Last Thursday the New Farmer Project hosted a training workshop for technical assistance providers called “Selling in the Food System.” The event was a great opportunity for advisers from organizations like the Intervale Center, Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL), the Northeast Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), the Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN), UVM Extension, several Vermont farmers’ markets, and many others, to discuss marketing strategies for our ever expanding array of farmers across the state. Mary Peabody, Jessie Schmidt and Beth Holtzman of the UVM Extension New Farmer Project and Women’s Agricultural Network ran the show and introduced the presentations.
As the technical assistance providers arrived at the workshop they were encouraged to rate their marketing expertise on a scale from novice to dare devil. The attendees modestly rated themselves almost evenly among “novice,” “intermediate,” and “advanced.” The day revealed that the room held a wealth of expertise spread over many areas, from developing a brand identity to evaluating the strength of certain markets.
The workshop began with a panel of local farmers who sought to summarize the characteristics of his or her individual business and outline current marketing strategies. The panel illustrated the complexities of Vermont’s food industry, which hosts producers of both wholesale vegetables and specialty food items, generalists and specialists, neighborhood growers and national sellers.
Lee Blackwell of Blackwell Roots Farm in Cabot spoke about his shift from winter farmers markets to production of value added products, like sauerkraut. He also addressed the difficulties inherent in finding consistent markets while trying to run a farm and complete every other step in the process toward selling.
Mari Omland, co-owner of Green Mountain Girls Farm, shed light on her strategy of running a diverse, year-round farm share and agritourism haven. She spoke of cultivating strong, loyal relationships with a few select clients and striving to live up to a commitment to the earth and to her community.
Calley Hastings of Fat Toad Farm told her family’s story of starting a farm and the path that it took to become a goat’s milk caramel operation. Her perspective emphasized the importance of networking, adaptability, and seeking new and up-coming markets.
Following the panel was a presentation by Matt LeRoux, Marketing Specialist from Cornell University Cooperative Extension. Matt outlined his methodology for assessing market channels, a model which has enabled small vegetable farmers to make decisions that enhance their use of time and resources. With only a small amount of data collection from current markets, this realistic and simplified form of data logging may be just the thing that small farmers need to keep track of their relative success in selling to restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, or whatever the clientele may be.
After a delicious lunch catered by Capitol Grounds, Nicole L’Huillier Fenton of Skillet Design & Marketing spoke about her experiences working with farmers to improve their brands and sales. She emphasized the importance of conveying an authentic story that differentiates the farm from others in Vermont’s competitive markets.
The final presentation by David Conner, Professor of Community Development & Applied Economics at UVM, gave an academic view of the market forces for small farmers. Connor spoke of the Product Differentiation Continuum and the Sales Continuum, ways to graphically represent some of the complexities of businesses that each has particular strengths, preferences, scale of production, access to markets, and clients.
All this talk gave the technical assistance providers from all around Vermont plenty to talk about and brainstorm as they broke out into discussion groups. The exercise gave most people the opportunity to newly consider his or her role when advising farmers on the marketing portion of their business. Overall the event afforded some wonderful opportunities for collaboration and allowed our technical assistance providers to hone their marketing skills!