by Gail March Yerke
The Indiana Small Farm Conference, the annual networking and educational event that brings together farmers, educators and researchers, recently presented “Value-Added Products in Your Farm Operation.” Just one of the tracks hosted by Purdue University, attendees learned about several diverse, successful agribusiness value-added programs. Speakers shared how they were able to introduce additional income streams to their farms by developing value-added extensions of their product lines.
Tracy and Chris Hunter own and operate Hunter’s Honey Farm in Martinsville, IN. Located in the southern part of the state, the 95-acre farm began as his great-grandfather’s apple orchard over 100 years ago. Tracy explained how honey is just one segment of their agribusiness. “Diversification is our motto,” he said. Today, in addition to their honey operation, they produce maple syrup, grow and sell Christmas trees and manage 75 additional acres of hardwood timber. Their beehives are worked in Indiana, Florida and California.
Tracy began his beekeeping journey at age 14 when his grandfather helped him get his first hive. The fourth-generation beekeeper explained all of the different products they derive from a hive: “There are seven products we get out of the beehives. I am trying to squeeze as many dollars out of each hive as I can. We aren’t the largest beekeeper operation in Indiana, but we are at about 1,000 hives.” In addition to collecting and packaging honey, they sell beeswax, bee pollen, bee glue (propolis), royal jelly and venom. They also sell queens and bees to beginning beekeepers. However, that is just the beginning of Hunter’s Honey Farm’s product line.
“When people walk in our place, they don’t just see a jar of honey,” Tracy said. Their farm store is also stocked with sweet treats like honey ice cream, honey caramel corn and 30 varieties of honey sticks. Other honey products they’ve developed include barbecue sauce, teriyaki marinade, dog treats and a skin care line.
Tracy said they are always looking for ways to increase the number of products offered at their retail farm store. “I have spent about the past 35 years waking up in the middle of the night with an idea and then going to the honey kitchen and trying to run with it,” he said. With her consumer economics background, his wife, Chris, has also played a big role in product development. Besides online sales and their farm store, Hunter’s Honey Farm sells at state and county fairs and four farmers markets, including two in the Chicago area. They also sell their products to grocery stores and breweries.
One tip from Tracy is that farms should tap into the current trend of agritourism and offer tours of their operations. Tours at their farm show the honey production process from the “bee to the bottle.” They explain the biology of beekeeping and tailor presentations to groups that range in age from preschool to adult. Visitors can even opt to bottle their own honey to take home. He emphasized, “I strongly believe in the concept of agritourism. If you’re trying to make a profit, don’t miss that opportunity.”
An example of today’s growing urban farming movement, Robin and Nate Shannon started growing vegetables in their backyard in 2009. Not only was it a therapeutic escape from stressful corporate careers, they found it helped their Gary, IN, community. “We live in an area where there is food apartheid,” Robin said. “We have these barriers and we just don’t have fresh and affordable food.” Their garden expanded and became so prolific that they gave away fresh vegetables to friends and neighbors. “Who knew that such a small backyard would yield so much?” she said.
Five years later, their backyard garden expanded even more. People began stopping at their home asking to buy fresh vegetables. That’s when Nate told her, “I think we might just have a business here.” That was the beginning of Shannon Farm and Homestead LLC.
They were able to attract their community just by word of mouth. “We used all of our friend connections, our church connections and Facebook to do a poll to find out what people really wanted us to grow,” she said. They decided to scale back the selection of items they grew to the more popular items of fresh greens, green tomatoes and hot peppers.
“One of the things we grew in abundance was peppers, a variety of hot peppers. I love to cook and so we went into the kitchen and we came up with four different hot sauces,” Robin said. They began giving samples of the sauces away and before long people wanted to buy their hot sauce too. “We had no idea that what we were doing was called value-added,” she said. “We were just simply using the peppers, giving away these sauces with our greens and then people began buying our hot sauce.”
A learning curve not without challenges, they read books and attended courses to learn everything they could about urban farming. Connecting with Purdue Extension, they participated in various certification classes and networked with other farmers. They now prepare and bottle their products at a commercial kitchen and are in the process of designing new labels. Hot sauce is sold through their CSA program, at pop-up markets and at restaurants. The couple is currently looking for a farm to expand their operation.
Both speakers had words of advice for those considering value-added products for their farm businesses. “When it comes to labeling your product, be sure that it says it’s special. Branding is so important!” Tracy stressed.
The cost of the labels is also a consideration, according to Robin. “You do have to shop around for labels. They can be really expensive. We actually use three different labels on our jars,” she said.
“When getting your product out to the public, start small with events like a farmers market or a festival,” Tracy suggested. “When you get into a store, offer a day of tasting. Stand there by your product and pass out free samples.”
Social media plays an important role in marketing for both businesses. “Facebook is such an easy, inexpensive way to get out there,” said Tracy. Robin added that they also use Facebook to take orders and schedule pick-up times for customers.
Value-added products have been a success story for both Hunter’s Honey Farm and Shannon Farm and Homestead in Indiana. It could be a positive addition to your farm too.