Steve Ela, the 4th generation of Ela Family Farms in the foothills of the Colorado Rockies, has made big changes in the marketing of the tree fruit from his 99- acre farm since the 1990’s, when they marketed it wholesale through a packinghouse that served a number of growers.
“Since, then, we’ve switched to doing all our marketing ourselves. We needed to get out of the commodity market. The packing shed did a good job, and still packs and sells for about 10 growers. But each additional dollar we can get by marketing ourselves is ‘gravy’. Doing the marketing ourselves has allowed us to stay on the farm.”
However, marketing in this diversified manner is also time consuming. “I probably spend 60 percent of my time marketing,” Steve continued. The Elas travel 300 miles to the most distant of their farmers markets in Fort Collins. “We attend eight far-flung farmers markets until November, and depending on the time of year, they can make up 30 to 40 percent of our business.
“We’ve also created our own wholesale distribution route. We’ve spent a lot of years developing relationships with these grocery stores, restaurants and farm markets. Without a middleman, we can deliver our fruit fresher, with more flavor, and at lower prices.”
In addition, Ela Family Farm makes about 15 percent of their sales through CSA’s. “We have 100 to 150 shares in our own fruit CSA. We also work with vegetable growers who distribute our fruit with their CSA vegetables, making up 500 to 600 more shares.”
With only 99 acres, which averaged at best only 400 to 800 bushels of apples per acre due to exceptionally difficult soils, the Ela family has to make maximum use of all the fruit they produce, including seconds and off-grades.
“In 2004, we started doing just a little bit of value-added,” Steve continued. “As a start, we began peeling and dicing our damaged fruit, cutting out the bad spots by hand, and someone else made our jam. This seemed like a good fit for us. It didn’t cost any more to take a case of jam along to our farmers markets,” In addition, purchases of value-added items didn’t seem to take away from fresh fruit sales. “Customers would buy both, and overall sales increased. It was a good way to use our off-grade fruit.”
The Elas decided to pursue this opportunity, and built their own commercial kitchen, now with solar panels for heat and electricity. “At present we do everything in-house except for the jam. We still get the fruit ready by hand, and then take it to our neighbor, who has a commercial kitchen, where it is heated and jarred.
“Our applesauce contains one ingredient: apples. It comes in 4 varieties. Our ‘Apples Aplenty’ is always a blend of 5 apples, with our basic recipe being about 30 percent tart, some Jonagold for semi tart, and the rest sweet. The ‘Apples Aplenty’ blend is probably our best seller. But each customer has different taste preferences.”
“Several years ago, ‘Real Simple’ magazine had an applesauce contest, and they declared our ‘Apples Aplenty’ blend the best sweet applesauce among all the entries.”
The Ela farm is known for its heirloom apples. “We grafted the trees themselves. Some of our favorite varieties include Esopus Spitzenburg, Ashmeads Kernel and Swiss Gourmet.
Steve has found that several key concepts have increased his farmers’ market sales. “We used to grow six or seven varieties of apples. Now we grow 23. Each week we try to have one new apple variety that wasn’t there the week before. It’s all designed to attract customers and to differentiate us from the box stores.
“We have one employee who just cuts and hands out samples. Having something new to sample every week sets us apart.
“The opportunity to taste many varieties reminds customers that food has flavor, and they start to think about what they really like. We don’t want customers to feel like they ’should’ eat fruit because it’s healthy. We want them to find fruit flavors that they really enjoy. We want to create a very different experience.
“We do the same with peaches. We have an eight to ten week peach season, and each variety picks for a week to 10 days. Since we’ll be attending the markets anyway, if we can add another variety to extend the season, it makes sense for us to do that.”
Also, as they rotate through their varieties the Elas try to pick and sell each at its peak of flavor, without extended storage. In addition, both pricing and packaging for farmers markets are designed to make sales quick and to avoid lines.
The Ela’s fruit is sold in tote bags, not by the pound. Selling the fruit bagged eliminates customer bruising of ripe fruit and eliminates possible food safety issues. Their bagged fruit is priced in even dollar amounts whenever possible.
All employees are authorized to handle transactions. There is only four hours’ market time to make as much as they can, and customers don’t like to wait.
Another Ela philosophy on marketing is that in years when the farm is short on fruit, the imperfects or seconds are sold at the farmers markets at half price. “Peaches will be about a buck a pound. I can make money on that. We maybe make less per farmers market that way, but by selling our firsts to our wholesale customers, we definitely make more overall for the farm.”
For their CSA, the Elas outline very clearly what customers can expect through the season, including two boxes of storage apples per customer at the end of the season. If they are short on fruit, their customers know their normal fruit share may be replaced by an equal value of value-added products.