by Katie Navarra
Jeff Hatfield simply wanted good food to feed his family. That basic goal inspired the creation of Seeds & Spores Family Farm. The organic farm is just a few miles from the shores of Lake Superior near Marquette, MI, in an area known as Green Garden Hill.
“I was a one-man operation and it just sort of slowly evolved,” he said. “We just started small. Now we mostly direct market all our products through a CSA and our local farmers market, and also have a store on the farm and we have a few wholesale accounts like the market food co-op and some restaurants as well.”
The Hatfields cultivate vegetable crops, mushrooms, medicinal herbs and some livestock. Soil health and organic practices have been central to the farm’s operation since its inception 20 years ago.
“I’ve tried to point out to people that the soil is as important as anything in farming. If a mineral or nutrient is not in the soil, it’s not going to be in the plant and then your food,” he said. “We really kind of try to take the tack that we’re growing a nutrient-dense product and take a lot of pains to put those nutrients into our systems so that they’re in the food.”
Emphasizing the farm’s growing practices through marketing efforts have allowed the Hatfields to set themselves apart from competitors. They shared their production and marketing advice during a virtual farm tour sponsored by the Michigan Farmers Market Association.
Email, websites and social media are often the focus of marketing efforts, but a “snail mail” brochure to the Seeds & Spores customer list is integral to the farm’s promotions. Sending a mailer every March puts a physical reminder in people’s hands, according to Jeff.
“We do utilize Facebook and Instagram a little bit, but we’re not heavy users,” he said. “For email, the MailChimp platform easily reaches a big mailing list. It’s necessary to have that type of software to get things into people’s inboxes and it directs them to our online shopping platform.”
The online store was launched four years ago. Giving customers an opportunity to shop online has brought some stability to their income, Jeff said.
Encouraged to explore their strengths
Letting employees and volunteers manage farm projects and tasks that they enjoy and/or have a particular skill set for increases productivity on the farm. Asking staff and volunteers to share their strengths and weaknesses allows farmer-owners to assign direct marketing tasks that more effectively build a customer base.
“Our daughter’s been incredibly helpful with helping with the computer part. She’s an artist and designed our online store and logo,” Jeff said. “Those are skills that are not really where we want to be spending our time or learning what to do. Our son is an awesome trailer driver, so he’s the one always doing the deliveries and pulling the big trailer.”
Get familiar with customers
Any successful sales business is based on relationships. The Hatfields believe a significant portion of their marketing efforts focus on strengthening customer connections. Chatting with customers at CSA pickup sites and farmers markets gives them a chance to learn about their customers’ favorite products.
“Now, I’m at the drop site – that’s another interaction with our customers that we didn’t have before, because they used to be able to just get their CSA bin,” Leanne said. “It’s a really fun way to get feedback on what is in the shares. We can give them advice on how to cook and hear their favorite recipes.”
Face-to-face contact with customers, at the market or on the farm, makes them feel connected to what’s going on. The Hatfields say customers have enjoyed watching their kids grow up because they have been going to the markets since they were babies, and now they can run it without their parents.
“People love and appreciate that. That makes them feel like they’re a part of our farm,” Leanne said.
Offering a wider variety of products and services can buffer a farm’s income when unplanned situations like COVID-19 hits. While the coronavirus pandemic has cancelled nearly all the farm’s restaurant sales, offering online sales, CSAs and participating in farmers market with diverse products has allowed the family to keep going.
“Having a lot of diversity keeps us very busy,” Jeff said. “We are also trying to figure out how to keep it manageable for our own personal lives and not be working 20-hour days.”
With increasing numbers of farms locally, meaning more competition, the family continues looking for new ways to market and sell their products. Considering feedback from employees has been key to staying ahead of trends.
“Our two main managers, Carrie and Vanessa, had been working with us for many years. They were the ones saying we need to be seeding this many flats this week so that we have lettuce on a continual basis. That’s been really helpful to have someone take over that part,” Leanne said. “Chris, who worked for us for many years and then left and now is back, is helping Jeff a lot with our foliar sprays and our nutrification of the soil.”
Marketing farm products is as important as raising good products. If you’re interested in learning more about direct marketing strategies, the Michigan Farmers Market Association suggests these articles:
- “5 Tips for Marketing Your Farm” (Farm and Dairy, 2017)
- “Guide to Farming: Direct Marketing Options” by Tara Hammonds (Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 2019)
- “Getting Started with Exploring Market Possibilities for Your Ag Products” by Ron Goldy (MSU Extension, 2015)