Your target audience (Off the Secretary’s Desk)
(Editor’s note: Douglas Fisher is the New Jersey secretary of agriculture.)
Farming today in New Jersey is more complex an endeavor than it ever has been.
Every farm can serve the markets and the general public in so many ways, yet sometimes we only see one “target audience.”
I say this because each facet of your operation has requirements that lead to your total success or failure.
What works for one “target audience” may not work for one or more of the others that you are trying to reach.
While one group may be satisfied with the convenience and familiarity of finding your products in the produce aisle of their local supermarket, another audience may doggedly desire making the trip directly to your farm to either pick their own produce from your fields or shop in your on-farm market.
If you are producing a commodity crop, the focus is quite simple, and three of the biggest factors in play are price, quality, and availability.
These are the big considerations that drive you, as well as those big buyers who may want to source product from you to then offer to consumers.
The trick always seems to be delivering what the consumers, and thus your buyers, want while seeking a fair return on your input investment that created the crop.
However, if you are direct-marketing — either by inviting consumers onto your farm or reaching out to them through community farmers’ markets and other direct-sale operations, the primary impetus for success is far more complex than what was cited above for a commodity grower.
Consumers today want more than quality and price, and they feel the absolute need to know more about what they are purchasing. Who is growing this? How is it grown or raised? Is this farm an environmentally sustainable enterprise? What are the societal outputs you are engaging in?
The questions can be relentlessly inquiring and the answers presented need to be fastidiously and authentically detailed.
Somewhere between commodity growing and direct-to-consumer, there are spaces that also have nuanced pathways where a farm’s output makes its way to the marketplace.
In the Garden State, we have multitudes of crops and livestock we can produce for any number of markets and sometimes it can become daunting to base decisions on this.
Each operator in this state makes calculations on what the farm will ultimately be growing or raising, and they usually refine their operations year after year, striving to make them incrementally hyper-efficient.
The common thread is that there is always the supreme effort to maximize yield and reduce costs.
But what about maximizing the opportunity for sales?
Many farmers are so busy with the sheer mechanics of planting, raising, and harvesting a crop that they can’t be bothered with the minutiae of marketing and thus are price-takers only.
In this space, there is a lot of complaining and finger-pointing and blame cast about if prices at the block are low. The complaints wither away when prices are good, which is usually a very short window of time when enormous profits can be made.
Alas, the timeframe is quite limited as goods flood the market and depress prices. Agriculture has no shortage of operators who insist on over-producing their way out of low prices brought on by already having too much product in the market.
What is a farmer to do when these marketplace gyrations are guaranteed to never stop spinning? Short answer: Diversify.
I’ve written about this over the years and will keep doing so because I see it time and time again. Working special occasion events onto your farm can be just as hard to establish as growing fickle crops. Once established, however, it helps put you in command of the prices charged.
Growing a highly niche crop in a small field will probably produce high profit and make some very appreciative, highly satisfied customers.
Setting up a side CSA is also complicated and time-consuming, but ultimately rewarding. Going out to individual supermarkets and making one-on-one deals, rather than just hoping they will pull from a central warehouse, is an avenue to be explored. Starting a wholesale run to only high-end restaurants and guaranteeing delivery could be a key feature to demanding chefs.
The point is, there are channels to markets, and from what I have observed over time, what is grown and raised on farm, is important, but also how it gets to market and consumers is just as important.