This year’s get-together for the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association took place in Nashville and Knoxville, TN. The week-long event was part trade show, part tour and also featured two days of in-depth marketing specific demonstrations and discussions by experts and peers on how members can best grow their business. With several hundred in attendance, extra transportation was needed to bus groups to various tour stops around the areas of both cities.
The destinations during the three-day bus tour were predominantly agribusiness related. One of the first stops was Green Door Gourmet, located on the Hidden Valley Farm, just 10 minutes away from downtown Nashville. “We are a farm, but we offer a lot of different experiences and we’re focusing on, kind of, the gourmet aspects of a lot of it,” says JC Miller, who primarily harvests the fields and interacts with school groups and field trips. JC, who came to Nashville to play music, began working on the farm part-time three years ago. “I’ve never eaten food as fresh and delicious,” he said, “I’m probably spoiled for life, it’s tough for me to go anywhere else.” JC says the number one reason people are visiting Nashville is to experience the restaurants, the custom cuisine eateries that rely on fresh produce to provide a unique dish. “We supply a lot of restaurants in town,” JC proudly told the tour members during the welcoming introduction to the farm.
Owner Al Grainer followed, giving an oral history of the property, a property that has been a working family farm since the ‘40s. In that time, it’s been a 3,000 acre share and row crop farm, as well as a hog and cattle farm. Now they are transitioning into a certified organic growing facility, with new buildings, new roads and a new approach. “The transition we’re taking into the next generation of farming is something that is a result of us going to things like this and learning from you,” Grainer told the group gathered. Their new business approach incorporates a gourmet farm-to-fork program and a brand new barn-sized venue for parties and other formal and informal gatherings. They also garner support from a CSA program and have a general store to sell some of their delights.
Three years ago, they started with just under an acre of certified organic growth. This season Farm Manager Luke Yoder expects to plant just under 25 acres certified organic. “Last year was a big year of buying new equipment,” says Yoder, he remembers clearing out the rusty metal from a shack that would become the first Saturday market just a few years ago. With just a few years of transition, Green Door Gourmet seems to have found a niche market and are hoping for continued success down the road.
In contrast, another featured farm that experienced a similar transformation nearly four decades ago is The Apple Barn and Cider Mill. It’s a family owned apple orchard business located in the shadows of the Smokey Mountains, it was a beef, cattle and tobacco operation, purchased in the early 70s by the Kirkpatrick and Evans families.
According to Kent Kilpatrick, the goal was to divide the 62 acres of farmland into parcels. Kent’s father, Bill, a fulltime pharmacist, was transitioning from one profession into another when the farm experienced a tobacco crop failure. Bill Kirkpatrick’s good friend, Dr. David Lockwood from the University of Tennessee, came out to access the failure and noticed the apple trees were doing really well. Dr. Lockwood suggested they get rid of the tobacco and focus on planting more apple trees. The new owners took the doctor’s advice and now, nearly 40 years later, have more than 4,000 apple trees and grow several different varieties of apple.
Kent says his Dad is very thankful to NAFDMA and other organizations for their success, “He immersed himself, went in with both feet trying to learn everything and took every trip like this trying to learn every trick he could,” adding, “a lot of local people were saying we should put a little stand up on the road, and after visiting some of these old barns and seeing some of the renovations that people had done in retail, he saw value in our 100-year-old barn and character, making that the centerpiece,” Kent recalls.
The barn was transformed around 1980 into a retail market and today, the 62 acres also features a cider bar, winery, creamery, candy factory and restaurant, all offering a wide array of apple-based products grown on the farm. “The critical thing that Dad has taught us is slow growth, it’s taken us 37 years to get to the point we’re at,” he explained, “people are absolutely obsessive, they don’t want to just come to a retail thing that’s got apples and apple items, they want to come to the orchard.”
The long term success the Kilpatrick family has enjoyed is also based on The Apple Barn and Cider Mill’s prime location, sharing proximity with both the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and Dollywood, both of which draws 10 and 3 million visitors per year, respectively.
One of the smaller family farms looking to improve their agritourism venture is Granddaddy’s Farm, a 76-acre family run farm located in Estill Springs, TN, an area with a considerably less dense in population than say, Nashville. The farm is owned and operated by the Dixon family, Steve, Karen and their two sons Andrew and Philip. As fourth generation farmers, they still continue to grow corn, wheat and soy beans as well as bale 50,000 bails of straw throughout the year, but for eight weeks in the Fall they open their property up to the public, inviting them to go through their corn maze, enjoy the pumpkin area and have fun doing a variety of other farm themed activities.
“We’re about family here, just having a good day, we want people to come here and have fun,” says Philip Dixon, a 22-year old farmer who, along with his slightly older brother Andrew, represent the next generation of farmer. One of Philip’s new favorite parts of the farm is the recently planted apple orchard, 430 trees on about a half-acre of land. “We planted Fuji, Candy Crisp, which is like a Honey Crisp, Pink Lady and Green Apple,” he proudly explains. “It’s on a trellis system, we’re supposed to have some apples this Fall.” The Dixons are hoping to add half bushels and bags of apples to their indoor market sales area, which is located within the main Barn. They are also hoping those on tour will give them some pointers on how best to reconstruct that area so that visitors stay shopping longer and spend more money. “Right now, its A to B, you can run straight through our market, we need to make it where it zigzags and stuff.”
During the Convention’s Keynote address, customer service and marketing guru Harold Lloyd coached the crowd on how to take the rules of retail and apply them to entertainment agriculture. Becoming more profitable shouldn’t be left to luck and circumstance and Lloyd spent much of his time stressing the importance of appearance, friendliness and how to effectively manage personnel. After the Keynote address, Lloyd joined dozens of other presenters who all lead breakout sessions and targeted seminars that were meant to bolster business and increase brand exposure.
The two days of trade show and special seminars allowed for a comfortable way for the membership to float in and out of various important topical discussions, like how to host a successful farm media day, how to streamline and manage large corn maze crowds and even how to open your farm to walks, runs and charity events.
NAFDMA Executive Director Charlie Touchette believes farm direct marketing and agritourism has arrived. He urged members to use this year’s information, experience and forged friendships to help prepare their own business for next season, establish a two-year strategy and set obtainable goals for 2017. Touchette let the members know that “above all, have fun, be fun, promote fun” and the prosperity will follow.