by Jane Primerano

All farmers must know their markets but it can be especially important for farmers in suburban or urban fringe areas because consumers may come from varied backgrounds with various food expectations.

Rick VanVranken of the Atlantic County Cooperative Extension presented a talk on marketing plans at the One-Day Urban Ag Workshop sponsored by Rutgers on Friday, Dec. 14.

VanVraken advocates producing for the market rather than marketing the produce. The number one rule in marketing is “give your customers what they want,” he said. His listed bullet points were: grow the right crop, harvest at correct stage, package appropriately, avoid costly mistakes, keep the buyer happy.

The greatest challenge is knowing who your market is, VanVranken said, but the first thing to do is just ask, visit the community and attend events in the area to get to know the people and what they like to do. Besides reading the trades, which is always a good idea, look at the publications they read, even check census records. A more expensive, but accurate way to go is to pay for a market analysis.

Among the questions farmers should ask consumers: how much do they normally buy; how frequently do they shop; do they prefer or only buy local, organic, IPM and how much; where do they shop now, do they prefer to visit a farm, a community farmers market, a retail market or have it delivered; how far are they willing to drive to a farm; what else would entice them to buy your product.

Wholesalers have their own list of questions, VanVraken said.

Once a farmer knows whom to reach, the question becomes how.

Packaging is key. VanVraken explains packaging has to be appropriate for the consumer.

VanVraken pointed out there is a long history of co-ops in New Jersey, up to and including OceanSpray, that help farmers band together to market. The state’s farmers are also close to the two huge terminal markets, Hunt’s Point in The Bronx and the 14-acre Philadelphia Wholesale Product Market. He suggested trying a market before deciding to sell retail.

One of the most important ways of marketing is to tell your story, let your customers know your background and the history of the farm. Customers like to know about innovations, especially in areas such a waste reduction and about donations the farmer makes.

Social media is important. Learning to make attention-grabbing graphics can be worth the trouble as can placing links into the story so people can find background and recipes.

Barbara O’Neill, a professor and agricultural extension specialist in agriculture, food and resource economics, said social media provides a timely dissemination of information. She recommended a Twitter Chat called Ag Chat. She said tweets with images get three times more engagement than those without. Social media also provides the farmer the ability to hold a flash sale if a product must be moved quickly.

O’Neill suggests possibly producing a video of how to cook with a particular product. She noted using social media promotes positive word-of-mouth for a farm.

Every new technology is not necessarily helpful, VanVraken noted. Drones can produce great panoramic aerial photos but that doesn’t mean the people who see them will buy the product.

It is important to know exactly how useful social media is for any particular farm. O’Neill advised farmers to keep counts on views of their blogs and videos. She even suggested embedding a very short survey with incentives, such as gift cards, for filling it out. She also suggested saving a power point presentation as a jpeg to bring it more viewers.