This article was published in the August 2001 issue of West Virginia Farm Bureau News.
The key to marketing small fruits and vegetables directly to the consumer is to recognize that growers are not just in the business of selling produce. They are in the business of selling the sights, sounds, smells, and atmosphere associated with the total purchasing experience.
Supermarkets are able to obtain large volumes of products and sell them for less than the local farmer. However, supermarkets cannot offer a realistic farm or market experience.
Quality stands above all else in establishing and maintaining a profitable farm. But quality includes more than just the commodity; it involves the entire experience that is involved with getting the product into the consumer's home.
The prices charged for the product must be fair to both the grower and the customer. Price is not determined exclusively by supply and demand. Customers often do not shop around for the best price. Instead, they develop a loyalty to a particular grower and trust him or her to set a fair price. Fair pricing requires a thorough knowledge of production costs, which must include the grower's own labor. Prices must be set to meet costs and provide a reasonable profit.
Overcharging can result in unhappy customers, and underpricing can cut into profits. Reducing prices to undercut the competition may seem like a good idea at first, but it is likely to cause more harm than good. First, a grower reduces profit because sales volume does not increase proportionally. Competitors may lower their prices, setting up a price war. Finally, customers may expect a drop in price later and hold off on buying the product.
In surveys, customers rank quality and consistency above price in importance. Lower price produce is often considered to be of lower quality. The main reasons customers visit farm markets or pick-your-own operations are to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables and to have a pleasant experience -- not to get a break on price.
Invest time in determining which marketing options is best for you. Direct marketed fruits and vegetables are typically sold via one of four marketing channels: pick-your own, farm market, roadside stand, and farmers market.
The pick-your-own (PYO) market has proven successful for many growers. To attract enough customers, a PYO farm is best located within 20 miles of a densely populated area.
It helps if the fields are on or near a major roadway and easily accessible. However, many highly successful PYO farms are in less than ideal locations. Developing a customer base on out-of-the-way farms requires patience, a great deal of promotional effort, and a reputation for providing a pleasant farm experience. Ample parking space should be available as well as toilet facilities, drinking water, shade, and some seating.
Field supervisors must be employed to direct and help customers in parking, harvesting, and checking out. Supervisors should be courteous and friendly and have a thorough knowledge of the farm. Customers should not have to wait in long lines to pay.
PYO farms can provide family recreation. Families tend to pick more produce so most operations allow children to help under proper supervision. However, it is a good idea to have alternative amusement for them, such as a playground or petting zoo.
Farm Market/Roadside Stand/Farmers Market
A farm market in conjunction with PYO can be a powerful draw for customers. Providing customers with recipes and instructions on how to handle produce at home can increase sales and encourage repeat customers.
Selling fresh fruits and vegetables at retail is another way to provide customers with the farm experience. Good signs, both outside and within the retail area, are important to customers. Similar to the PYO, it is important to have knowledgeable, friendly sales staff to serve the customers.
Educating buyers about what they are purchasing is a value-added strategy that will attract people to your outlet. Cooking demonstrations and recipes will make a lasting impression on customers. Selling jams, jellies, juices, salsas, and herb vinegars adds value and profits to farm-raised products.