Kari has been asking for a post about marketing. I have to do this two ways and both are more conceptual than concrete. (I may offer more concrete examples another time but I think that subject is already saturated.) First we’ll discuss Marketing for Business then Marketing for Sustainability. You’ll see how those two ideas differ as we go but there is one thing in common: You have to meet your customers where they are.
Marketing for Business
Customers won’t come find you. They won’t magically appear at your farm gate and they won’t make immediate and radical changes to their buying habits. It seems easier to convince someone to change religions than to convince them to change diets. You have to find them where they are. Offer them something that looks like their concept of food but is superior in every way.
But sometimes…just sometimes…someone will go through some sort of crisis. They may join a gym or read a book about Paleo or something and suddenly they have stopped buying donuts. With all that disposable income and the encouragement of their newfound literature and peer support groups they will begin to ask, “Where can I buy a whole chicken and what do I do with it? What is a deep freezer? How do I cook with an oven?” They will ask friends at they gym, friends at work, friends at church. Somebody knows somebody. That somebody may know you. And that’s the best way…word of mouth. But you have to start somewhere. I have gotten years of business from customers and, later, their friends by initially giving away a single dozen eggs. There are times when we are swamped with eggs and we don’t know what to do with them all. So we give eggs away. At this point we throw a free dozen into a customer’s order if they will promise to pass a second free dozen to a friend. That normally results in a new customer…if you have dotted your i’s.
How do you dot the i in an egg? People don’t talk about ordinary products. Ordinary products are just too ordinary. You have to bring the WOW! to get word of mouth. Soon you’ll see pictures of your food on FB or Instagram. Customers will text you pictures of your eggs frying next to “Free-Range, Organic Brown eggs from the store” and will express wonder at how pale the competitor’s egg is. But the truth is that store egg is not your competition. In fact you don’t have competition. If those are eggs then you produce something else. Same with chicken. Same with pork. Same with beef. That product you have is so superior to what people are used to…it’s like you are producing something else. Not a commodity, real food. Real quality. And people will talk about it.
Three years ago our van was stolen (and 5 dozen eggs in a nice small cooler!). I searched for its replacement on CraigsList. We took the whole family on the test drive with the owner. As I merged on to Lindbergh he said, “So…what do you do?”
“I am a computer guy. But we have a farm and raise chickens, turkeys, goats and pigs on pasture.”
Fast forward a few minutes.
“Chris, that was the most interesting test drive I have ever been on. I’m sold. How can I buy your product?”
Turns out he is a foodie.
Three years later he is still buying from us. He has given eggs to friends, neighbors and co-workers. He buys and smokes chickens and turkeys. He makes soup with our spent layers. He buys pigs and splits them with neighbors. He builds my customer base every time he changes jobs. We can count on him to spread the word. In a way, he is a partner in our growing business and has become a friend. And he’s not the only enthusiastic customer we have.
Several times he has pulled me aside and said, “Chris, I bought a chicken from X or from Y but they aren’t the same.” Heck, he continues to buy our eggs even though he belongs to a CSA that includes eggs. He says ours are better.
So, it’s all about the quality.
But if it’s all about quality it is also all about the price. Keep in mind there are alternatives on the market and remember cost has nothing to do with price. Cost is important to you, the producer. Prices are set by the market. Customers have price expectations. They expect to pay more for quality but you can’t be too far out of line. Consumers are price sensitive and allowing for that puts you in position to meet them where they are…to at least get within waving distance.
That said, there is a theory that if you’re having trouble moving product you should raise your prices. If nothing else the higher price gives your product a psychological advantage. Also, I can tell you from experience, customers are thankful when you lower prices and hateful when you raise them. Try to start at the high end of what the market will bear. We started too low (cause we didn’t add up our costs and allow a margin).
We make quality products and charge what customers indicate are reasonable prices. We rely on word of mouth and give out free samples in times of surplus. If you can do that while operating efficiently your business will grow. That’s all there is to it. Give away a few eggs to get the door open. Then sell a chicken to get your foot in the door. Then, before you know it, you are in the kitchen and, later, selling beef, pork, lamb and chicken to the whole neighborhood.
As long as you can keep up with the workload.
Marketing for Sustainability
What will happen to the farm when I’m gone? My labor? My dreams? My herds and flocks, the trees I planted…who will care for them? Who will continue the work here? I fear the vision is becoming hazy. Where I used to feel invincible I am often intimidated by the staggering amount of work ahead of me. Our dream (a dream I have in common with my ancestors) needs an injection of fresh blood. Youth. Energy! I am a steward, not an owner. I await the next steward.
We will never be sustainable unless new generations stand up and take the reins at regular intervals. That takes serious marketing success or they will all move away. The farm will be sold and, worse, spent. I need my children to buy into the dream, to share our vision and to move things forward. So let’s share some vision.
You know what I want? I want to spread manure on the pastures to build up future fertility so we have more nutritious, more drought-resistant forages, healthier cows that breed back every year and a beautiful place to spend our lives together. I want birds and ponds and fish and frogs and snakes and ducks. I want blueberries and gooseberries and raspberries and dewberries and strawberries. I want hazelnuts and walnuts and hickory nuts. I want cows and pigs and chickens and foxes and raccoons…well, maybe not raccoons. I want painted buildings in good repair full of feed and bedding. I want a beautiful, welcoming farm that family and friends can visit to feel refreshed. I want an efficient, smaller home with an open floor plan that is easy to heat, easy to cool, easy to clean and comfortable to entertain in and I want the house filled with our children and their children and laughter and games and food and lots and lots and lots of books.
How do I get there?
I go where my customers are now. I meet their needs where they are. Right now.
My kids are playing Minecraft right now. Even if they aren’t actually playing the game I promise at least two of them are sitting with graph paper and designing the castles they will build next time they can play. The others are reading library books either on the couch near the fire or on the couch in the front room near the electric heater. What books? I don’t know. They read so fast it’s almost impossible for me to even keep track…but I still try. My two older kids usually read at least a book each day (the library limits us to 70 books at a time…per card, BTW).
So that’s where my sustainability customers are.
Now, I could leave my kids there. They would be entertained, I could get some work done…or do some reading…or take a nap. But did Julie and I have kids so we could keep the computer busy all day? They aren’t an accidental by-product of recreational activity! No. We had kids because WE WANTED KIDS!
We wanted to be asked “Why?” questions and we wanted to clean up messes and we wanted to spend decades growing with and learning about them. What are they like? Who are they on the inside? What do they like to eat? What are they interested in doing?
You know what they are interested in doing? Right now they are interested in a specific game. So I am also interested in that game.
Because that’s how marketing works. If your customers want to play golf you play golf. If they want dinner, you go to dinner. If they want to build floating castles in the sky out of emeralds you go to your crafting table and make a pickaxe.
I need to build real connections with my customer base. This is more than just appreciation for the quality food at a reasonable price. This is me inspiring my children to achieve more than I can.
I’m taking the first step. I’m giving. Reaching out. I can’t wait for them to come to me…they might out of a sense of obligation but obligation doesn’t inspire vision.
But let’s say none of my children want anything to do with the farm as adults. OK. Let’s say that. It hurts me but we can pretend. Then what? Then I go to plan B: Grandchildren, nieces and nephews. It worked for my grandma. But what if I had no siblings and no children of my own? Then what? Then it’s incumbent on me to go out and find a protege. To mentor someone. To pass on our vision and continue the dream.
I have to go to them. I have to give away the best eggs in the world. I have to be generous with my time. I have to go short on sleep to go long on parenting. I have to read what they are reading and play what they are playing and continuously build connections over the decades. I have to make time to serve the people who matter the most and wash their feet. (I don’t know that I’ve every heard Jesus used as a sales example but it applies. The idea is that He came to us.)
I have to meet them where they are.
wow, wow wow. Great post. I am writing on this very topic right now- core customers and the 6 degrees of separation. Treat those core members well and they do so much, SO MUCH for your business! And remember they can come to you at any time! Also- I don’t have kids, but adore how you are writing about yours that they are your sustainability customers. bravo!
Cool. I look forward to reading your post.
You are right about the any time thing. We have a great customer who drops in on short notice to buy 10 dozen eggs at a time. He is always welcome…but sometimes I have to plan ahead to have that many eggs on hand as we usually sell out…especially this time of year. But I need to keep him happy.
Absolutely loved this post. I was smiling from ear to ear as I read. Even threw in some subjective value theory in there too. Great blog post today Sir. Out did yourself.
Encore, Encore! Can you tell us more Nuts and Bolts of how this works? So you do word of mouth sales and you have seasonal production – how do you communicate with your customers? I assume as a computer guy you have an Excel or other database of your customers. I don’t recall seeing butcher dates of the broilers on your web page – do you email, send out a mnthly newsletter or call your customers to let them know dates? Then does everyone local shows up with a cooler on the wknd to pick up their order?
Do you have a “Meet Me In St Louis” location you meet your City customers at or do you deliver? Do you have Farm Gate sales for the broilers that do not sell on the butcher wknds? Plus the eggs? If so as a seemingly ongoing 24/7 or set days like wknds only and hours or mostly just specific dates that you butcher on?
What about the eggs? I think you have 100 layers so is that ~55-dozen to the same wkly customers or are some every other wk or is it quite random? Are you comfortable staying with one Chicken Wagon? Do you see adding more every yr to grow the egg business or will that really just stay a somewhat small “loss leader” enterprise to get meat customers in? Thinking out loud as it seems you want to move more into cows, do you need to get bigger with one or both of your smaller customer entry items (chicken or eggs) to keep building your customer base that will buy the beef, pork, and lamb as they become available as you fully stock the farm?
Do you find it slow getting your customers back on board after a production hiatus? Is it not a problem as you have a Premium product?
Do you think the word of mouth marketing system will work quickly enough as you grow to stock the whole farm? What do you think about advertising on the sites that Foodies and “Health Nuts” go to find grass fed products like Eat Wild, Local Harvest, Farmer Maps, Weston A Price? The few pages I have been on occasionally I have not seen you listed. Some of these have an “In Stock” selection so you can list what you have when you have it and just show a Farm listing as nothing currently in stock when you don’t. Do you know anyone who has listed on these sites and would you consider listing on these in the future or do you just prefer the warmer word of mouth market rather than the somewhat anonymous Internet people finding you?
I know you are still growing but do you, or will you put a business card or poster up in the health food stores or ad in their newsletters? Do you give free samples to people in your area/City that would be promoting healthy eating to a lot of people such as ND’s (naturopathic dr), Herbalists, Chiropractors, Massage Therapists, Yoga instructors, etc or consider an ad on their web pages? Or free samples to Cooking schools of other places Foodies would be found? I am a Health nut not a Foodie so that is a gray area for me on how to find them.
I read some natural health related blogs and people sometimes comment wondering about where to find grass fed. I Google “Grass Fed Illinois” and “Grass Fed St Louis” and don’t see your farm in the first 3 pages under either search. Knowing you are a computer guy I assume this is due to lack of product that you haven’t gone there yet?
I know you are still growing so I am getting the cart well before the horse but I also know from your blog that time is ticking as you want to get your farm fully stocked asap and create a farm that the kids will be a part of as adults too if they choose, which isn’t that far away. I wonder if for an Encore you can talk about some of these current nuts and bolts and what your THOUGHTS are on some of your future marketing options in your area. 🙂
How do you do that?
I, like, literally can’t even.
I think you said something about chickens in there. Maybe cows too. Then growth toward the end.
OK. I need more chickens so I can have more cows. But to do that I need more customers. But I’m reluctant to go that direction because eggs are a labor intensive, low margin operation. But cows have a long turnover time. Calves maybe…but cows are long. So I need more of them. So I need more chickens. I don’t know.
Hey Mr I. Dunno – what a small world – I think I know of some of your relatives living right in my area! 😉 My closest neighbor 2 miles West of me had a farm, kids, house, garage, barn and other outbldgs and he was a Dunno too – that place has sat empty for 40 some yrs – no next gens stayed on or came back to the farm. And my closest neighbor 1 mile to the east on my road –a big old 2 story house, nice big hip roof barn they must have been successful at one time, large pond out front, 4 kids he was a Dunno too, that place sits empty too for the last about 30 yrs I think. Rumor has it the daughter who currently works at a museum in England might come back to live there when she retires which will be in the next 5-10 yrs. I wonder if she will take up farming in her retirement? And hey a Dunno family that lives beside the cemetery just like you – it is 2 miles SW of me and empty for 40 some yrs too.
The moral of this true story, if there is one, is that I think it takes a lot of planning and developing to create a farm that the kids can stay and work at rather than leave to take jobs in the City. Yes the farm work needs to be fun and with purpose but the farm needs to be able to provide the income the future gen require as they mature and eventually marry and start their own families and stay farming – hence the push for the market.
There are a lot of books and movies out there that are predicable with Boy Gets Girl, Boy Solves Whodunit and Boy Saves the Planet. There are also a number of small farms now with verse 1- Boy (or Girl) Meets Chicken, Boy Builds Mobile Chicken Coop, Chorus – Boy Gets Flock of Chickens, Boy Grass Feeds Chickens, Boy Increases Soil Fertility, Boy Butchers Chickens, Boy Sells to Happy Customers, Boy Takes Cash from Sales and Buys More Chickens, wash, rinse, repeat. Next Verse Boy Meets Pig, repeat chorus, Next Verse Boy Meets cow, repeat chorus. Boy Blogs about it.
Now the interesting twists to the plot at your Farm are – History it is a farm that has been in the family 180 yrs, it is Futuristic with your strong desire to see your children stay with the farm as adults, a Race Against Time – will word of mouth marketing take off like wildfire to create a market big enough to support the adult children as they come of age in the next 4-10 yrs? A Villian – The Evil bean counting Kari worries about this and pops up now and then in the story to stir the pot. Mystery as to whether any of the children will stay on – only time will tell so we stay tuned! lol
(Side note – from Wiki – “Villain comes from the Anglo-French and Old French vilain, which itself descends from the Late Latin word villanus, meaning “farmhand”, in the sense of someone who is bound to the soil of a villa…” – seems I am a Villian in more ways than one!)
Questions – When your dad left his family farm did he have that opportunity to stay and work for a paycheck or was there room on the farm for him to start his own farm enterprise, or was it just the chance to stay on and work for more or less free as most farm kids do? Ditto with Aunt Marian’s farm you are now on – did the kids have the option to stay?
Can you share any links to blogs of small farms that do have their adult children working full time on the farm as well, other than Joel’s?
All right. That’s harsh but fair. It’s more than just having fun with the kids. But that still doesn’t make it something I want to write about.
A recent issue of Graze featured a family in Indiana. The dad bought a farm, 5 sons run it now. Dad did a little. Sons hit the ground running. Salatin’s dad was an accountant. Somebody has to pay for the dirt. Driving to town limits my farm’s productive capacity. But I have plenty of time to learn and teach my kids…to give them an inkling of what is possible.
Couple of small corrections. Dad didn’t leave his family farm. Dad left Indianapolis. There is no Jordan land outside of what he and I own. Dad worked for grandpa Chism when I was born. Grandpa didn’t stop farming till he died. I don’t think anybody thought in terms of stacked, multi-generational enterprises on the same land base. Dad got a good job far away. That’s really all I know. A cousin bought a third of aunt Marian’s farm, I bought about a third of grandma’s farm. Aunt Marian had no children. But my kids looked at her as a spare grandma.
Sorry! Didn’t mean to sound harsh I just really want to see your goal of success of the farm and opportunities for the next gen happen and might push on you a little once in a while like an annoying backseat driver lol! I do hypothesize on how it would happen for your next gen sometimes and I got big plans that surpass you farming the State haha! I will go back and post an old comment and you will see what I mean.
I really think that your “model” of having a good job is a good way to start farming, which is what I did as well to buy dirt. With the cost of land and cattle, etc it is a bit scary to imagine how a new farmer would start these days. I had no idea your dad did not come from a farm – he seems to be such a good hand at everything I thought he was born to it! And both of you chose to move to farms – I find it interesting how people become small farmers…
Dad is good at everything.
I am (I think) the seventh generation after the original William Chism settled here. Chew on that. So when I wrote Dear 100 Years From Now I was thinking about that. William could not have imagined me. He could not have imagined my lifestyle. He could not have imagined the ponds grandpa built. What did he imagine?
My focus, of late, has shifted away from nuts and bolts of farming. Matron has GREAT posts on grazing. Youtube has many videos on livestock processing. The world is awash on marketing strategies. But I believe, and I could be wrong, there is a real shortage of long-term, inter-generational thought.
If you pinned us down on the issue I only own the family farm by accident. There was no plan. For that very reason most of Aunt Marian’s farm recently sold out of the family. As did Susan A. Chism’s land. Most of the farmland around me was once owned by my family. Not anymore.
Selling quality products is amazingly simple. Farm gates, pickup points…whatever. The hard part is finding that replacement and getting out of their way.
How can I inspire my children without forcing them into a set pattern of thinking? How can I unleash their potential…unleash the farm’s potential? How can I guide seven generations into greater freedom? Greater intelligence? Greater personal development? Greater real wealth?
I don’t know. But I think that’s an interesting topic.
On the business side I could/should be doing more to develop my marketing reach. It’s no big deal to sell 30 dozen eggs/week, 1200 broilers and 10 pigs. As we grow, our reach will need to increase. But it will. All the advertising in the world pales in comparison to one customer saying to his neighbor, “Hey, we found this amazing farm…”
That allows us to grow slowly and that is a real blessing. It’s not all work, work, work. There is time for fun. And fun encourages the next generation that maybe there is something to this farming gig. Maybe the old man wasn’t crazy after all.
Inspiring your children is an interesting topic indeed. I could not tell you how my parents instilled in all of their children that we could be anything we wanted, work towards it and actually get it, and we all did just that. That is one of the greatest gifts they ever gave us and I hope you can do the same for your children.
I have had this inspiring poem in my bedroom since I was about 16:
Equipment – Edgar A. Guest
Figure it out for yourself, my lad,
You’ve all that the greatest of men have had,
Two arms, two hands, two legs, two eyes
And a brain to use if you would be wise.
With this equipment they all began,
So start for the top and say, “I can.”
Look them over, the wise and great
They take their food from a common plate,
And similar knives and forks they use,
With similar laces they tie their shoes.
The world considers them brave and smart,
But you’ve all they had when they made their start.
You can triumph and come to skill,
You can be great if you only will.
You’re well equipped for what fight you choose,
You have legs and arms and a brain to use,
And the man who has risen great deeds to do
Began his life with no more than you.
You are the handicap you must face,
You are the one who must choose your place,
You must say where you want to go,
How much you will study the truth to know.
God has equipped you for life, but He
Lets you decide what you want to be.
Courage must come from the soul within,
The man must furnish the will to win.
So figure it out for yourself, my lad.
You were born with all that the great have had,
With your equipment they all began,
Get hold of yourself and say: “I can.”
OK. Nuts and bolts time.
Ready? Friends, family, people I go to church with, people I work with and people I have worked with buy my products. My other source of business are folks who buy milk from Steve. They buy 40 or 50 chickens at a time on butcher day or shortly after. If I take eggs anywhere I take them to places I’m already going. I don’t go to farmers markets. I don’t hang up a shingle. I don’t go out of my way. I don’t advertise. I don’t need to. I just mention it to people. Then they mention it to people. Then they…
It really is word of mouth.
You would think a database guy would have a database but I don’t. I have a paper planner. When people express interest in a pig I make a note. I hope this response is not disappointing. As we grow our approach will need to change at some levels. I’ll need to be more organized about contact lists, mailings and emails and stuff but I hope we remain a sort of private little club. Friends and friends of friends. It’s cool that way.
LOL – You crack me up! First with – how do I do that? Then – I, like, literally can’t even, then by the 4th try you did it! Talk about working thru a challenge lol – thanks!
Great post. That vision is almost exactly my vision. Wow. And my sustainability customers are my kids. I’ve heard this message before, but not quite in this way, and it finally speaks to me. Thanks.
I’m glad. And darn if you didn’t trigger another blog post.
Great post! Also, your eggs look amazing! One never realizes how bland grocery store food is until they finally taste something else. Keep up the good work 🙂
Thanks. Stop by sometime…gas is cheap. We’ll give you a free dozen so you can tell your friends all about it.