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!
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!
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.
Production of our popcorn was cut by over half last year due to the drought. Northeast Iowa, where I farm, was hit the hardest last year by the drought. This year we had a record wet and cold spring which then turned into a “flash drought”. At this time Northeast Iowa, although still dry, is the wettest part of Iowa. Our yields should only be slightly below trend line.- A conversation with Jim Fitkin of Fitkin Farms in Cedar Falls, Iowa earlier this season
Samascott Orchards - Kinderhook, NY
Harvesting date: October - November 2013
There are more than 7,000 varieties of apples that come to harvest at different times over the course of a season.
Apples can be categorized by their harvest schedule which include an early-season crop (mid- to late summer), a mid-season crop (mid-summer to early autumn), and a late-season crop (early to late autumn, and sometimes running into winter). Harvest times may vary a week or more from year to year, depending on when the tree is in bloom and the climate conditions during the growing season. Cloudy, cool conditions or drought conditions also tend to delay fruit maturity.
Late season or winter apples are great for cooking and are also the best keepers. Here are some of the varieties you can find growing at Samascott Orchards this season.
A very old-fashioned American variety that is well known for its winter-hardiness. Good for baking pies, these apples are crunchy and have a thin skin. They’re juicy, crisp and mildly sweet with a rich, aromatic tart flavor.
First introduced in 2006, this variety is savory and sweet, with a slight tartness and rich overtones. When it’s cut it takes a longer than usual time to turn brown which makes them ideal for eating fresh with cheese plates or salads.
Also known as Pinova or Piñata, Sonata apples are a cross between a Golden Delicious, Cox’s Orange Pippin and a Duchess of Oldenburg. It has a crisp taste that is both sweet and tart.
A small, sweet variety that is similar to a McIntosh. It has bright crimson skin and white flesh. When picked right off the tree, Spartans are very crisp and juicy, but they tend to soften a bit within a week or so of picking. They are a great variety for juicing.
A cross between Northern Spy and Golden Delicious, these apples are tender and have a fine-grained, firm, crisp flesh. Similar to the Northern Spy variety, these apples hold their shape well when cooked making them a good choice for baking.
Apples are still living even after they are picked which means they are using stored nutrients as opposed to those received from the tree prior to harvesting. During storage, they gradually use up their nutrients causing the sugar, starch, and acid content of the apple to change. This is why some apples become mealy. Storage varies depending on the cultivar, but most apples store well at low temperatures (as this slows the respiration rate and preserves good quality) and at high humidity (to keep them from dehydrating & shriveling up). You can find more detailed storage tips here.
Whether you’re baking or making cider, finding the right apple cultivar for the right dish can be a science. Or you could just take the easy route, and check out this list.
When baking…(Some Kitchen Stories)
When grilling…(Serious Eats)
When poaching…(The Hungry Giant)
When sautéing…(Oh My Veggies)
It’s true: Farmers tend to get the short end of the stick when it comes to money. They have the hardest job on the planet but because they’re at the foundation (read, bottom) of the industrial food chain, they’re typically the last to get paid. Not only do they just make $0.11, on average, for every dollar of food you purchase, but they also wait weeks - sometimes, we hear, even months - to get paid for their work.
But seed needs to be planted! Land needs to be tilled! Farmers themselves need to be fed! What an abomination.
We at Plovgh have a mission to keep independent farms viable, and we accomplish it by making it possible for any farm to sell directly to its customers. Farms that sell their harvest through Plovgh set their own prices and get paid 24 hours after they deliver their crops to you.
We’re pleased to have found in Dwolla compatriots in the battle to take down all the giants that stand between a buyer and seller. Now, using Dwolla Credit on Plovgh, you can place an order from a farmer today, receive your harvest and get him paid tomorrow, and only part with your own cash at the end of the month. Check it out, for your own good and your farmer’s.
When you register on Plovgh, use the discount code GoDwolla to get $10 toward your first purchase from the farms!
Today is Food Day. Across the country people are organizing and sponsoring events that encourage Americans to eat Real Food. You can get involved simply by tweeting why you support Food Day or by hosting an event in your community.
We think one of the best ways to live out your Food Day commitment is by buying directly from farmers. Putting your food dollars towards the people that grow, raise, and produce food that is good for the land and good for you is one of the strongest statements you can make. Voting for change in policy and farm regulations is necessary, but today, the most immediate way you can make a difference in the food system is by buying directly from the farm, and supporting a shift away from industrial, non-transparent, processed food in favor of eating real.
When you register on Plovgh, use the FOODDAY discount code to get an extra $10 toward your next farmers market, CSA, or other direct-from-farm purchase.
Samascott Orchards - Kinderhook, NY
Harvesting date: September - October 2013
Architect’s rulers are made from pear wood because it doesn’t warp. Furniture, musical instruments and kitchen utensils have also been made from the wood of pear trees because it does not splinter, and in the case of kitchen utensils, can withstand multiple washings.
Native to coastal and mild regions, pear tree groves were cultivated in China almost 3000 years ago. Pear trees are grown by sowing the seeds of other cultivated or wild varieties which form pear stocks (also known as free stocks) onto which more desired varieties can be grafted to increase production. Pears are unique from other fruits like apples and strawberries in that they ripen from the inside out, even after they have been harvested. Since they continue to ripen after they are picked, some orchards harvest pears early to extend the seasons’ crop. And you know that gritty, grainy texture you might associate with some varieties? That’s because pears have stone cells (sclereids) which are isodiametric cells, with thick cell walls that can be often found in quince fruits.
There are thousands of varieties of pears, some grown primarily for eating, while others are grown specifically for ornamental purposes. Different types can come in a range of sizes, and the skin can be a pale yellow to a deep brownish gold color. Pears can be sweet or spicy in taste, and have a texture that is gritty or smooth.
Also known as the “Williams pear”, Bartlett pears are a heirloom variety that were first developed in England. They are the most aromatic type of pear. Their skin is a greenish, yellow hue and are sometimes highlighted by a red blush. They have a smooth texture and are good for canning or sliced on top of a salad. Bartlett pears account for almost 75% of pear production in the US and are commonly used in pear juice and canned pears because they can bruise easily.
The Potomac was developed by the USDA in 1993 and is related to the the D’Anjou variety. It’s small, with light green and glossy skin. Potomac pears are sweet and have a buttery, fine texture.
Unripened pears are best stored in a refrigerator at ideally 30 degrees - in colder temperatures they will become damaged and in warmer temperatures they will ripen faster. Most early fall varieties will last up to 2 months, while winter pears will last a few months longer. The longer pears have been in cold storage, the faster they’ll ripen once they’re taken out.
Typically, when we think of pears we think, compotes, tarts and salads. But, how about pears and bacon? Or pears and pizza? Or pears and eggs? We think, why not.
Bacon, Pear & Raspberry Grilled Cheese (Pinch of Yum)
Pear, Goat Cheese & Pistachio Pizza (Savour the Senses)
Roasted Pears With Balsamico & Lime (Bread & Companatico)
Vanilla Pear Milk (Pastry Affair)
Pear & Camembert Quiche (The Creative Pot)