Plovgh is a cooperative of farmers, growers, and ranchers that sell directly to their customers.
As we near the end of March and creep ever slowly towards spring, it can grow weary stocking onions and the last of the hard winter squash. But take note: Farmers across the country are making plans, buying seeds, reviewing field plans and trying to figure out what you, their customer, wants to buy this year. Here, applying insights from our retail members, we’ve identified a few steps to help you plan your purchases for the coming season, forge more effective relationships with the farms that supply you, and provide your customers with the best of the harvest.
1. Determine the priorities for your store’s farm purchasing program.
Are you committed to local purchasing? Organic or other on-farm practices? Purchasing from small farms? Getting fresh, unique products into your store? Price? Determining the focus for your farm purchasing program will help immensely as you identify which farms to work with, and which crops to purchase from those farms.
2. Review your sales data.
- Pull previous years’ monthly sales from your point of sale system
- Enter that data into a monthly breakdown
- Determine your sales goals for this year
- Estimate the quantities of each item you will purchase this year
3. Consult farms’ production plans.
Perhaps local farmers have stopped into the store to alert you to their existence, their radishes, their CSA. It can get overwhelming when your phone is ringing and your pricing and merchandising still isn’t done. Consider all of the key factors you want to know about a product and discuss this with the farms early on so that when the time comes that you’re ready to start setting up orders, you have - in clear and concise terms - what those farms can reasonably supply you with.
At Plovgh, we’re using a similar approach to help streamline this process for farmers and buyers. Run through the things you want to know about a product you would like to stock. How much does it cost? How was it produced? When will it be ready? How long can I get it for? Farms know these details, they’re just not always included on an availability list. We’re working with the farms in our network to organize all of this data in a clear way so that purchasing can be more easily coordinated.
4. Make your wish list.
What on your list of previous years’ purchases or what crops from a farm’s production plan do you want to see in your store? Over the course of the season this fluctuates, but some things we’ve taken note of are that kale, pastured eggs, and heirloom tomatoes are staples with more seasonally specific items like ramps, morels and artichokes also holding up as crowd pleasers. Use this stage to identify any new products you want to introduce your customers to based on trends in the market or requests you’ve gotten from your clientele.
5. Review your purchase plan.
Compile the items you’re interested in purchasing this season and estimate quantities and frequency for your orders. It can be helpful to break this down by season, for instance early/late spring, early/late summer. Also, be sure to touch base with the farmers you are interested in working with this season and verify price ranges, anticipated delivery dates and harvest duration with them.
6. Place purchase requests.
And make them early. By placing your purchase requests in advance of the season you are helping the farmers to gauge a better sense of demand and to plan ahead in these earlier months. You’ll also be in the loop for when the first sugar snap peas of the season are ready for market.
We work with the farms in our network to keep track of how the crop is progressing and send buyers updates on what stage it’s at or if abnormal weather has knocked its anticipated harvest date off course. Building relationships like this with your farmer not only gives you more of an appreciation for the capricious nature of farming but also helps you plan, so you know if you need to find that additional supplier to supplement in the time you wait for that crop.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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