PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. — Finding the right marketing channels in an increasingly competitive organic market was the focus of a session at the 40th annual EcoFarm Conference.
The Jan. 24 panel, moderated by Thomas Nelson, regional director at Kitchen Table Advisors, Guinda, Calif., featured two organic suppliers, a wholesale distributor, and a retailer.
Paul Underhill, CEO of Terra Firma Farm, Winters, said organic consumers and the organic market are more demanding. Terra Firma farms about 200 acres and operates a community-supported agriculture program in the Sacramento/San Francisco area.
The company had 1,300 CSA subscribers in 2008, but that’s dropped by about 50% in response to competition from meal kit companies.
Venture-capital funded businesses that were “giving away food” took his customers in the past few years, he said.
“In the last ten years, marketing organic produce has become a lot more challenging whether you are selling at a farmers market or trying to sell to a local co-op,” he said.
Underhill said 2019 offered a “glimmer of hope’ that the CSA business had stabilized and could rebound.
“I think there is a backlash against big tech and Silicon Valley money, and there is also a growing urgency on climate change,” he said. “Buying produce from a small farmer always has been one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint, and I think there is a wider audience for telling people that message now.”
“For a small farmer your biggest marketing advantage is your authenticity — you can’t manufacture authenticity and now there are a lot more ways to communicate your story to the general public and your potential customers,” he said, noting e-mail, social media outreach and perhaps internet advertising.
Roles and responsibilities
Qiana Cameron, buyer with Veritable Vegetable, San Francisco, said organic growers should consider a distributor like Veritable Vegetable if they have a lot of volume to move and have already maxed out business with CSAs and farmers’ markets.
“The best thing that sets us apart from our competitors is that we were founded to support small, mid-size and independent growers, which we still do today,” she said, stating that long-term relationships should be mutually beneficial to the company and the grower.
“Our job is to just take care of your produce; we do the trucking, we do the marketing, we do the selling and telling the story, and we do the delivery,” Cameron said.
Finding a niche is key for organic shipper Bianca Kaprielian, owner of Fruit World Co. Reedley, Calif.
“In the packer-shipper model there is a lot of specialization, and we specialize in citrus, and then we have a small stone fruit and a grape program,” she said. “If someone comes to me and says, ‘I want you to sell a bunch of vegetables,’ I can say there are some other great grower-packer-shippers that can do that,”
Fruit World Co works with farms as small as 15 acres and up to more than 1,000 acres. Charges run typically from 5% to 12%, depending on services provided, she said.
“We collect all the funds and then we take all the deductions and remit back to the growers the settlement for the current season,” she said.
Selling direct to retail can also work, said Jennifer Knapp, director of a distribution center for the retail cooperative La Montanita, Santa Fe, N.M.
With six locations and 16,000 member-owners, the organization can get produce into stores, restaurants and schools across New Mexico, Knapp said.
“Selling direct to a retailer can be quite beneficial to a grower,” she said. “You get to drop your produce at the back door and walk away and let someone else deal with selling your product and the marketing your product, which is pretty easy and fantastic.”
Knapp said she supports local growers in New Mexico and tells their stories to consumers.
“I see the produce department as kind of an extension of your farm; if a consumer can’t make it to the farmers market, please come to our store, you’re going to see some of your favorite farmers represented there,” she said.
Retailers want to know everything about how a grower’s farming practices, from pest management to food safety.
Crop planning is essential in working with growers, she said.
“I (once) had seven different growers coming to me with green kale,” she said. “I want to support as many (growers) as possible but I can’t have seven green kales on my shelf from different growers.”