Lauren Errickson of Rutgers’ Ag Experiment Station makes a point about the New Brunswick Community Farmers Market.
Photo by Richard Skelly

by Richard Skelly

FREEHOLD, NJ – Bill and Lauren Errickson discussed new ideas for direct marketing to a packed house of vegetable and fruit growers as part of the Central New Jersey Vegetable Growers’ Association’s annual meeting.

Bill is the newly-appointed Rutgers Cooperative Extension Agent for Monmouth County. Lauren, with Rutgers’ New Jersey Ag Experiment Station, manages the New Brunswick Community Farmers Market.

“Before Lauren and I came back to New Jersey, we ran a CSA program for our own horse-powered organic farm up in coastal Maine,” Bill explained.

Because many people have preconceptions of what a CSA program is, farmers need to think outside the box, he stressed. “There are many different ways and forms that this can take for a farm,” he said, noting it is essential to communicate up front to CSA subscribers that they share in the risks and rewards of the individual farm.

January, February and March are prime months to hustle up CSA subscribers, Bill stressed. You can get your cash flow going early by signing up people for the season by March. “It encourages a direct relationship with your customers, and gives you a very good sense of how much to plant, because the customers have already paid you,” he explained.

“You want to be generous with your produce, but make sure you’re not giving the farm away. How do you calculate that into what people are getting from week to week? You work backwards: if you charge $400 per share and your program runs for 20 weeks, you want to target $20 per person per week, so usually we would try to give them $20 to $24 worth of produce each week as a reward for their commitment,” Bill said. This way, CSA patrons are getting a bit of a discount but profit margins are still better than if you were selling wholesale.

“Each week you can create a harvest sheet, and if you’re running 30 shares that day, it’s easy. You can go out to the field and say ‘I need 30 pounds of tomatoes and 60 zucchinis’ and … get what you need based on what you calculated for each share,” he said.

The Erricksons also grew strawberries, raspberries and blueberries on their farm. You can create an extended fruit share option in your CSA program, and if you can’t grow all the fruit you need for your own patrons, you can set up working relationships with other nearby farmers. “We added cut flowers to our CSA program, and this can work for individual families and people as well as small businesses that want to have fresh flowers in their place of business,” Bill said.

“You can also contract with other farmers to include other things that maybe are not enough to be stand-alone business ventures – things like baked goods, honey, seafood, jellies, jams, herbal teas, meat, eggs, dairy,” he said, noting you can always test market these various add-ons.

Working with other area farmers also allows you to have better crop rotation in your fields. “If each farmer is growing one or two crops, you can minimize your pest and disease problems by rotating what’s being grown to somebody else’s field completely,” Bill said. “It takes a bit of coordination but you can work this out.”

He added, “As you collaborate with other farmers you can focus on one [large] individual customer who’s going to purchase all these things locally from one source: your farm.”

Bill noted that some CSA patrons do forget to swing by to pick up their shares. “Every season, no matter what you do, people are going to forget to come to the farm and pick up their boxes of produce. You want to have a policy in place that you will hold produce for a day or two, or else it will be donated to charity,” he suggested. “Factor a percentage of your budget into this for your time for logistics and coordination. Don’t allow it to frustrate or delay you if they don’t pick up their boxes. This is going to happen, so you should be paying yourself for it.”

Another avenue to explore is delivering produce to small businesses and hospitals. “We had a relationship where we were delivering to a local hospital and employees there were all members of the CSA, so we had 12 members there. We would go and drop off 12 boxes and we’d be on our way,” he said.

Lauren also spoke a bit about test marketing, demographics and testing out new crops. So how do you know what your customers are going to want to buy?

“One of the things we focus on at the New Brunswick farmers market is who wants what. Then, communicate that to your customers so you don’t have to spend so much time doing marketing research, because a lot of you just want to spend more time farming,” she argued.

A number of volunteers involved with the New Brunswick Community Farmers Market surveyed customers to see what specific kinds of produce they wanted. They were sent to schools, churches and other gathering places, including the market itself, to ask customers for their opinions on what three fruits and vegetables they were most passionate about. They also asked about foods they wanted but could not find in New Brunswick that they’d like to see at the farmers market.

Patrons of urban farm markets like the one in New Brunswick often have limited transportation and some do not own cars, Lauren noted, so if they wanted bananas, they were likely to buy their other favorite fruits at the same supermarket, not at the farmers market.

“Urban residents have been telling us a for long time ‘If we have to go to the grocery store to get something like mangoes, which are really important to us, we’re also going to buy our apples, bananas and everything else there.’ On the other hand, if we can bring mangoes to the farmers market, they’ll be happy to buy our locally produced apples, peaches and other fruits,” she said.

The vegetable survey delivered predictable results, Lauren said, noting, “The top three included tomatoes and Jersey corn, so that was great news.”

But regular immigrant patrons of the market asked for things like dandelion greens, bok choy and various types of amaranth and even prickly pear cactus. Currently and in future years, Lauren explained, the New Brunswick farmers market is working with grad student growers at Rutgers as well as farmers around the Garden State to try growing more of these ethnic crops.

In closing, Lauren said traditional market crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and corn are certainly favorable, “so you should keep doing what you’re doing, but keep in mind the growing markets for certain ethnic crops as well.”