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Our WNC CRAFT group of apprentices and farmers gathered for some discussion over Diversified Marketing Strategies on a hot summer evening in July, perfect for cold beer and AC, which we were lucky to be gathering with at The Wedge’s new foundry location.

Below is a summary report of the notes from that evening. Our hosts were Michael & Lauren Rayburn of Rayburn Farm; “Our marketing involves storytelling,” explained Lauren, and with only 1.5 acres in cultivation in Barnardsville, their story has become niche crops that they wholesale to restaurants; they grow mostly herbs, spices, and seed. They grow for fun, color, flavor and aroma, keeping their chef customers in mind. They have sold to brewers, ice cream makers, and chocolatiers over the years and have honed in on high price-per-square foot crops for a very intensive approach.

Why is the ‘farm story’ important?

A component of marketing is showing the level of vulnerability needed to tell your honest story – can help you relate to customers. Be open to exchanging in dialog; this kind of openness requires them to know who you are and relate your farm business to YOU!

Marketing is 2 phases: Establishing your story/name and targeting specific audience is first phase, and the second phase is sales.

What do you need to have set up to start marketing successfully?

Your Story

Use your story to send your message – via word-of-mouth, social media, website, and print advertising. Have 50 communication channels for you to get information out there.

Your Market

Important to realize who your target is, what their buying capacity is, the products you’re selling (luxury or staple).

Be focused on what your product is and do the market research to figure out if anyone wants what you have. Grow for the market you’re targeting.

If you have things people need, you’re going to have to do a lot less marketing. Ask restaurants what they want grown for it and what they’d be willing to pay. Kale was a trend that started in the restaurant industry – it took chefs saying that they wanted different varieties in order for it to be bred and different varieties to be spread.

Your Pricing

Know your pricing – this one of the biggest challenges with specialty crops because it’s hard to get straight numbers. If you want to sell wholesale, collect data from wholesalers and see what they’re selling for.

If you can be a direct wholesaler (eliminating the distributor middle-man) to large grocery stores/small stores, restaurants, you should be able meet those wholesalers price. Fosser Cabinets does reporting for the farmers at the farmers market – it’s a weekly report with wholesale prices so you can see what the big farmers are charging.

Farming as a Business

In the market gardening/small farmer realm, things are focused on the direct-market, CSA/farmers-market style of farming. But farming is a misnomer – farming is a business, you’re an entrepreneur. Agriculture is limitless – what you can grow and how you can sell it. It’s the most diverse industry in the world. Last year alone, Rayburn made about $1,000 in Instagram sales (which is about as non-direct as you can get!)

It’s good to have dream and passion, but it’s a business. If you’re not selling, you’re not sustainable. You have to be focused just as much on your sales as your growing practices. Michael suggests going door to door to restaurants and passing business card out – asking, what can I do for you [the chef]?

Some crops don’t make money, some do. Keep records, records, records. You need to be willing to cut the ones that aren’t making money. If you have limitations of market demands/space/labor (which most of us will), it’s a puzzle to figure out how to make something net profitable.

Of course, not everything you’re going to be able to meet market price with, and you’ll have to be okay with that as long as you can justify the higher cost. For example, Rayburn Farm sells strawberries wholesale at $18/gallon because they are smaller than the average commercial strawberry and therefore more expensive to produce (most wholesalers usually sell at $13/gallon). It’s important to keep in mind you can charge more for more mature crops because they’ve spend that many more days in the field; just do your research, and typically try keep prices in line with wholesalers. Even if this doesn’t seem possible, it’s important to be aware of the wholesale prices and collect data, so you have good numbers to shoot for.

If you truly just love growing, go wholesale. Walmart and Ingles are both aggressively looking for sustainable growers. Profit margins are high in ag, but your product value is low in relativity to the amount of time you spend on it. Sometimes you have to suck up your pride and sell for less than you know it’s worth.

Quality over Quantity

Of course, it’s tempting to compare yourself to the bigger growers, but it’s important to remember that you have a better product, and to market your product with that in mind. Michael likes to prove his quality point by grabbing samples from the fields and bring them to chefs.

They grow some herbs that were bred for ornamentals (due to the color/aroma factor, and of course, they’re technically edible) – so some of the things they’re bringing no one else has offered as an edible crop.

It’s important to keep in mind why people are buying from you, which is probably your QUALITY of goods. This is particularly important in the restaurant wholesale industry. The moment you bring crap into a chef is the moment that the word goes to all of the chefs and you start losing sales.

How do you pick your crops?

The first years for most farms is trial-and-error. In their first year, Lauren and Michael chose to simply observe what would grow on their land, where the wet-spots were, etc. After a year of trying and failing at direct marketing strawberries and garlic, they decided to try edible and Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins (1/10 acre, u-pick), and non-standard potatoes. Mostly because both crops had minimum storage needs and took the least amount of tending. In 2016, they received an AgOptions grant for irrigation, which helped with growing these “specialty field crops.”

The crops that Rayburn currently grows includes: ginger & turmeric, lime basil, Kenyon blue spice, sweet basil, peppermint, strawberries, seed for Sow True (mostly for farm diversity), pie pumkins, potatoes, Mexican cinnamon basil, sweet basil, funnugreek, lemongrass, rosemary, yarrow, and beets for The Hop Ice Cream Company (they use them as a dye beet).

The market has largely influenced Rayburns’ crop selection. Some of their crops (like sweet basil) were pitched to them by Wicked Weed; then they started selling it to pizzerias b/c they grew so much basil. With breweries, Lauren notes, it’s more of a partnership with a research and development stage; “The breweries will come to us and say, ‘The trend is this flavor; how do we make our beer taste like that?’ and we don’t grow fruit, so we start to explore what herb we can grow to substitute.”

The Rayburns suggest that a part of your farm should be dedicated to trying new things, and narrowing down crops through trial and error. Look through seed catalogs for new things you haven’t heard of and try things. There are no failures, there are only results and lessons learned.

The land where their farm is on is very narrow, so they can’t produce a lot of row crops. Herbs go for a higher dollar amount and take up a lot less space. The Rayburns have sold herbs to value-added companies like the Asheville Tea Company, who came to them to start sourcing herbs locally.

What’s it like selling to restaurants?

There are different tiers of restaurants – those that want to support local (but can’t afford to buy a whole lot), and some that want the local produce but their margins don’t allow it at all. A lot of restaurants that Rayburn sells to are ONLY buying products from them, and no other local farmers.

Restaurants owners are often more concerned with paying their workers a living wage than serving quality produce. Look up restaurant menus – most people aren’t actually buying local when they claim they are.

Other Wise Words about Marketing

Having reality on your shoulders is the most important thing. As a farmer; you can go back and learn in the ‘down season’, but meanwhile you’re here and now, doing what you have chosen to do, and you can only do that and look into the future to improve.

You need to learn how to say no. Be aware of time limitations; do what you can, do what you like.

You have got to see an outcome as just an outcome, and be able to step away – it’s important for mental health. You can always do better next year.

Sera Deva

Author: Sera Deva

Sera Deva has a B.S. in Microbiology & Agroecology from The Evergreen State College. She works with OGS as the Director of Programs & Systems Design, is the President of the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SSAWG) Board of Directors, and is the Administrative Director for The Firefly Gathering. When she’s not geeking out over genetics, systems theory or soil hydrology, she spends her time growing and eating food in the South Toe Valley in Burnsville, NC.

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