by George Looby
The Sturbridge Host Hotel in Sturbridge, MA was the site of the 2017 Harvest New England Ag Marketing Conference and Trade Show in March.
The Keynote Speaker was Craig Ostbo from the marketing firm of Koopman Ostbo Marketing Communications in Portland, OR. During his presentation, Craig stressed the importance of marketing to any firm regardless of size or commodity being offered for sale. A farm’s brand is the single most valuable asset of the business and throughout his talk he emphasized this point. Each individual who heads up the sales end of an operation represents his brand whether he realizes it or not and the sooner he comes to that realization the better off the entire marketing program will become.
Later in the day Craig held a session on the ways in which social media is impacting business. The changes in the way in which different age groups use and react to the various forms of social media is well recognized. Millennials have a global perspective and use resources such as Facebook to communicate. It is reported Facebook has a value of 395 billion and 76 percent of women in the U.S. use the service while 66 percent of males do so. Most ad dollars are directed at the younger members of the population.
One of the sessions addressed the topic of value-added foods. The first speaker was Ron Tanner representing the Specialty Food Association. The term specialty foods is not well defined at this time perhaps due in part to the wide diversity of the products which fall under the label. Cheese products make up a growing share of the market and is expanding rapidly. Terms such as green, organic, eco-friendly and sustainable are looked at with favor by the potential buyer. Refrigerated, fast preparation foods are another important segment of the total market. Specialty foods represent 14.1 percent of the total retail food market with a large share sold in natural supermarkets.
Men make up a larger share of the consumer market than women, younger buyers outnumber older ones and Millennials favor natural food stores, are likely to be vegetarians and prefer to drink nutritional beverages. Boomers tend to go for all natural foods including non-GMO, organic, artisanal, ethnic, eco-friendly, gluten free, locally sourced, sustainable and/or kosher.
Among the top five specialty foods at this time are those with aromatic flavors such as coconut, pumpkin, and maple syrup. Also included are new twists on specialty food products such a savory yogurt, spicy granola and chocolate chip.
One of the speakers following was Liz L’Etoile of Four Star Farms, a 300-acre mixed grain operation in Northfield, MA. They grow, harvest and process a mix of small grains such as oats and barley which is packaged as flour, distributed locally and beyond. Consumer demand is such they are now processing 2,500 lbs. a day. Liz was followed by Kristin Barry of Goshen, MA who has over the years developed a line of dressings, salsas, dips and sauces using locally grown produce and dairy products using Appalachian Naturals as the name for her product line.
A session entitled Farm Energy 101 was designed to provide information to farmers about generating electrical power by use of solar panels. Speakers included Liz Budd, CET/Mass Farm Energy Program; Anne Ciorreia, USDA Rural Development, West Wareham, MA; Amanda Fargo-Johnson, Connecticut Farm Energy Program, Haddam, CT; Alex DePillis, Vermont Division of Agricultural Development, Montpelier, VT.
Examples were cited where assistance grants were awarded to various farms, one of which was the Knight Farm in Rhode Island where a 67 KW RM/GM solar panel was installed making the operation almost independent of outside sources of energy. The St. Clair farm, also in Rhode Island, installed a 36 KW solar panel for $125,000 with an offset of $31,365 from a REH grant and $42,350 from the Rhode Island Renewable Energy fund. Massachusetts offers a number of programs to assist farmers in securing grants and loans. Technical resources are available to assist in applying for state and federal funding. Before any funding can be obtained, an energy audit must be done on the farm to justify an application and this is a for fee service averaging $400-$800. Among the federal programs available is the Agricultural Energy Management Plan. Alex DePillis spoke about a number of issues and programs going on in Vermont. An interesting situation exists where solar and wind powered energy is encouraged but solar panels cannot be placed on land designated as agricultural. One answer to this has been to place the panels in areas where livestock such as sheep can graze and the panels are placed high enough to allow the animals free movement and the rows far enough apart to allow the strips to be mowed.
One topic getting a lot of attention is agritourism. While the concept may sound appealing to anyone interested in increasing the cash flow on their farm there are many issues which need careful consideration. If food preparation is being considered, the local Board of Health may have some serious input in the way in which this is carried out. Hayrides can poise some serious legal considerations and zoning regulations may forbid other activities which may seem harmless when first considered. Some farms offer overnight accommodations with a farm breakfast and a chance to help with morning chores. A quick overview will raise many questions which need careful consideration for this kind of activity.
For those who grew up in the era where social media suggested listening in on the party line, the explosion of resources available today boggles the mind. Sessions were held where much of the lingo associated with this phenomenon was explained so the uninitiated would have a better comprehension of what it all means. Speakers presented ideas as to how to use social media effectively in marketing a farm or food business. This area of merchandizing is new and offers countless opportunities for those who are ready to take advantage of the technology. Online crowd funding platforms represent a new concept in funding business ventures of all sizes and some of those at the cutting edge have used their resources to assist their operations.
Farm succession is one of the most sensitive issues facing any farm family, one which is often difficult to talk about and even more difficult to implement. Help is available from a number of sources which makes the transition a smooth one, making it a part of the business plan enabling the participants to begin the process.
Most farmers are good at raising the crops they grow but marketing those goods may give rise to some concerns. Should it be farmers markets, roadside stands, CSA, restaurants, or stores? A panel of farmers spoke to this issue and offered their opinions on each and where they found their niche. A segment of agricultural marketing which gets little recognition is that which serves the needs of schools and institutions. An organization called Farm to Institution New England is one of several which serves the needs of K-12 schools, colleges and universities and hospitals with food direct from the farm.
Over 80 vendors, suppliers, supporters and agents were on hand to display their wares, offer advice, scoop ice cream, sell hoes and baskets and generally add much to the overall program. State and Federal agencies were available to explain their diverse programs to everyone.
Putting this program together represented a formidable task for those involved and they are to be congratulated for their efforts. There was so much to be absorbed and taken home to be put into practice.