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
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
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
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
- 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
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
“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
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
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.