Urban Customers 'Starved' for Connections With Farming

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Teresa McMinn Southeastern Pa. Correspondent

DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. — Marketing might be the last thing that comes to mind for many consumers when they consider a farmer’s typical work day.

But promotion of agriculture is necessary for the local farmer who wants to reach customers. And that task is becoming more and more ominous, experts say.

“Your potential customers will size you up in 30 seconds or less,” said Sheri Salatin, marketing director at Polyface Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Through on-farm sales and metropolitan buying clubs, Polyface sells goods including pastured poultry, forage-based rabbits and forestry products to more than 4,000 families, 50 restaurants and 10 retail outlets, she said.

Salatin was a featured speaker at Keep Farming First 2013. The annual event, held last Saturday in Downingtown, Pa., included speakers such as Russell Redding, dean of Delaware Valley College’s School of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and former Pennsylvania secretary of agriculture.

The speakers gave presentations on such topics as government’s role in agriculture, then participated in panel discussions followed by question and answer sessions.

Salatin’s talk focused on ways farmers in metropolitan areas can increase their market shares.

Educational outreach such as farm tours and health food fairs are a good way to catch and keep customers, she said, while also addressing the disconnect between local farmers and consumers.

“There’s a whole generation of people out there that don’t think chickens have bones,” she said. “People are starved to be connected.”

Giving away free samples is also a good way to gain new customers, she said.

“It always comes back 10-fold,” she said. “Samples work. The idea is to get your product into the hands of your future customers.”

Communication is also key, Salatin said.

“Ask your customers what they want,” she said. “You’re trying to fill a need. You have to punch through what’s keeping them from buying from you.”

Getting a new customer is the tough part of the job, Salatin said.

“Keeping them should be easy,” she said.

She also recommended folks use social media to reach more customers.

“We started a blog,” she said. “Getting 1,000 customers is hard. Getting one customer is easy. So go out there and just get one.”

After Salatin’s presentation, a panel including Coatesville Farmers Market organizer Yvonne Post, Bill Hostetter of Hostetter Grain Inc. based in Oxford, Pa., and Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs, Pa., elaborated on Salatin’s talk.

“The consumer wants to know where their food comes from,” Post said. “We’re all consumers at some level.”

Miller said her family found success by selling their cheeses at farmers markets.

“That was a great way for us to market our product and market our farm on a grass-roots level,” she said.

After the panel discussion, Tony Norman, 15, a freshman at Sankofa Academy Charter School in West Chester, Pa., asked whether the European Economic Community common market idea could be implemented in the U.S. as a way to generate income for farmers and increase the circulation of money on the local level.

“Could that serve as a model?” he asked.

“I don’t see it ever working in America,” Post said, adding that in the U.S., local, state and federal regulations would prevent such a model from getting off the ground.

Delaware County, Pa., 4-H leader Debbie Murphy — who attended the conference with her husband, Bill, and their son Jared, 17 — also discussed problems caused by too many government rules.

“They need to stop regulating the small farms,” she said.

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