Plovgh is a cooperative of farmers, growers, and ranchers that sell directly to their customers.
Supply and demand. It sounds so easy in theory. It gets much more complicated when you’re a farmer wondering what that elusive Market wants from you this year. Here, using lessons we’ve learned from farms across the country and the questions we get from your buyers ALL THE TIME, we break down the process of market planning into six steps so you can buy seed and plant your crops with the assurance that that crop will sell at the prices you need, to buyers you are proud to work with.
Follow this template as a way of organizing your information as we go through the steps. We’ll use an example of the red, yellow, and blue balloons we produce to illustrate each step. Request a copy for yourself by emailing email@example.com, and start yourself on the path to marketing your crop…in January!
1. Determine what you’re best at growing, what you most enjoy producing, what you make the most money on, or what you’re most interested in selling at quantity.
This first step will be unnecessary for those of you already specializing in a few signature items. For those of you producing dozens of varieties, we find it’s helpful to choose your top 10-12 items and make sure you have a solid marketing plan for those.
Lizzy’s Farm produces red, yellow, and blue balloons. I’ve listed them in the first section of my spreadsheet like so:
2. Explain why someone should buy your products.
Most farmers know intuitively what is ABSOLUTELY AMAZING about their crops. When talking to buyers, though, rarely do they do justice to the unique and valuable attributes of their products. So, what’s so great about your sweet corn, green beans, or onions? Talk about color, size, texture, flavor. Give the buyer confidence that you know your product and will deliver the quality they seek.
In my spreadsheet, I’ve written a brief but informative description for each of the types of balloons that Lizzy’s Farm produces.
3. Determine the quantity you could reasonably expect to harvest.
What quantity of each of your crops do you think you’ll have available? It’s easy to estimate, gives you a clearer picture of how much marketing and distribution work you have ahead of you, and gives your buyers even more confidence that you are the producer to work with (like it or not, they have a lot of choices). Of course, you could have a bumper crop, or utter failure. That’s part of the excitement of agriculture. But try to give some indication of how much you’ll be producing. Doing so will help you in Step 6 also - should you target buyers with 22 store locations, or restaurants with a walk-in fridge?
Based on the 300 acres under production, I estimate that I’ll have 1000 lbs each of red, yellow, and blue balloons in the 2014 season.
4. Identify ways that you could conceivably package your crops.
Outline the possibilities that are reasonable for your farm, staff, and the crop itself. Don’t say you can bunch those greens if you don’t have the people, time, or twist-ties with which to make that happen! Start considering these packaging options distinct items in your inventory because they come with different costs and appeal to different buyers.
My balloons come in grades A, B, and C. I don’t want to pack individual units, but I can easily do 3 lb bags, 1 1/9 bushel boxes, and 100 lb bins of my balloons. That gives me 27 DIFFERENT PRODUCTS to tell buyers about.
5. Determine BASED ON YOUR COSTS how much you NEED to make on your crop.
This step is not about setting a price. Rather, it is about figuring out what you must make in order to break even. An estimate is okay! When you’re at the peak of the season and you have a bumper crop of eggplant that needs to sell immediately, you’ll have a reference point for deciding whether to take that large quantity order at a slightly lower price than you had hoped for, or spare yourself the time and labor. This step also leads into the next one…
I look at the fixed costs of my enterprise, those that don’t change no matter how much I decide to grow, as well as the variable costs of my production, those that go up the more seed I buy, time it takes to plant, water it takes to grow, labor required to harvest, etc. I come up with the BREAKEVEN price I’d need in order to not lose money on this crop. That way, if a buyer offers me just more than that to purchase a large quantity, I have a reference point for deciding whether to take the offer.
6. Decide who your ideal buyers are.
Your ideal customer should be based on how you can reasonably pack your crop and what prices you need for it, NOT your dream of being in the produce aisle at your local coop. If you’re selling by the 1000 lb bin, don’t consider a local restaurant your ideal buyer. Focus instead on a grocer that has three or four stores in your nearest city. Many of the farmers we work with are finding that their local market is pretty well exhausted, and they’re in search of regional and even beyond-regional buyers. Luckily, Plovgh’s network is there to support them! The point is, make sure you’re being realistic about the types of buyers you can serve.
Lots of people like balloons! But my low prices (I own my land, and balloons don’t require much time once they’re in the ground) and the way I pack make my products - all 27 of them - make me a good fit for mid-sized grocers. I’d like to tell some of them about the balloons I’m growing this year, and Plovgh is an easy way to do that!
In the next segment, we’ll take your answers to these questions and turn them into a plan that you can communicate to buyers so you go into spring with a clear picture of what your season’s going to look like. If you’ve got other suggestions for your fellow farmers, share them in the discussion below!
If you’d like to discuss your farm’s market needs with Mallory or Lizzy, you can sign up here. We’d be happy to talk with you!
As temperatures dropped across the US, we wondered, how does this extreme cold affect the farmers? What we learned is that the cold is a challenge, but also has some unexpected benefits for the soil.
Here’s a look at how these subzero temperatures affect three different farms.
Fitkin Farms - Northeast Iowa
Farmer: Jim Fitkin
What he produces: Corn (for popping!)
Low temperature this week: -45 wind chill
Is the cold good or bad for your farm: Good
What he says about the cold:
Soil compaction is a huge issue in the Midwest. Heavy machinery needed to produce crops is the culprit. Cold winters freeze the soil, forcing it to expand, helping to eliminate soil compaction, and allowing it to be productive the following year. Although freezing of the soil to the depth of several feet is essential to maintain a productive field, 25 degrees below zero with wind chills of 60 below is too much. If livestock are out of the wind, with plenty to eat they are fine. One of the bigger challenges is maintaining a supply of fresh water.
McVay Farms - Mora, Minnesota
Farmer: The McVay Family
What they produce: Beef cattle
Low temperature this week: -40 wind chill
Is the cold good or bad for your farm: Bad
What they say about the cold:
The extreme cold is hard on the workers and especially hard on the cattle. We have to add more corn to their feed rations to make sure they keep weight on, and whoever has to open gates for the feed wagon has very cold fingers. One of my favorite sights, though, is a herd of a couple hundred cattle huddling near a tree line that breaks the wind, and then marching single file to get their food and water for the morning. The benefit of the cold, though, is that the cows are put out on the fields, where their manure provides a reliable source of fertilizer.
Acorn Hill Farm - Walker Valley, New York
Farmer: Joyce Henion
What she produces: Goat cheese
Low temperature this week: -18 wind chill
Is the cold good or bad for your farm: Bad
What she says about the cold:
The recent extreme cold makes it difficult to keep the goats supplied with fresh water and it is downright uncomfortable to do chores and milk the goats. In addition, even a moment or two delay in getting to a newborn kid can result in frostbite for the new baby.
And the best advice we got from the farmers about staying warm out there? Wear wool, not cotton, and never go out without a hat!
Man, is it cold out there! On McVay Farms in Mora, Minnesota, it is currently -27, with wind chills giving us the feel of -40. But cattle still need to be fed, chores still need to get done. So, we’re wondering, how does the cold affect you and your farm? Is it hard on your livestock, good for pest management, a challenge for crops you still have in the ground? Tell us more here and we’ll share answers from farms across the country.
Stay warm out there, my friends!
As we reflect on 2013, we want to thank each of you for being part of Plovgh. From farmers and truckers, to produce managers and individual members, you are changing the face of agriculture one crop at a time.
There are farmers using Plovgh in 13 different states to sell their crops independently of brokers and middlemen. There are more than 750 distinct crops grown by Plovgh farmers. And there are locations around the country providing direct-from-farm products to their customers. We anticipate 2014 will bring even more focus to the American farmer and hope that Plovgh continues to make those farmers’ jobs just a little bit easier.
Here’s to a productive and profitable 2014!
Lizzy, Blue, and Mallory
Why join Plovgh?
To get started as a member, go to Plovgh. And spread the word about Plovgh farms and their harvest! The more people who join in, the more we can do for the farmers who are reinventing food and agriculture in this country.
If you’d like to recruit local farms, businesses, and neighbors to increase direct trade crops available in your area, please drop us a line!
Why join Plovgh?
Fitkin Popping Corn (Fit-Pop) - Cedar Falls, Iowa
Harvesting: November 2013
Around the year 1612, early French explorers through the Great Lakes region noted that the Iroquois popped popcorn with heated sand in a pottery vessel and used it to make popcorn soup, among other things.
Popcorn has a long agricultural history. Precisely how popcorn originated is a topic of debate, though it did originate in the Americas. Some experts believe that corn was developed by centuries of breeding and crossbreeding wild grasses like teosinte. When farmers are considering seed selection, expansibility and maturity are two key factors. Maximum popping potential hinges on the corn reaching full maturity and there are many factors that can prematurely terminate plant development such as drought stress, disease, and frost. When harvesting, farmers wait until the corn has cured on the stalk as much as possible, but not so long that it is damaged by fall moisture or by corn stalks falling over. Once picked, the corn must be dried until it reaches its optimum moisture level of 13.5% to 14%.
Popcorn is delicate and starchy, and depending on what topping you choose, sweet or savory. Jim Fitkin’s popping corn is unique in that it has a subtle taste of the Iowa prairie where it was grown.
One of the more desirable traits of popcorn is expansibility; a measure of the volume ratio of popped corn to unpopped corn. Popcorn kernels can come in two shapes: “Butterfly” which are irregular in shape and have a number of protruding “wings”, or “Mushroom” flakes which are largely ball-shaped, with few wings. Jim’s popping corn is grown in northeast Iowa and is a hybrid variety with mushroom-like kernels.
We all know that when popcorn is heated it expands from the kernel and puffs up. But why? The folklore of some Native American tribes told of spirits who lived inside each kernel of popcorn, and who grew angry if their houses were heated. The real expansion happens because the kernels have a hard moisture-sealed hull and a dense starchy interior and under the right temperature, pressure builds inside the kernel, and a small explosion - or “pop!” - is the end result. Once popped you can eat popcorn with whatever toppings you choose; salt, butter, chili flakes or cream and sugar. When it comes to Jim’s popping corn, we’re staunch traditionalists and hold true to this recipe complements of the McVay family.