Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association

MOFGA Launches New Marketing Program
Connecting with Consumers
Why We Buy
Maine Senior Farm Share Program



MOFGA Launches New Marketing Program

By Susie O’Keeffe

“Organic marketing has to be as fundamentally different from industrial marketing as ecological farming is from industrial farming.” – Ron Poitras, Hancock County Regional Planning/MOFGA Marketing Working Group member

As MOFGA has long known, marketing is an indispensable part of guaranteeing the prosperity of Maine’s organic farmers. To date, we have offered help in this area whenever possible. We are continually matching farmers and buyers on a one-on-one basis, and we deliver marketing reports during the growing season. Last year we received a small grant to research the obstacles and opportunities faced by farmers, buyers and consumers. Yet, as the demand for local, organic goods expands, we need to do more.

Last November we began creating a Marketing Program. Although we will not have the resources to launch a comprehensive program until the Capital Campaign is completed, we have formed a Marketing Working Group comprised of farmers, gardeners, restaurant owners and others involved in marketing local foods. One of the group’s first activities is to create a Growers’ and Buyers’ Guide that will be available this spring. It will list all of our farmers who sell to the public, their location and their products. It will also include buyers who wish to be listed and the products they want. An internship is being created to help us accomplish this task. (We will continue to match buyers and growers informally as well.)

Another activity is this new MOF&G column, “The Market Page.” This page will offer practical information for farmers and buyers, including advice and examples. Submissions concerning the ecological, economic and ethical aspects of marketing will be welcome, as will suggestions on what would be most useful to you. In this issue, Amanda Beal and Martha Putnam have generously shared their marketing expertise.

Today’s great demand for local, organic food marks a monumental success, yet that demand also threatens the integrity of the organic movement as some corporations see organic agriculture only in terms of the money that can be made from it. Through its Marketing Program, MOFGA will strive to help Maine’s organic growers prosper while it cultivates the understanding that organic agriculture is as much about healthy food as it is about protecting Maine’s communities and natural beauty.

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Connecting with Consumers

By Amanda Beal

When I first became manager of one of the largest health food stores in Maine, I thought I would benefit from reading some quality marketing books written by people with impressive credentials, following the “industry” through trade journals, and listening carefully to what our reps had to say about “market trends.” I soon came to realize that we move to the beat of a different drum here in Maine. As consumers, we generally are not so apt to get caught up in the undertow of a materialistic tide. As a matter of fact, we are more likely to become repelled by a heavy marketing campaign, wary of new fads and trends. For the most part, we are frugal, cautious consumers.

This surprised me, not so much because I was any different, but because I was working in a community where many people had access to higher income levels and were in a position to buy as they pleased. However, these were some of our most price-conscious customers. Everyone seemed to be looking for a bargain, even from the health food store. As I learned later, this is where the cycle of “worth” tends to break down. Customers want more for less, retail stores try to accommodate by cutting their costs, and farmers eventually bear the brunt of this strategy. Because farmers already are operating with the fewest possible expenses, customers’ bargain mentality usually means a cut in a farmer’s already meager income.

Other surprises occurred as well: Most of our customers were not vegetarian; Our fastest growing department was prepared frozen foods; Despite the environmental and personal health aspects of buying organic that propelled these people to shop in a health food store in the first place, most of our customers cross-shopped at the local grocery store for “other” less environmentally friendly, less expensive items.

As time went on, I found myself disregarding what the “industry experts” had to say, and focused instead on what the consumers’ actions were telling me. I began to recognize a trend in the community itself, where people seemed to put a lot of energy into their connections with one another, local schools, and community events. If they could see, touch, and feel something, they made it an intimate part of their everyday lives. When the fog cleared, I saw a strong need to connect these customers with the local people who produced their food.

In response, we organized a four-day community event that featured local businesses, focusing an entire day on food alone. The response was truly wonderful, and customers are still overheard reminiscing about it even now, six months later. In addition, we made a greater effort to continue to invite food producers into the store to “meet” the customers and sample out their products. The connections established in one afternoon often result in months or years of consumer loyalty to a particular farm or brand, regardless of where the customer happens to be shopping. In addition, the excitement that can be created for a product among the staff of an establishment can keep the product on the top of everyone’s recommendation list for a long time.

If you’ve spent time at a farmer’s market, you already have a sense of what this “connectedness” is all about. Many people come to the farmers for fresher product, as well as to sense that they are somehow closer to the growers and processors of their food. For them, the market offers a fuller, more personal experience than that of shopping in a grocery store. The same philosophy explains why people patronize U-Pick operations and roadside stands.

If your product is destined to the produce display or shelves of a retail store, this is worth keeping in mind. If you can’t appear in person occasionally, or don’t want to, a slightly less effective alternative is to invest some time in making a simple brochure or some shelf talkers for your farm or product. The more people know about what you do, the more likely they will feel a certain loyalty to you.

My second piece of advice is that if you don’t like to do the public relations part of business, find someone who does. Maybe another producer whose items complement yours would be willing to represent yours as well for a small fee or for barter.

This is the side of the table I find myself on these days, as I approach stores on behalf of my father, who would rather be on the farm than in the car. The level of energy I bring to the discussion of what he does and the offer to make a few signs has made the transition into new stores easier on everyone. From the consumer’s point of view, it may take some time before they stop and look at his label without the healthy sense of skepticism, but the more information they are presented with, the sooner it will invoke a “familiar” feeling – which inevitably amounts to increased sales.
Amanda manages Royal River Natural Foods in Freeport.

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Why We Buy

By Martha Putnam

Maine Harvest, a produce business at the Portland Public Market, sells locally produced, organically and conventionally grown produce. I managed our team of buyers at Maine Harvest through one Maine growing season. We buy products from 40 Maine growers.

We buy what we can sell and sell what is easy to sell. When we know the consumer and know the product, selling is easy – just pair up one with the other. Producers help us to know the product and consumers help us to know their needs. The more efficiently we can make a match, the better off we all are.

What accompaniments make a product easy to sell and why? Here are some:

• A quality product – We believe in the product!

• Consistent size, color, shape and taste, all in a marketable crop yield. This is product that you open your wallet for – It’s that good.

• Labeled, durable boxes that are user friendly. When you arrive at work to stock the shelves and a box is clearly labeled and does not collapse when you move it, that’s the box you use.

• User friendly packaging – When products arrive and are ready to go into a consumer’s shopping bag, they are packaged well.

• Information – Visual and written information about the products and the grower makes consumers and us comfortable selling and using the products. Stories and myths are great selling tools. The more familiar and comfortable we are with your products, the more volume we will sell.

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Maine Senior Farm Share Program

Maine farmers have a chance to participate in a one-year program intended to demonstrate ways to improve nutrition for seniors by making better connections with farmers. The USDA awarded Maine $769,500 for the program for 2001, $500,000 of which will be distributed in the form of $100 shares of produce for 5000 low income Maine elders. Farmers who are interested in participating in either the individual program, or in the bulk sales program to food banks and congregate meal facilities that make up the rest of the program, should make sure they complete an application form as soon as possible. Contact either the MOFGA office at 568-4142 or the Maine Department of Agriculture at 287-3491.

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MOF&G Cover Spring 2001