Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vanity, Pride and a Really Hard Head

The birds of spring are out, and I can't be happier with their appearing.  One of the best things about moving to a new state is getting to know all the new birds that frequent my feeder each spring.  Some birds don't frequent my feeder, but keep me company as I garden.  Three of my favorites are the wren, the robin, and the woodpecker. 

I noticed an unusual amount of bird droppings on the door of my SUV about two weeks ago.  I thought it a little strange that there should be so much in one spot just behind my rearview mirrors.  I kept a sharp eye out the next day and discovered a cute little wren preening, pecking and otherwise eyeing himself in the mirror.  Every day now when I drive home, that little guy greets me and proceeds to check himself out in the mirror almost before I put the car in park.  Lately, he follows me around the property  and even into the barn when I feed the horses.  Perhaps he hasn't been able to locate a mate yet, and I seem like the next best thing.  I can't help thinking what a vain little critter I have here.  He sings beautifully, though, and I find him a welcome addition to my farm chores.

The first sign that spring was around the corner was the robins in my back yard.  I remember when we arrived in state last year I was thrilled to see a robin.  We didn't have any robins at our last home.  My guess is that it was because we had few bugs for them to eat.  On a military base, pest spraying was routine.  While I was thankful at times for the lack of mosquitoes nibbling my neck, I really missed the birds that thrived on those insects.  I also worried that so many chemicals in the air and soil couldn't possibly be a healthy living environment for any living creature, including me.  Here on Rainbow Farm we have an overabundance of earthworms and other beneficial insects, which brings my favorite spring bird, the robin, out in force.  This bird really takes pride in his work. With his shoulders back, a dignified little hop and tilt of his head, the robin will wait patiently as I till up the ground in preparation for planting.  As soon as I walk away, he helps himself to the uncovered buffet. 

Jack hammers have nothing on my last flying friend, the woodpecker.  I don't always see them, but their busy work is heard all over the farm.  Last year these hard-headed birds pecked a hole clean through my house trim.  This year they are working heavily on the trees in the back pasture.  No doubt, they are looking for all those mounds of carpenter ants that make a mess of the wood around here.  I say, have at them.  The hairy woodpecker in my picture is just one of the many different kinds of hammer-heads we have here.  The large flicker, cousin to the woodpecker, keeps the air thumping with his antics.  I love to watch them all.  They remind me that hard work pays off in the end - and sometimes leaves a lingering headache.  ;-)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Marketing a Small Farm

I thought it might be worthwhile to share some research I did in my final semester of Journalism last summer since the topic is close to my heart and on subject with this blog.

Marketing the Farm
By Geana Henkes
Marketing the small farm is as diverse as the crops growing in your garden. Competition with large wholesale growers has forced a growing number of farmers to get more creative.

Thurston County Extension Agent Don Tapio recognizes a change in small farm marketing in Washington State.
"We've seen an enormous increase in small, organic farms in the last decade, and they have found their niche in the Washington tourism market." 

Most of these farms, he says, only offer one or two activities to increase traffic to the farm. Wine testing topped the list followed closely by educational workshops and farm tours. Experiments with customer supported agriculture and the growth of rural farmers markets are also helping farmers get their products directly into the hands of the consumer.   Starting small and expanding over time allows small farmers a chance to see if a particular marketing technique is a good fit for their farm.
Create a Product that Customers Love
Angie Davis of Grow with Grace Farm loves herbs.  Her backyard raised beds overflow with them.  Her aunt approached her with the idea of selling her herbs at the Tenino, Wash., farmers market a year ago, and she decided she would give it a try. 
“You have to make a business plan - short-term goals, long-term goals and a really creative idea that the customers love,” she says.
Davis decided to use her herbs to create homemade soap.  At first it was just citronella soap for keeping fleas off her dog, but soon customers were asking about soap for humans.  She experimented with a few and found that mint, rosemary, lavender and her all-time favorite, chocolate mint, were literally flying off the market table.  But, she didn’t stop there.
“I just have things that pop into my head,” she says.  “Creative things.”
Soon she was making gourmet dog biscuits and custom gift baskets for every occasion and selling dried herbs and herbal sachets.  Her business grew as she connected with customers at the farmers market and learned what they needed most. 
Davis’ aunt, Dawna Kelley-Donohue, manages the Tenino Farmer’s Market, and she says that the best way to know if a product will sell is to “get it out there and see.” 
Even if the product is spectacular, however, not every market is a worthwhile place to sell it.  Kelley says to make sure that the farmers market you want to sell in is a member of well established organizations. Her market is a member of the Farmers Market Coalition, Cascade Harvest Coalition, Tilth Producers of Washington and the Washington State Farmers Market Association.  Associations provide brochures readily available to the public online and through county extension offices, and Kelley says this brings more traffic to the market.  More traffic means more chances to sell your product.
Most farmers markets are concentrated in large urban areas.  According to Washington State University professor Karina Gallardo, 75 percent of Washington farmers markets are located in the Seattle areaBut, this statistic is changing with more and more farmers markets opening in rural areas each year.  When markets open in rural areas, more farmers can participate because distance to bring product from farm to market becomes less of an inhibiting factor.
 “In the state of Washington where large growers dominate, direct marketing through farmers markets is making a huge difference,” Gallardo says.
Throw a Party on Your Farm
If the golden cider jug, trophies and awards are any indication, Carolyn Lattin makes some of the best apple cider in the country at her Country Cider Mill.  She's had 37 years to perfect her recipe.  But, customers don't just come to Lattin's Country Cider Mill for the cider.
"If you want to survive as a farm, you have to diversify," Lattin says.  "You can't just sell vegetables three months out of the year and pay your bills. That's why we do so many things here."
On top of selling cider to three farmers markets, two food co-ops, multiple local restaurants and food services, those many things include a 20-acre community party house with something fun happening in every season.  The Lattins don't charge entrance to their farm for any of these festivities, but the traffic it generates increases sales for their agricultural products.
Lattin's fall apple festival brings folks from all around to sample the cider and homemade apple fritters, take horse-drawn carriage rides out to the farm's garden to pick their own pumpkins, pet the many animals that occupy the grounds and listen to live bluegrass music. 
Lattin’s Country Cider Mill becomes a winter wonderland at Christmas.  Folks come out to see the decorations and lights and to pick up fruit preserves and frozen products that they missed out on in the summer.  Lattin believes in keeping the farm stores stocked year-round. 
In the spring, hundreds of people turn out for the annual Easter Egg Hunt. 
In between holidays, an old greenhouse doubles as a birthday party house where youngsters can set up for events that include animal petting, a brand new playground and year-round maze.  Lattin's also hosts field trips to the farm during the school year. 
Carolyn Lattin just keeps the community coming back to her farm.  A new employee in her bakery told her, "Carolyn, you don't have customers, you have friends." Carolyn smiles and says she knows that's true.
The farm has expanded from a simple cider press to a full blown agritourism experience over 37 years.  Lattin says she and her two daughters put in 16 hours a day, seven days a week to make the operation work, but they wouldn't have it any other way. 
"We love what we do here," she says.  "Too many things have fallen in place over the years to make this place work.  It makes me think that someone upstairs had a hand in it.  I believe I was meant to do this."
Not everyone wants to take on such an ambitious project.  However, agritourism is the hottest trend in promoting small farms.  According to a 2010 study by Washington State University, over 44 percent of operating agritourism farms are less than 10 years old. 
Invite the Community to Get Involved
 Dean and Jan Pigman know the value of community.  They intensively grow six acres of organic vegetables herbs and fruit.  The venture is both cost and labor intensive since they do not rely on chemicals to control weeds and pests.  They also understand that farming is at the whim of nature, and there is no guarantee of a bumper crop each year.  Normally the Pigmans have something growing right through till middle of December, but last year was a perfect example of the fragility of a farmer’s work.
“Last year we had a freeze right before Thanksgiving,” Dean Pigman says.  “One more in December finished off our entire winter crop.”
Inviting the community to get involved spreads out the risk inherent in farming the land.  People buy a full or half share of the season’s crop in the spring based on their confidence in the Pigmans’ ability to bring in a good harvest.  At a 2011 price of $595, which comes out to be $37 per week for the growing season, share holders receive one basket a week of vegetables, herbs and fruit enough to feed three or more family members.  The Pigmans ensure their members have a full basket, and the members have a lot of say in what the farm grows.
The Pigmans also send produce to two food co-ops and the Olympia farmers market, but their first thought is for their CSA members. 
“With the CSA we can shift around some that goes in the baskets,” Jan Pigman says. “But, we feel a lot of loyalty to those who’ve prepaid for the season, so generally when the first of something comes in, we put them in the CSA baskets as kind of a reward for them.”
The Pigmans also open the farm to CSA members to come out and help plant, weed and harvest because each shareholder has a stake in the operation of the farm. 
It doesn’t take much to spread the word about the Pigmans’ farm.  They have web pages on several farming association websites and a brochure that goes everywhere with them.  The quality of their produce sells itself.
“We hand them out to people we meet and talk to - doctors’ offices and everywhere we go,” Dean Pigman says.   “We don’t really have the time or need to have a full website. Our members share with their friends, and we get as many shareholders as we can handle.”

By Geana Henkes
The advantage of a rural farmers market to small-scale growers is obvious - less travel time, less competition with large growers, and a local customer base.  The disadvantage is in accessibility to a larger group of buyers.  The Washington State University has begun a pilot program to implement credit card and food coupon use to increase sales at the rural market.
Small farmers don’t typically generate enough in sales to warrant the purchase of a credit card machine.  In the test, customers use a credit card or debit to purchase tokens at the farmers market’s central register. Then, they can buy products from any of the vendors with those tokens.  The same process works for food coupons. 
“There is definite anecdotal evidence so far that the use of the coupon system increases sales,” Professor Karina Gallardo says.
Extension agencies like Washington State University are constantly studying the profitability of direct marketing and the growing trends in agriculture within their states.   The best place to find out what works in small-farm marketing is the extension agency within your region.  Most extension agencies have a list of small farms in each county that you can contact for more information. 
Discussion Board
By Geana Henkes
Agritourism is relatively new in marketing the small farm in the United States.  European countries have been doing it for much longer.  Have you visited an agritourism farm lately?  Tell us about your experience.