February 26, 2024

Expanding beyond the farmers market

Christina Marbury

TRAVERSE CITY , Mich. — Farm stands and stores, online sales and cooperatives are several strategies for producers to reach customers beyond farmers markets.

Farmers markets can be an ideal jumping-off point for many producers.

“But there are a lot of challenges with the farmers market being your main sales outlet for direct-to-consumer sales,” said Christina Marbury, marketing director for Michigan-based Taste the Local Difference.

Some of those issues include time consumption, dependence on weather and a limited audience.

“You’re only selling to those people who are already interested enough in local food to come to the farmers market and have the level of equity that they’re able to come to the farmers market and shop in that space,” said Marbury during the National Agricultural Marketing Summit.

Taste the Local Difference is a media marketing company for local food, working in Michigan and beyond.

In Marbury’s role, she works with specialty producers, retail stores, restaurants and pretty much anyone in the local food scene to get their business out into the world with various marketing strategies.

Farm Stands

“I’m seeing really an increase of a lot of different types of farm stands and stores that aren’t just the very basic, ‘I sell a few products on the side of the road’ sort of stand, but getting into indoor spaces where a lot of people are putting up an iPad with a Square card reader so people can check themselves out,” Marbury said.

“And a lot are bringing products from other farms in and really trying to build up a farm store that really can serve as a small grocery stop for folks.”

But farm stands and stores aren’t for everyone. Location plays a key role, and if an outlet is in a remote location with limited traffic, the venture might not be successful.

Diversity of products also is an important factor.

“If you have a farm that produces one main product, you’re probably not going to be able to have a thriving farm store,” Marbury said. “Being able to sell that big diversity of products can be super, super valuable.”

Staffing also is a consideration. Luckily, options are available for farms that can’t always staff their stands or stores, including self-checkout.

“Every state’s regulations are different in terms of what you can do if it is staffed or not staffed, but there are many benefits and challenges to each of them,” Marbury said.

“And I’d say personally, I think one of the biggest challenges of having a farm stand (or store) that is not staffed is that you generally cannot accept SNAP,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

She pointed to two Michigan operations seeing success with direct-to-consumer operations, including Green Things Farm Collective, a diversified farm in Ann Arbor.

“They opened this farm stand that they have since expanded quite a bit, so now they sell not only their own products, but they have bulk bins of local grains and oatmeal and things like that, and a lot of other processed products from other local businesses,” she said. “They’ve seen the farm stand really become a hub of their sales, and they do still go to the farmers market.”

Online Stores

While this strategy is growing, Marbury cautioned online sales are not for every producer.

Is the farm capable of producing adequate inventory and handling order processing? What are the pickup and delivery options? Is the marketing commitment there?

These are all questions producers should ask themselves prior to moving into the online sales space.

“A lot of subscription options are moving online,” Marbury said. “I think it has been a great way for some farms to continue to serve customers who don’t want to go to the market or want to have a way that they can really simply get the food that they want, but they also don’t want to be maybe a (community supported agriculture) member so it might be more flexible than a typical CSA.”

She spends much of her time talking with operators of farms and other food businesses about selling online and helping them build their online stores. And they have a ton of options for online platforms.

Marbury listed just a few built specifically for farmers, including: GrownBy, Local Line, Local Food Marketplace and Barn2Door.

Her last piece of advice for online stores is investing in great product photography to entice customers.

Cooperatives

Taking some of the logistical challenges from selling direct to consumers and collecting multiple farms into one place is the general model of cooperatives. Members split the work, including marketing, sales and logistics.

“I really like that this sort of system allows farmers to really focus on what they’re best at and not feel like they need to do everything because they’re working together with other folks who can provide those other products,” Marbury said, adding cooperatives can include physical sales structures, as well as virtual to create their own mini food hubs.

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association.