Latanés produce a better way by restructuring business model
COLONIAL BEACH, Va. — Lawrence and Becky Latané used to sell their Certified Organic produce through a wholesaler, and they said it worked fairly well with the wholesaler selling to Whole Foods.
Then Amazon purchased Whole Foods, and the tech company made structural changes to the grocery chain’s business model, which cut out produce growers such as the Latanés.
The couple from Westmoreland County, Va., was left without a buyer and much needed cash.
“You can’t be overconfident on the source of a sale,” Lawrence says, “but I didn’t anticipate losing the whole works if something went wrong.”
As a result of this economic loss, the Latanés scrambled to restructure their own business model, which at that time not only included wholesaling for a couple of years but direct marketing to farmers’ markets and through Community Supported Agriculture programs for about 17 years. Their goal was to transition from selling direct to farmers’ markets and switch more toward wholesaling. They felt sales at farmers’ markets had peaked a couple of years before.
“I think everybody that works the farmers’ markets, by and large, is finding it more challenging than it used to be to generate the income that you were expecting,” Lawrence said. “A lot of direct market farmers I’ve talked to sort of had the same impression or had the same experience.
“There are more markets than there used to be; there are probably more individual farmers represented at the markets,” he added. “I don’t think the customer base has grown. What it has done is spread the number of customers around instead of concentrating when there were fewer markets. You had a bigger customer base then.”
He adds that grocers have improved the way they market produce, enticing customers to buy from them instead of farmers’ markets. More farmers’ markets, additional farmers at those markets, a stagnant customer base, and better marketing by retail grocers have “just kind of diluded the dollar that would be spent at the farmers’ market,” he says.
The Latanés also said they were tired of traveling to distant CSA pick-up locations after doing that for many years.
Since the wholesale experience didn’t pan out due to the loss of their wholesaler, the Latanés decided to add a Buyer’s Club to their operation and benefitted from an already established list of clients from their CSA and farmers’ market customers, as well as gaining new ones.
However, the Buyer’s Club is not a CSA. Through the club, participants can pick and choose what they want in a package versus receiving what the farmer gives them in CSA bags or boxes.
“We don’t require any commitment,” Becky said of Buyer’s Club participants. “They don’t sign up. They go to our website and ask to be on the e-mail list.”
Those who participate are asked to make a minimum $15 purchase. The Buyer’s Club is active in Colonial Beach, Fredericksburg, Williamsburg and the Latanés’ farm Blenheim Organic Gardens.
The club concept has proven a good alternative to farmers’ markets. “It still makes a direct-sale connection with customers,” Lawrence said. “It’s relatively easy to pack up for, and it seems easier than a CSA.”
While the club has its positives, it presents one big drawback. “Financially, it’s harder, because we don’t have money at the beginning of the season” [like a CSA that requires a membership fee], Becky says. [But] “you’re not giving people things they don’t want, and you’re not marketing stuff that you’re not sure you’re going to sell. In a way, it’s a win-win situation.”
The Latanés may expand to more locations. “I think there’s room for that to continue to grow,” Lawrence said.
The Buyer’s Club is helping other farmers.
From them, Becky and Lawrence are purchasing beef and eggs and making the items available to participants in the club. The beef is from Monrovia Farm in Westmoreland County, and the eggs are from Landsdown Farm in Spotsylvania County.
The Latanés grow a wide variety of organic vegetables, fruits, flowers and herbs.
Some of those include tomatoes; zucchini; peppers; onions; turnips; sweet potatoes; winter squash; radishes; beets; cabbage; asparagus; bok choy; cucumbers; eggplant; field beans; peas; garlic; black beans; Crowder peas; lettuce; mustard greens; heirloom mint; black-eyed peas; chicory mix of endive, escarole, radicchio and many others, according to the Blenheim Organic Gardens website at www.blenheimorganicgardens.org. Cover crops include small grains, clover and legumes.
Like many farmers today, the Latanés have adjusted their business model with the times and made it work for their customers and them.
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