Marketing has always fascinated me. I remember a marketing course I took in college where we had to invent a product and then develop the pertinent marketing research to support the sale of it. Today, let’s look at what’s involved in marketing vegetables.

First, let’s define marketing versus selling. Marketing is the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising. Marketing includes advertising, selling and delivering products to consumers or other businesses. Some marketing is done by affiliates on behalf of a company. Selling, on the other hand, is handing over a good or service in exchange for money. Selling transforms the goods into money, but marketing is the method of serving and satisfying customer needs. The marketing process includes the planning of a product or service’s price, promotion and distribution.

Now let’s think about marketing and selling vegetables. What type of market outlets are available to vegetable growers? I would break it down to wholesale versus retail (although some growers do both). Over the years, I have cautioned growers about getting caught in the middle – being too small to wholesale and too big to retail. We have to remember that marketing is a dynamic and fluid process. You don’t just wake up one morning a wholesale grower. Most operations have been in business for generations and have developed their wholesale markets. Remember the vegetable business is still based on personal relationships between the producer and the buyer. The large wholesale grower does not communicate directly with consumers, so the produce itself is their marketing tool. There may be a photo of the farmer and their family displayed at the large grocery store but that is the store’s marketing strategy.

Retail marketing involves direct sales to consumers and in many instances interactions with them. Some growers, their family members or employees are good at this. Division of labor on large retail farm markets allows each person to find their niche. There is a lot of creativity involved in retail marketing, such as arrangement of the produce to take advantage of the colors, textures, shapes, varieties and seasonality, as well as making interesting and informative signs to assist the consumer in knowing the uses of a particular vegetable and also clearly listing prices. Being creative in decorating the retail marketplace for different seasons, advertising the hours of operation, ensuring cleanliness and keeping the quality of the produce on display in tiptop shape are all very important.

I always gravitated toward marketing at the retail level so I could let my creative juices flow and I also just enjoyed talking to people. I had an economist friend tell me you want to keep it professional but at the same time keep the country atmosphere. What he meant by that was even if you have a large roadside market with seven cash registers, you want your customers to feel like they’re in the country and on the farm.

Bill Lamont and his sons at a farmers market in 1994.

Now, retail can be marketing at the farmers markets or maybe having a few products along the side of the road. This is how many of today’s large roadside markets got their start. All the things mentioned above are still relevant to these operations. I loved it when white pumpkins came on the market, as I would put a pile of white pumpkins next to a pile of orange pumpkins to catch consumers’ attention.

Some growers use organic/sustainable ag practices as a marketing tool and CSAs are direct marketing to consumers with a different structure. There is certainly a lot more use of modern computer programs in retail operations today. So much creativity is available today, as is the opportunity to educate the public about vegetables and why they are so important to one’s health and well-being.

Over my career, growers would call me saying that they had several acres of muskmelons ready to harvest and wondered where they could market them. What could I do at this stage? Whenever I addressed growers at commodity meetings, I always listed marketing first on the list of considerations. Think about where you’re going to market any crop before you order the first seed. This will keep you from asking your Extension agent or specialist that question.

Marketing is how I convince you that my melon is the best and you really need to purchase it from me. I taught my sons this concept when we were in Kansas where we grew “Magnum 45,” an old western shipper-type muskmelon we sold at the local farmers market. We had T-shirts made that had Augher Farm in an orange circle with a shamrock in the center and “Sweetest Melons in the Midwest” around the circle. Augher is the little town in Northern Ireland my grandfather came from. The boys learned how to talk to customers, explain about the melons, their quality, etc., and how to handle transactions. We also made stickers of the logo and put them on each melon. They remember that experience fondly and enjoyed making some money at the same time.

So marketing is very important, and the beauty of marketing is that vegetable growers have many options where to enter into marketing. It can be a few vegetables on a small stand to a large operation shipping truckloads to terminal markets in metropolitan areas or chain store warehouses. Each grower has to decide where they feel comfortable and work toward being the best marketer of high-quality vegetables.

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