producers: “Remember that it is more expensive and more difficult for restaurants, grocery stores or institutions to buy from local farmers. Therefore, those that want to buy locally demand communication and consistency.”

Posted 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 need?
  • 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 dollar.

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 line.

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 jeshleman@whitedog.com.