By Megan Humphrey, Shelburne Orchards
You can work as hard as humanly possible back on the farm, but that doesn’t get your goods to market. Promoting one’s product takes a whole different set of skills. It may involve learning the ropes of setting up at a farmer’s market every week. It could be that a farmer chooses to develop a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for customers. It might mean sailing all the way to New York City to sell goods.
After taking over Shelburne Orchards after his father, about 35 years ago, Nick Cowles has tried a variety of ways to provide his apple products to customers. Originally, he sold pallets of apples to wholesalers who then trucked them to Boston or New York; but profits were minimal. Next, Cowles purchased a delivery truck and sold directly to local grocery stores (in the days before places such as Onion River Co-op, Hunger Mountain, and Healthy Living Market). Shelburne Orchards spent many years hiring workers to pick apples, “pack them out,” and press cider for delivery to local stores for resale.
Shortly after I began working for Cowles, about 10 years ago, he called me to announce that he had made a decision. He wanted customers to experience apple picking and hoped to shift from wholesale to direct sales. I enjoy challenges, so I took a deep breath and told him that I’d do my best to change buyer thinking from store-purchasing apples to coming out to the orchard instead.
The annual Small Farms Food Festival and Pie Fest help to bring folks to the farm and they will, hopefully, come back again later in the season. Marketing efforts and other events encourage people to stop by to pick apples right off the tree, grab a warm cider doughnut at the Cider House Farm Market, and watch Rob Healy press cider. Cowles is thankful that we now sell 90 percent of our goods right at the orchard.
I queried other farmers in our area about their specific challenges. Beth Whiting – owner of Maple Wind Farm with her husband, Bruce Hennessey – mentioned two major obstacles in getting their organic, pasture-raised turkeys to their customers. One was the time and skill needed to maintain contact with past patrons, mostly through social media. The other one was somewhat out of Whiting’s control because it involved trying to match birds with customer’s needs.
“We did not sell out of our turkeys this year because we had some left at the end that were a bit bigger than people wanted,” Whiting explains.
Dave Quickel – Stony Loam Farm co-owner with his wife, Emma – was initially challenged when developing a CSA, which allows people to buy directly from a farmer. Quickel said, “Just getting people familiar with the concept of how a CSA works and why they might both benefit from it and enjoy it was difficult.” Ten years ago, there was much less awareness of CSAs, “so we used to put brochures up everywhere,” he explains. Since then, Stony Loam Farm has done their best to focus on the things CSA members most enjoy.
Rachel Schattman of Bella Farm sells about one-third of her products at the Burlington Farmers Market. Schattman’s biggest challenge is “getting more people to do their grocery shopping there.” She clarified by saying, “I love that many folks come to socialize and eat breakfast, but as a vegetable vendor, I’m always hoping that people will buy the bulk of their food right there at the farmers market.”
Erik Andrus, Project Director of the Vermont Sail Freight Project (VSFP), has now successfully sailed the wind-powered barge, “Ceres”, from the Burlington area to New York City. His greatest challenge was the lack of appropriate docks for commercial activity.
“Very few towns and cities along our route maintain good public docks where people can gather to admire the boat and buy cargo from us,” Andrus explains. They found that Vergennes and Mechanicville, N.Y. maintain good docks and are a great asset for small-scale maritime commerce. The VSFP is now looking forward to another season of sailing.
Challenges can become opportunities. Each of these farmers has risen to those challenges to provide excellent products that we can purchase right here in Vermont. Let’s all make it a Happy New Year for farmers!