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Marketing Strategies For Farmers and Ranchers

Jeff and Jill Burkhart display their own dairy products
Jeff and Jill Burkhart opened an on-site creamery to showcase their Iowa products, which they promote through farm days and a new website developed with help from SARE. Photo by Jerry DeWitt

For 23 years, all the milk from Jeff and Jill Burkharts’ 80-cow dairy in central Iowa left the farm in a bulk truck for processing and sale in the commodity markets. These days, however, the farm’s milk takes a different route to customers. In 2002, the Burkharts decided to build a bottling plant and start selling their milk directly from the farm.

Today, the Burkharts’ 80-acre rotationally grazed farm has become a regular destination for customers throughout the Des Moines area, attracting 100 visitors a day and up to 400 when they hold a special event. As the Burkharts had hoped, visitors leave the farm with gallons of fresh, pasteurized milk as well as other products.

“Business is booming,” says Jeff Burkhart, who received a grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program in 2004 to test two marketing strategies: an open house event and a Website launch. A year to the day after filling their first milk bottle, the Burkharts premiered their Picket Fence Creamery with an open house that drew more than 900 people for farm tours, children’s activities and special sales offers.

The Burkharts have been innovators before. In 1988, they divided their 80-acre grass farm into paddocks, where they rotationally graze 80 Jersey cows moved twice daily to ensure ideal field conditions. Once they started the creamery, they began making butter, cheese curds, and 25 flavors of ice cream. To include other farmers in their venture, they turned the creamery store into a local foods marketplace, featuring everything from eggs, beef, elk and bison, to maple syrup, baked goods, popcorn and wine from 76 other central Iowa families.

“We’re taking the raw product, which is the grass, and then adding value to it by feeding it to the cows, then taking the milk and bottling it or processing it into butter, ice cream and cheese,” Burkhart says. Our customers really seem to appreciate it – they can see and smell and touch everything, they can watch the processing through the observation window, and they really think that’s neat.”

The Burkharts team up with two other farms nearby – Prairieland Herbs and Northern Prairie Chevre – to share advertising costs and prompt customers to make a day of their farm experience.

happy customer of a farmer's market
Creative marketing ideas such as extending farmers market sales through winter help the Bolsters of Deep Root Farm in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Photo by Ted Coonfield.

Shifting to on-farm sales has been a lot of work, the Burkharts say, but the rewards are many. For one, the couple now earns a good living. Just as important, the new enterprise has fostered family togetherness. “We’re doing this as a family,” Burkhart says. “We get to work together, our kids are here, and we don’t have to commute to work. That means a lot.”

Proactive marketing strategies have proven the key to success for many agricultural enterprises. Rather than accepting the relatively low prices typically offered by wholesalers, direct marketers put the power to turn a profit back in their own hands by capturing a greater share of the consumer dollar. Direct marketing channels offer direct connections to customers, providing them an opportunity to buy fresh products – grass-fed beef, just-picked vegetables, or decorative pumpkins – and knowledge about how they’ve been grown. In return, farmers and ranchers learn what their customers like, then fill those needs with products, often at a premium.

This bulletin from the Sustainable Agriculture Network describes successful direct marketers, most of whom researched their new enterprises with funding from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. It includes tips about how to start or improve a number of alternative agricultural marketing channels and provides links to extra, more in-depth information. (Resources)

Direct marketing strategies are numerous and varied. Before beginning to sell direct, identify markets with special needs that offer large enough volumes to provide profitable returns. Also consider researching and writing a business plan, which will help you evaluate alternatives, identify new market opportunities, then communicate them to potential business partners and commercial lenders. (View here and also view Resources)

Organic foods have held steady as one of the fastest-growing niche markets for several years. More recently, demand for pasture-raised meat and dairy products has risen considerably, with a small but significant subset interested in ethnic specialty meats, such as Halal and kosher-slaughtered products. Buying trends also support a rising interest in food grown and produced locally or regionally, so savvy farmers and ranchers are distinguishing their products by location and quality. Finally, e-commerce has become an established mechanism for sales of all kinds.

Consider selling at farmers markets, opening a CSA operation, developing value-added products, offering on-farm activities like educational tours, selling via the Internet, or marketing to restaurants and schools. You can go it alone, or you can team up with others in a cooperative. Most farmers use a combination of marketing methods – both value-based strategies bringing higher returns and volume-based channels selling more products – finding that diverse marketing strategies provide stable profits and a better quality of life.


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