Best practices for direct farm marketing and five things you need to avoid

Once you’ve got your value-added product or service ready to go, the hard part’s done, right?

Not so fast. Chances are you are going to need to work hard to build product awareness. The experts agree you need a plan for how you’re going to let your potential customers know why they’re going to want to do business with you.

The marketing plan is a vital part of your business plan and should emphasize the five Ps of marketing. Product, positioning, place, price and promotion must be thoroughly dissected. But there also has to be more.

Key elements include product differentiation, your “story,” and your customer profile.

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Also never forget that your marketing plan is a way to focus both formal and informal market research to help you tailor your product or service to your target customers for maximum effect.

But how do you create your marketing plan?

Start with your customer. The value-added marketing gurus tell us consumers choose to buy directly from farmers for many reasons. Some people want to buy local, while others want to know where their food comes from. Still others may want to have a relationship with the farmer or they may simply enjoy the atmosphere of the farm or want to have a more intimate shopping experience.

Of course for many, the answer is some version of “all of the above.”

How do you market your product or service into that continuum? Which factor is most important for you?

It can help to start by listening to the real experts, i.e. other farmers who are succeeding at value adding.

“People buy food for many reasons, not just to nourish themselves,” says Cindy Wilhelm, owner of Dragonfly Garden Farm near Chatsworth, Ont. which sells 130 products online through its on-farm store and through various retail outlets. “Know your food and farm philosophy,” says Wilhelm. “And don’t stray from it.”

“Make sure you have a unique quality product,” adds Jim Eby, owner of Eby Manor Golden Guernsey Milk near Waterloo, Ont. “Our Guernsey milk has a unique flavour and higher A2 protein content, so we felt direct marketing was the way to go.”

It all starts with the product, agrees Debbie Nightingale, owner of Haute Goat in Campbellford, Ont. which sells handmade skin-care products and chocolates made from their goats’ milk through both an online and on-farm stores.

“It’s about the passion you have for it, what makes it different and what your ‘story’ is,” Nightingale continues. “When we talk about our goats and our love for them, it’s contagious. People want to tell you their goat stories, hear more about ours, and just be part of the excitement.”

Jo-Ann McArthur, president and founder of Nourish food marketing, a Toronto company that specializes in all aspects of food and beverage marketing, agrees that telling “your story” should be a key part of your marketing strategy. “We are hard wired to respond to character-driven stories,” McArthur says.

Peter Katona, sales and marketing manager at Martin’s Fruit Farm near Waterloo, Ont. also advises trying to see your product and retail space through the eyes of your customer.

That means getting to know your customer. To help you understand where urban customers in particular are coming from, Katona suggests reading popular food literature such as Michael Pollan’s, The Omnivore’s Dilemma or watching films like “Food Inc.”

Also anticipate what your customers want to find. “Your product and property need to be visually appealing. Visitors may want to see the animals,” says Katona. “Clean up your barnyard, get rid of old, rusty farm equipment… look at it through the city person’s eyes.”

People are coming to your farm for the experience, Katona continues. “Give your potential customers a country welcome. Remember, this isn’t farming, it’s retail. You need to be a people person, build relationships and be able to deal with complaints.”

Presentation is everything and includes your retail space and staff. Is your sales area organized so people can find what they are looking for? Is your staff well trained? Do they know the product, how it’s made and how to use it? Do they have uniforms?

You will also have to decide on the mix of advertising, personal selling, sales promotion, public relations, and social media that you will use to promote your product or service.

Nightingale says they use various ways of marketing including their website, Facebook, Twitter, newsletters, online videos, a teeny bit of print, publicity (they were just featured in the LCBO’s Food & Drink magazine and got an incredible response), consumer shows, trade shows, farmers’ markets, through their on-farm store, and getting products to celebrities or opinion-makers so they can spread the word.

Jessica Kelly, direct farm-marketing program lead at the Ontario agriculture ministry says that one of the mistakes she sees people make frequently is to have too narrow of a definition of marketing. “They tend to think of marketing as advertising and promotion,” Kelly says.

Instead, value-adders should look at the broader opportunity, Kelly says, and the message should be comprehensive and consistent. For example, if it’s a premium product, the packaging and the way you promote the product should fit.

Nightingale sought out the help of an experienced designer, Dana Harrison, to develop her logo. “We had a concept of what we wanted and she designed it,” says Nightingale. “She’s great for foodie startups and gets excited right along with you!”

Nightingale also hired Succinct Social Media to help with promotion. She says the company has been great for getting their name out there, but she wonders if she should have spent more time and money on getting their website and Facebook page “right,” such as optimizing SEO.

“It’s a delicate balance of all of these things,” Nightingale says. “You have to be patient and put in the time and money.”

Five common mistakes

Gary Morton, a consultant in Coldbrook, Nova Scotia, has been helping farmers launch value-added businesses for more than 20 years. Among the most common mistakes he sees value-adders make are:

  1. Not defining their target market. Too many people think anyone who eats food is a customer, but that’s too general. Morton says you need to ask: “Who is likely to buy my product and how can I get to them?” Often the market is not who you think it is.
  2. Not budgeting enough for marketing. Morton says you may need to spend as much or more than what you spent on product development.
  3. Ineffective package design. Here’s another area where farmers commonly don’t spend enough. The package must stand out and be recognizable.
  4. Not giving out enough free samples. “When it comes to food products, it’s essential to give out samples,” Morton says. If your product is in a grocery store, give samples to staff so they can speak knowledgeably about your products to the consumer, he says. Value-added businesses have to have an ongoing commitment to marketing and building product recognition.
  5. Doing only half the job. Too often, farmers think that once they’ve got the product onto grocery store shelves their job is done. Morton emphasizes that although the store is providing space for your product, you still have to create the market demand.

Best practices for direct farm marketing

Dr. Andreas Boecker and his colleagues at the University of Guelph studied several value-added businesses and summarized their findings in the Direct Farm Marketing Business Resources available at

Below are recommendations based on their study of how successful value-added businesses go to market:

  • Create a unique brand.
  • Know the legal requirements.
  • Network and collaborate with other local businesses. For example, sell non-competing products from other farms or collaborate on events.
  • Get involved in regional publications such as local food maps and local tourism offices that promote culinary or agri-tourism.
  • Connect with local media such as newspaper and radio.
  • Stay connected with your customers. Build a customer database, send out an email newsletter,  connect using social media, and use surveys.
  • Offer value-added services. Hold special events, give out recipes, and suggest other local attractions to customers.
  • Take part in off-site activities that fit your brand. Choose events that attract like-minded people.
  • Prioritize your marketing channels, and know which ones are income earners.

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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