By Laura Sluder
Farmer’s markets have been the mainstay of my marketing plan for the past 9 years. They are a great way to get a small farm up and running with some cash flow but there are downsides to farmer’s markets. For one, they are usually only open in the summer but farm expenses come all year long.
Another disadvantage is that the farmer has to be the one at the market, hence the name “farmer’s market”. While this is a great selling point and customers love talking to the farmer, it also means that the farmer is not on the farm doing what they do best, farming! It takes a lot of planning early in the week to have everything ready for me to be gone from the farm for a whole day on Saturday. Then there is the day before market, getting cheese cut and packaged, packing coolers and the truck. And markets are exhausting. Being on your game, answering the same questions time after time, smiling all day, and driving 4 hours, these things are harder than putting in a full day of labor on the farm.
The advantage to farmer’s markets for a small start-up farm are as numerous as the disadvantages. For one, getting instant feedback on your product is invaluable. It’s a great feeling when someone congratulates you by saying your cheese is the best they’ve ever tried. It makes all the hard work you put in to be there worth it. Cash, cash, cash! Most of the sales at farmer’s market are cash. If you are selling a fresh product, the turn around on your investment is weekly. This is really important in a cash-strapped business like farming. You don’t have to wait until fall to pay all your bills with one big check from your commodity. Just don’t forget to budget for those winter months!
Festivals! They’re awesome! If you can find a festival relating to your product, you’ve got it made. I have the Trailing of the Sheep Festival every October in Sun Valley. I can sell more cheese there in 4 hours than I sell all month at farmer’s markets. People come to festivals ready to buy! I wish there was a festival every month, I’d only have to “work” 12 days a year.
Over the years, I’ve tried several other marketing ventures. And they’ve been an adventure, to say the least. I’ve worked with other producers to sell our products jointly. Expensive lesson learned: have a clear and concise WRITTEN contract! Everyone has their own idea of how things should be run and who pays for what and when. The other party’s ideas may not be the same as yours. I can’t stress it enough, get it in writing! The other thing to remember is it’s your baby. No one will push your product like you will. They aren’t hungry enough. And if they are selling their own product as well as yours, they will sell more of their own. It’s not done intentionally, it just happens. If you know this going in, you won’t be surprised.
I’ve found that marketing to grocery stores doesn’t work for me. For one, I’m too nervous to sell a whole wheel of cheese without cutting into it and tasting it first. Then, most stores in our area don’t have a cheese counter, everything is pre-packaged and I’m not set up to do that. Packaging is my biggest challenge. It’s easy to wrap cheese at the market in plastic wrap, knowing that the customer is going to take it home and eat it that week, packaging for long term shelf live is more difficult. Maybe someday, I’ll invest in a commercial vacuum packager but that isn’t in my budget for this year.
Thanks to Stonyfield, Profits for the Planet, for funding the 2013 Bootstrap blog series.