Take advantage of Internet, benefit cards, added value products, expert says

By STEVE BROWN

Capital Press

CENTRALIA, Wash. -- Creativity is the key to direct marketing, Patrice Barrentine tells small farm operators.

Products, packaging and promotion are all ways to appeal to consumers, whether they are at a farmers' market, in a restaurant or online, she said.

Barrentine, small farms coordinator at the Washington State Department of Agriculture, encouraged farmers to dig into her agency's "Green Book," which is full of suggestions and requirements in direct marketing.

"In direct marketing, you become the face of the farming industry," Barrentine said during the Small Farm Winter School at Centralia, Wash., College.

Though small farmers constitute only about 2 percent of the market share, she said, they are 99 percent of the public persona. That personal connection is rarely made anywhere else.

Whether the direct sale is made from a farmstand, at a farmers' market or through a grocery store, certain rules apply.

"The more people you reach with your product, the more vigorous the requirements," she said.

Many small farmers take advantage of the Internet's capabilities. "You can't talk about health benefits on a product label," Barrentine said, "but you can on a website."

A website also facilitates "a sense of place," she said, adding the appeal of a personal connection. "It's a place to share your philosophy, your values."

When selling from a website, she said, the producer should factor the added cost of accepting credit cards or using a pay service such as PayPal when setting the price.

Many farmers' markets now accept benefit cards from public assistance programs, increasing sales substantially. "And farmers are getting food to people they want to get food to."

Branching out from the raw product opens up possibilities for profit, Barrentine said: Milk becomes cheese; apples become cider; fruits and berries become jams and jellies.

She mentioned a farm in Okanogan, Wash., that has grown garlic for 30 years. "They sell seed garlic -- more than a hundred varieties -- for double the price," she said, "and they sell it across the country."

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