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Farmers finding the right image

More farmers across the country are taking charge of their image, for the good of their farms, and the good of the industry

Located just 20 minutes southwest of Montreal, the farm looks a lot different today than when it was established by Elwood and Marie Quinn in 1982.

It sounds a lot different too, which is just what they wanted.

Thanks to Philippe and Stephanie Quinn, the farm’s second generation, the enterprise has been transformed from a “something for everyone” fruit and vegetable farm into a family-focused, farm-experience destination.

If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s actually even more than that, as you’ll read below.

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But the crucial thing to know up front, says Stephanie, is that the Quinns are also very good at how they portray themselves to outsiders, which she says is critical for any business that depends so much on direct sales to customers.

“Take our farm for example,” Stephanie says. “We all wear bright red shirts that say Quinn Farm in really bold letters, and although our tractor drivers will sometimes wear cowboy hats or coveralls, generally we try to look professional, we try to be modern.”

The Quinns have also invested in iPad-controlled cash registers, and in high-tech sound systems normally sold only to amusement parks.

In a Canada where consumers cling to a more nostalgic picture of agriculture, the marketing text books in any MBA course would likely tell you the Quinns have gone seriously, maybe even disastrously, off message.

But then you visit their farm, and you notice their clientele.

When your target market is children under the age of eight, Stephanie says, high-energy colours, oversized lettering, and loud noises are what you need, not plaid shirts and bib overalls.

Nor can you stop halfway, Stephanie says. “Everything we do in terms of our branding, marketing, advertising and functioning on the farm is all related to that decision.”

Narrowing their focus to such a defined audience ought to have been risky, especially when it meant turning longtime loyal customers away. But the way Stephanie talks about the decision actually sounds a lot more like a risk management plan.

“Places like Walmart will never have high satisfaction levels because you can’t please everybody, but you’re trying to, and that was what we were doing,” Stephanie says. “Now the people coming here are all here for the same reason, looking for the same experience, and that makes it easy to give them that because we’re focused on a single experience.”

The Quinns know they may be the only farmers that many consumers ever talk to.

The Quinns know they may be the only farmers that many consumers ever talk to.
photo: Supplied

Of course, while it all sounds great in theory, that doesn’t mean it was an easy process to adopt, or an easy to process to watch, especially for the senior Quinn generation.

The farm was generating great feedback from their target audience, Stephanie says. They’d hear their visitors saying, “wow this is so amazing, there is so much for young children to do” or “your bathrooms are so kid friendly.”

But it did take time. “Now we see this year, year number five, the number of families that are taking season’s passes has just skyrocketed, which to us is a huge indicator that they’re seeing there’s lots to do to come back repeatedly with a family,” Stephanie says. “We’re finally really seeing that it’s worth it.”

Not only has the farm been able to charge families $5 admission per person to access wagon rides, a play yard, and a petting zoo, but demand for season passes is up significantly.

Meanwhile, they also found a way to reach out to the older customers who were turned off by the new youth focus.

The Quinns’ produce remains available at two local farm markets for customers who don’t want the added agri-tainment experience of the farm. But even those stands conform to the farm’s brand image, thanks to Hugh Maynard of Qu’anglo Communications and Consulting, who also happens to be Stephanie’s dad.

Hugh says by going with a red awning and red table cloths, and by outfitting staff with La Ferme Quinn red shirts in a sea of white kiosks, they stand out. But more importantly, he says, the customer experience remains consistent.

“The main thing with image is to be consistent,” Hugh says, “so that when people show up, they know what to expect, both in what they buy and who they are dealing with.”

Hugh says most of the work his company does is general communications work, but Quinn Farm contracts him and his staff to do all their off-farm marketing, and to operate their farmer’s market stands all summer. “They’re so busy running the farm, they don’t have time to get out there and do that,” he says.

Even if it’s not serving their primary target audience, Stephanie says attending the markets allows them to talk to their customers about their food, which is one of the reasons why she and her husband decided to get into farming in the first place.

“Farmer’s markets are one of those few opportunities where you can reach out, because these people are engaged in their food system and have very complex questions about their food,” Stephanie explains. “Even with all my dad’s experience with agriculture, every week he comes back with questions he couldn’t answer that we have to then provide the answers for.”

Meanwhile, Hugh says the intense marketing strategy that La Ferme Quinn has implemented is rare. Nor would it be a good choice for many farms, particularly those that don’t sell directly to the consumer.

But that doesn’t mean a farm has to be shipping livestock around the world to justify investing in a little image development either.

Just consider if there was ever an accident or spill in a community. Image won’t absolve a farming operation from negligence, Hugh says, but it will play a part because people are quick to come to conclusions about how much blame should go in which directions.

Building a relationship of trust and understanding helps make sure that those first crucial judgments are sympathetic, or at least not hostile.

“It’s assurance, not insurance,” Hugh says.

On La Ferme Quinn, Stephanie even runs to putting higher-priced help in the parking lot to be the first point of contact for new arrivals, because managing the image is just that important.

The basics

It starts with actually thinking about the image you want to portray, and with having a purpose. “If you don’t really have a purpose, why bother?” says Hugh. “But even if it’s as simple as saying we want to have a good public image with the neighbours and nothing else, then you have something to follow through on.”

Quinn Farm used to spend $15,000 a year advertising in local newspapers, with no idea of the impact, how many people saw the ads, or how many of those who did were actually motivated to show up at the farm because of it. So now, the Quinns have gone 100 per cent to Google ads, which means they can tell exactly how much it’s costing them per customer to get that message out.

They also know pretty much within a couple dozen of people, that if 500 people view their ad on Friday, 400 will show up on Saturday.

That, as they say, is the power of modern technology.

“That’s what’s hard,” Stephanie says. “It’s trying to change the image so  the expectation is a modern farmer has technology and business skills.”

“That’s what’s hard,” Stephanie says. “It’s trying to change the image so the expectation is a modern farmer has technology and business skills.”

While it’s a critical part of maintaining a positive image for her farm, Stephanie believes it’s becoming even more important for agriculture in general.

As the only farmer some people ever meet, Stephanie says she ends up taking questions about all aspects of modern farming. Most of the questions, she laments, are inspired by misleading blockbuster films and YouTube videos. The challenge for her, as a visibly modern farmer, is to show customers she cares as much about the environment and animal welfare as the “traditional” farmer would.

“We’re not doing a very good job as farmers of giving them those positive messages,” Stephanie says. “They’re hearing all of those really horrible, awful stories about animals being abused and they’re not hearing the story about how much farmers are investing into these cow mats for cow comfort; they don’t know how many farmers are really concerned about making sure they’re comfortable for longevity. Luckily, I come from a farming area and have friends that are in dairy so I can answer those questions — even though we don’t do dairy — because we’re the only farmers they know.”

“What we’re finding now is, 20 years ago, a lot of people in the city had grandparents who farmed, or if they were recent immigrants, in a lot of those countries there are still a lot of farmers, so they were closer to the land. They’re not anymore, to the point that we could write a book about people showing up in February to pick apples or they come to pick strawberries and can’t understand why 10 things aren’t ready to pick in strawberry season. They really have no comprehension of when things are ready or how we grow them.”

“We need to create the emotional connection with a modern farmer that people have with that image of the traditional farmer who has some chickens and some pigs and some cows and wears overalls,” Stephanie says.

“So that’s what’s hard in our farming industry,” Stephanie says. “It’s trying to change the image so the expectation is that a modern farmer has technology and business skills. That’s a really big challenge. We see it here. It’s a huge image to manage.”

“We make unfair judgments.” — Hugh Maynard, Qu’Anglo Communications

Farmers make snap judgments too, says Hugh Maynard, president of Qu’anglo Communications and Consulting at Ormstown, Que., near the Ontario border southwest of Montreal.

When it’s consumers who make those snap judgments, however, and when the judgments they make are wrong and they come at the expense of agriculture, it can create a pattern of thinking that is a bad omen for the future.

Not every farm needs as complex a communications and branding strategy as Farm Quinn, Maynard says. But every farm should spend at least a little time thinking about how their actions make the bigger debate either easier or harder to win.

“We make unfair judgments as to who somebody is, and as to what their capabilities are,” Maynard says. “Most of the time it’s very casual and doesn’t matter, but we do it.”

Every farm has some level of public image, even if you don’t sell directly to the public, Maynard says. As a farmer, when you drive down the road, you probably make different snap judgments about the farms that you pass based on whether they seem ramshackle and disorganized, or whether they look well managed.

The same goes for the public, Maynard says, so managing your image isn’t only about finding a customer, it’s all about influencing what people will feel they can expect from you, and what they think you can be trusted with.

The solutions can be a nice sign for the farm, a clean pickup when you go to town, how you dress when you go to the bank, or how you answer the telephone.

“You want to be the one who creates that image,” Maynard says. “You don’t want to let other people do it for you.”

“It’s not rocket science,” Maynard adds. “Think out the image you want, and have a purpose.”

Increasingly, your image management may have a social media context too.

“You don’t need to go overboard,” Maynard says. “And you don’t need to be loud about it, but if you learn how to use it and use it effectively, then it can be a very simple and cheap tool. But it takes a little openness and understanding about how the technologies work and what you can do with them.”

“You are what you wear.” — Deb Brewin, Face 2 Face Image Consulting

Deciding how to dress is always more important for women, but when you work in agriculture, the job is even tougher.

The stakes are greater, because it’s your job and your business that’s in the balance. Plus, the rules are less clear. When did you ever see a photo shoot on how to dress as a farm woman?

“It’s a lasting impression that you have to think about,” says Deb Brewin, certified international image consultant at Face 2 Face Image Consulting in Calgary. “You want to send a message of credibility and look approachable. You want to transmit an overall professional image.”

“First impressions are crucial. It only takes three to five seconds to make a first impression and most of that is based on what you are wearing… 93 per cent of that is based on your outer appearance.”

For Brewin, the first rule is to always be prepared to present a good image of yourself.

“You never know who you’re going to run into,” Brewin says. “Someone you’re chatting with could become someone you want to network with down the road.”

“Even myself, if I’m going for groceries or running up town, I still look presentable,” Brewin says.

(Brewin does admit to bending the “always be presentable” rule. That’s because, if she is meeting other women, and especially if she is doing business with other women, she makes extra sure to think about her appearance, dressing up a little more.)

Being well dressed doesn’t have to mean a closet full of expensive clothes, Brewin adds. “I talk about a capsule wardrobe,” she says, explaining that nine pieces can make 30 outfits without breaking the bank. That includes a jacket, white blouse, coloured blouse, a dressier top for evenings, black skirt, black pants, printed skirt, sweater, “and for ag women, I would include jeans in that.”

“I think if you wear jeans, they should be a dark jean or black jean with a nice top and jacket. It all depends. If you’re going out into the field, you still have to look approachable. For a business meeting, if you’re selling anything, yes, you should probably wear dress pants and a jacket but you can look too stuffy in a suit.”

But also keep in mind what you’re doing, and where you’ll be. “Women feel good and often feel more confident when they’re dressed up,” Brewin says. “However, you have to dress for what you’re doing for the day. If you have to go out in the field, if you have to be out checking crops, no one’s going to take you seriously if you go out in dress pants and heels.

“There’s nothing wrong with wearing workboots or cowboy boots, as long as they’re clean and look presentable. That, to me, still shows professionalism.”

That said, Brewin adds, “It’s always wise to carry a dressier shirt or a jacket with you just in case something comes up.”

Also remember that there’s more to image than your wardrobe. Cleanliness is crucial. And, she adds, “If you’re smiling, and you look good, and you feel good, you are exuding confidence and happiness. And people are attracted to that!”

“The first thing you should put on in the morning is a smile, because positive attracts positive.”

Not surprisingly, there are expert tricks too. “If you wake up in the morning down and out, blue is very therapeutic and helps to lighten your spirits. It’s a great colour for everybody,” Brewin says.

“Colours around the face can send a message. Red is powerful, outgoing, and happy and navy, instead of black, is a more approachable colour.”

Black means security, peace or chic. Green is wisdom. Purple is thoughtfulness. Grey is more conservative and another great colour for a suit.

“We’re all human and will look at a person and make a judgement call. They could be wonderful workers but I would rather work with somebody who takes care of themself and is a confident person and carries themselves well.”

“Looking presentable shows you pay attention to detail.”

About the author


Amy Petherick

Amy Petherick is a Contributing Editor for Country Guide.

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