Saturday, February 11, 2012
Jumping on the Bandwagon
The LOCAL food movement is getting a whole lot of coverage of late. A whole lot. As a LOCAL producer, you would think that I would find that particularly encouraging and exciting. You might think that the sheer publicity would grant a host of new opportunities. Well…
Any time there is a trend; there is an opportunity to make money on that trend. If you jump in at just the right moment and ride the wave, you can make a bundle. It is human nature to want to succeed, to be in with the popular crowd. There is a great temptation for everyone and his brother to “jump on the bandwagon”, riding the wave of popular culture to a nice payday. Since we’re in this for the long haul, the Boss and I view riding the wave and "jumping on the bandwagon" with a fair amount of caution.
Right now, food, particularly LOCAL food is a very hot topic. There are more Farmers Markets in the US than any other time in history. The term CSA has become a part of conversation, whereas ten years ago, the term had to be explained. (In our part of the world, the letters still stood for the Confederate States of America.) There are buyers clubs and on-line co-ops, there are pick-your-own farms and cow shares. The choices can be mind-boggling. Most of the time, the visionary plan is idealistic and tempting; the logistics and hard practicalities overlooked and neglected by a short-sightedness particular to the human race. As a consumer, it would behoove you to educate yourself prior to jumping on ANY bandwagon!
We have been involved in food production for a LONG time. We’ve seen trends come and go, we’ve seen farm enterprises start up, only to fold after a short period of time. We’ve seen some farms evolve into empires, while others hold a steady course. We’ve done a fair bit of change ourselves. We try to stay current on the happenings and trends so that we can continue to be a viable entity in our chosen field. We have been keeping an eye on the possible changes.
On-line buying clubs seem to be the latest trend. We recently attended a meeting about one such start-up enterprise in our area. While it has been suggested that this is NOT to replace the Market, it has also been stated that the “market is not the best way to get fresh produce to the customer”. I took serious issue with that comment. The idea behind this new marketing idea is that a group of producers pool their products, place them in an on-line store, get a pick-ticket at the end of the week, load their product on a truck, and collect an on-line payment for said goods. No fuss, no muss.
Seriously? No contact with the customer except through “on-line ratings”? What happened to community…or connected-ness…or KNOW YOUR FARMER?
One of the reasons the Boss and I got out of restaurant sales years ago was the lack of interaction with the customers and their loyalties. By selling directly to the end-consumer at the Market, we get instant feedback. We get to hear when our products are outstanding, and can correct it if they are not. If there are questions about our practices or operation, we can answer them directly. We are not some producer profile on some website…we are real! Our knowledge of our products is there for the asking.
As a vendor, I do not wish to give up my autonomy, and the relationships it has taken years to build. Some of our customers have been with us since our early market days. There are customers who have come to our home…had coffee…done the “farm tour thing”, seen our children grow and fly the nest. There are customers we have seen get married, have children…and we have seen their children grow. Our customers tell us of problems in their life, knowing they will get comfort and prayers. We have made special deliveries, reserved things knowing customer preference, and we go out of our way to make them happy. Our customers were there for us when we faced the most horrifying situation we have faced as parents, showing deep concern and offering comfort when others did not. In short, our customers are our friends… perhaps our family. The same can be said for the vendors with whom we spend a portion of every week. Nope, cyber-space can never replace that!
Community will be lost if we embrace every single social media aspect of our modern world. "On-line" is great in some regards, but at the same time, there are new and myriad opportunities for scam and heart-ache, and the very real possibility that we will lose touch completely with the source of food and the folks who provide it. It is very hard to KNOW YOUR FARMER, KNOW YOUR FOOD through a computer screen.
It seems to me that current, successful vendors should have been consulted prior to the introduction of this new venture, particularly if their participation was desired. I wouldn’t begin to suggest that the Boss and I are the authorities. There are others from whom we are still learning. But, many of us possess a working knowledge of farming, harvesting, sales and logistics that could have been invaluable. Our knowledge of Valley roads and topography could have spared a great deal of frustration. For instance, straight roads and direct routes are few and far between in this county, and it can take nearly a half an hour to go less than 10 miles. That fact alone will make the pickup route a real interesting trip.
Our history alone at the Market would indicate that we have expertise to share. We have done the Market for 15 years. We operate without operating loans and huge debt. Our daughters were raised on our farm, learning skills that serve them well in their current occupations. We rarely take any produce home, and were able to develop a winter market for our “off season” goods to keep ourselves in positive cash flow year-round. We are able to give to those less fortunate that ourselves. Yes, I would consider us successful and a fount of valuable knowledge.
The logistics of this new enterprise could boggle the mind. The plan is to have over 200 customers buying on-line and picking up downtown after work. Yikes! On a personal note, we know what it is like to have 30 to 40 people picking up our winter products in a short period of time and it can get hectic…but, 200? Wow! This project needs some serious re-thinking. That logistical issue is just the tip of the iceberg. Obviously, the promoter of this idea has never neither farmed nor harvested produce. There are many things to consider when determining harvest and production schedules. Products with differing handling requirements could cause a logistical nightmare, not to mention the distinct possibility of spoilage and food borne illness.
I do not wish this new venture any ill and it is not my intention to dismiss all new thinking. No, we need visionaries and pioneers in the world to move things forward. But, it IS my contention that there are a lot of people that are realizing there is money to be made with food. No longer interested in producing the food (that’s HARD work!) these folk have the cyber-knowledge to market the products in new and interesting ways. …for a price.
There are whole web-site design companies, CSA software companies, farmers’ market software companies, and on-line grocery sites. Offering the farmers the opportunity of new and expanded markets, the hope of easy sales can be appealing. A little research and thought reveal that these companies are not offering these services out of the goodness of their hearts. No, there is money to be made…maybe LOTS of money. I might also add that these ventures don’t always measure up to their initial expectations. The Boss and I have offered “off season sales” for a number of years at a level that would match, or possibly surpass, one enterprise that is held up as an example. Our growth has come slowly, incrementally as the direct result of building relationships.
With each step away from the direct marketing of a farm’s products, that farm sees a little less of each dollar earned. By taking those steps, the farmer begins to find himself becoming somewhat of a commodity and no longer an independent producer. This can be a costly mistake on the part of the farmer. Farm identity and reputation is lost, never to be regained. To those of us who make our living by direct marketing….DIRECT is the key word here. The strength of this term cannot be re-defined or overlooked in light of the siren song of cyber-space’s easy access and the lure of effortless sales.
Without direct customer contact, producers become commodity brokers, and the relationships we have worked so hard to build, the hope that our customers value us and our products will be lost forever. Farmers are no longer autonomous and eventually the bottom-line will become the deciding factor and any progress that may have been made to bring back to the value of the family farm will be lost. Every move we as farmers take away from direct marketing will cause us to come just a little closer to becoming the very thing we say we stand in stark contrast to…the industrial farm.
From the consumer’s point of view, any perceived convenience replaces the sense of community that buying from the farm (instead of the grocery) was originally intended to create. There is no longer an opportunity to KNOW YOUR FARMER, KNOW YOUR FOOD. That bag or box of food might as well come from the local grocery, the not so local grocery, or a slow boat from China for all the intents and purposes. There is no guarantee that what you imagine you will receive will indeed be reality. A producer profile can never replace the accountability of face-to face transactions. The connection to the producer will be lost forever in cyber-world.
There is also no need to re-invent the wheel as it were. The models and opportunities already exist. If one feels it necessary to take responsibility for their food supply, then the best option is to grow your own. As this is not feasible for many, due to limiting factors, be they logistic, economic or lack of knowledge or ability, then buying directly from the producer is the next best thing. My mantra remains…KNOW YOUR FARMER, KNOW YOUR FOOD.
To my mind, the farmers’ market model is indeed the best way to do this. There are numerous farmers all gathered in one place at one time with a wide variety of items. The consumers have the ability to pick and choose any option. No driving around the countryside, no membership fees or accepting what someone else chooses for you, along with a chance to ask questions and socialize seems ideal solution. If the producer is indeed the seller, as is the case with our Market, you have built-in accountability. While some might question the convenience of a Saturday market, I would direct them to the various weekday markets throughout the Valley and remind them that the Market is open for FIVE hours every Saturday morning. This year there will be a Wednesday market open at the same location for another FIVE hours every week during the season.
For the farmer, direct marketing at the Farmers’ Market is an opportunity to realize every penny of that hard-earned dollar. No paying for someone else, who has no vested interest, to market your wares, no concerns that you have somehow been misrepresented or misunderstood. There is no need to have your products marked up by 20% (!) in order to pay for marketing and delivery. Instant feedback from consumers and a chance to see what other farmers are growing are helpful assets in maintaining your business.
So, while all the attention to local food is flattering, and may be helpful in some ways, all those new and improved ideas are not necessarily a good thing. It is getting to the point where there are too many marketing options and not enough products to market. We’ll stay off the bandwagon and look for YOU at the Market.
I will say it again…KNOW YOUR FARMER…KNOW YOUR FOOD!
To that end, the Boss and I will be downtown every week…April to Thanksgiving, selling our home-grown, hand-picked, LOCAL, delicious, nutritious farm products. Got questions? Ask us! …IN PERSON…
or by email, text or even Facebook…(for your convenience)
We’re not just a picture on a producer profile page…we’re the real deal!