Direct marketing puts a face on food

Steve Brown/Capital Press Drew Schneidler loads squash into boxes while Zowie Aleshire affixes individual labels at Helsing Junction Farm near Rochester, Wash. Community-supported agriculture operations allow farmers to spend less time at farmersÕ markets.

Businesses connect with consumers through writing, various websites

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

One size does not fit all in direct marketing, and no single tool fits every situation.

But from the smallest farmstand to the largest community-supported agriculture program, there remains one constant: face-to-face interaction. The goal is to sell to the people who eat what you produce.

For the past almost 20 years, friends and neighbors Anna Salafsky and Susan Ujcic have been building their Helsing Junction Farm, near Rochester, Wash.

Though there is quite a bit of annual turnover, their CSA has more than 1,000 members.

"Some customers have been with us all 20 years," Salafsky said. "We nurture those connections online through photos, through our writing, blogs, through Facebook."

CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is a shared-risk agreement between a farmer and members, or shareholders, who provide the farmer with working capital to pay in advance for input costs. In return, they receive regular shares of the farm's harvest through the growing season.

Ujcic said the CSA, which offers supplemental shares of meat or fruit from other local farmers, relies on the faith of both the farmer and the customer.

"I joke that this is a faith-based organization," Ujcic said.

Though Salafsky and Ujcic started with farmers' markets as well, they found that it didn't pencil out for them.

"The farmers' market was a huge grind," Salafsky said. "We did the math, and it didn't do as well as the CSA for us."

However, Ujcic said, the personal contacts at the market did help develop the brand.

"It gives your face to the food," she said.

They also tried wholesaling, which was "a pretty good gig," Salafsky said, but it was also "the most annoying," with its variability in prices.

The best part of the CSA, she said, is "we're on the farm farming instead of at the market."

And having an 18-week season eliminates the need for season-extension practices, Ujcic said, "making farming almost sane."

'Organic' growth

Andy Westlund said he's content to let his business grow slowly. His Harmony J.A.C.K. Farms near Scio, Ore., is "not very big," and he's happy with being a small family farm producing certified organic meat and eggs.

Since starting in 2001, he has tried growing his customer base through wholesale, home delivery, retail, farmers' markets, restaurants and natural food stores.

He hung door hangers, he knocked on doors, he did cooking exhibitions, he worked with an advertising agency to maximize his Web presence -- "but the harder we tried to grow fast, the more we grew slow."

"They all worked a little. The cost of a new customer is about the same for all techniques," he said.

Despite his background as a vice president of Amazon, Westlund said he is not pulling out all stops to get big.

"It's like most businesses' product is faster, cheaper or more powerful, something sort of obvious. But ours depends on the quality of the product," he said. "Word of mouth is free. I'd rather grow slow, organically."

Harmony J.A.C.K. sells through its website as well.

Westlund said he's working to diversify, partnering with entrepreneurs in vegetable production, smoked seafood, energy-generation equipment, compost and timber. "We're all small," he said. "We're all growing."

'Communication' key

At the large-and-growing end of the scale is Nash's Organic Produce, which Nash Huber started more than 30 years ago near Sequim, Wash. Growing a small plot of garlic, hay and bees, Huber sold out of a self-serve farmstand. Today his company has about 40 people on the payroll during peak harvest, about 30 of them full-time employees.

Sales manager Kia Armstrong described some of the lessons learned on the way to the present bustling farm store, the half-dozen farmers' markets, the 180-member summer CSA and the 180-member winter CSA. The farm also sells through PCC Natural Markets and to restaurants.

"Communication is one of the keys to success," she said. A weekly fresh sheet goes out via e-mail to all customers. "We take field walks to see what's coming on to give the customers lead time."

Keeping track of the operation is a challenge, she said. The farm has no "fancy tools," but uses an in-house system for getting orders to the harvest crews working seven or eight different harvest areas and getting the produce out the door. QuickBooks, Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft Word help manage the sales, and Farmigo helps organize the CSA deliveries.

The biggest help, she said, is talking to the end users of the product, finding out what they want and responding to that.

A new diversification for Nash's Organic Produce is raising seeds -- beets, grains, cabbage, kale, a rye-vetch cover crop -- for marketing directly to other growers.

Online

http://helsingfarmcsa.com

www.harmonyjackfarms.com

www.nashsorganicproduce.com

Direct marketing scorecard

Disadvantages:

* Can be labor- and time-intensive.

* May not fit the product mix.

* Cash flow can be uncertain.

Advantages:

* Grower can set the price.

* Prices are closer to retail, capturing more value.

* Regular sales increase liquidity and cash flow.

* Products can be sold in small quantities.

* Customers give grower feedback.

* Customers may develop loyalties.

* Diversify in market outlets help manage risk.

-- WSDA "Small Farm & Direct Marketing Handbook"

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