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CSA

Collective Marketing for Veggie Farmers

in 2016/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2016
Merville Organics Farmer Co-operative

Moss Dance

Get Your Produce in a Pile!

I was lucky to witness the flourishing of the Saanich Organics farming (and marketing!) co-operative when I lived and farmed on southern Vancouver Island. In their book All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming, Saanich Organics farmers Robin Tunnicliffe, Heather Stretch, and Rachel Fisher describe an amusing scene—it may be familiar to you, too. Picture three stressed out, overworked farmers, hauling produce in small, worse-for-wear pick-ups—all of them headed to make deliveries to the same restaurants!

Back in 2012, they might as well have been describing me. At my new farm in the Comox Valley, I was spending four and a half hours every Tuesday delivering 25 CSA shares to members’ doorsteps after a morning of frantic harvesting and packing shares.

But that all changed when I met Arzeena Hamir and Neil Turner at Amara Farm in 2013.

As soon as we met, Arzeena and I started hatching plans for a growers’ co-operative. Thanks to those clever Saanich Organics farmers, I was feeling pretty excited about the idea of collective marketing by this time and also using cheap banner printing service to save cost on the overall marketing strategy. The only issue was, we needed three members to start a co-op! So we began with a two-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. We also took turns at the local farmers’ market where we sold each others’ produce under the Merville Organics banner. By uniting under Merville Organics, our marketing efforts could be more concise and targeted.

By 2015, several of our apprentices graduated onto their own farms, and some new young farmers were setting up shop in town. We finally had our founding member quorum and took the initial steps towards “inco-operating” through the BC Co-operative Association.

Merville Organics Farmer's Co-op

Why Collaborate?

I’m not going to lie: collaboration takes a lot of extra work at the beginning. Setting up tracking systems, establishing effective group dynamics, and doing the legwork of starting up a shared business is a huge commitment. It took many long meetings and volunteer hours from our members to get started. As we begin our second year, our co-operative still relies mostly on volunteer labour from our grower members to keep things running. For many farmers, co-operative or not, marketing comes at the end of a long list of things that just can’t wait, like thinning the carrots. Still, in our view, the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Despite the volunteer hours we spend running the co-op, our goal is to lessen the marketing workload on our members so they can spend more time farming. Here are a few of the best results of our work together:

Increased Marketing Reach

People power is real when it comes to marketing a farm—we’ve seen this time and again when our seven grower members combine their contacts in the community to spread the word about our products.

For example, when we post about our CSA on our co-op Facebook page, we can reach a portion of our 800 followers (thanks to Facebook’s limiting algorithms we can’t reach them all at once for free). If each member shares that post, we exponentially increase our online reach. Friends, family members, and co-workers who know us personally take an interest and spread the word for us. This kind of grassroots marketing is essential in small communities.

Abundance & Visual Appeal

Working together, we not only increase our marketing reach, we also increase the variety and consistency of the products we supply to our markets. A three-farm market table overflows with produce. This in turn revs up interest in our market stall—the more variety you’ve got, the more people you’re going to attract to your table!

Shared Infrastructure

Thanks to our marketing co-op, our new grower members are saving on farm start-up costs by sharing essential equipment such as a walk-in cooler, wash station, delivery vehicle, harvest totes, packaging materials, and co-op office. We hire a bookkeeper for the co-op which means financial record-keeping is much simpler for all of our members. As well, we share marketing resources—everything from printed materials to social advertising, thus reducing the cost and the workload for all.

Grower Member Specialization

Sharing in the larger tasks of operating a farm business means our grower members can specialize in roles that they enjoy and excel at such as customer relations, farmers’ markets, marketing, or sales tracking. The increased number of growers also enables each farmer to specialize in growing crops they have success with instead of trying to grow a full array of crops to ll their own CSA program. Several of our members have expertise in marketing and the co-operative as a whole gets to reap the benefits!

Merville Organics CSA

Harvesting Grassroots Media

We use three social media platforms and one in-person platform to get the word out about our CSA programs and our annual spring plant sale. During CSA season, we post our weekly blog to all of our social media platforms.

Facebook

Facebook is definitely the workhorse in our social media strategy. All of our members have active personal Facebook accounts, and this has definitely helped us to gain a good following on our Merville Organics Facebook page. It’s not all free, but it’s not expensive either. The reality is, Facebook doesn’t want you to get much exposure for free, especially if you’re running a business. That’s why we “boost” posts strategically to increase our reach at key times in the season.

Boosting Posts on Facebook

We boost Facebook posts 5-7 times per year, usually with a budget of $14-25 per boost. Here’s the break- down of our strategy:

  • Spring CSA launch
  • #CSADay
  • Spring CSA – one week before the sign up deadline
  • Spring plant sale announcement
  • Spring plant sale reminder (2-3 days before the event)
  • Fall CSA launch
  • Fall CSA – one week before the sign up deadline

Twitter

Developing a good following on Twitter can take a long time, and a bit more strategic thinking. If you really want to drive traffic to your Twitter feed, it’s important to re-tweet, post relevant content, and not just plug your sales. In our experience, Twitter isn’t a popular social media platform in our community—so it means our reach is a bit more far-flung and therefore doesn’t help much when we are selling CSA shares.

Instagram

Instagram is great for farms! We live in image-rich en- vironments—whether we’re growing microgreens or raising sheep—and people LOVE farm pictures. We use Instagram to build a story about our farms, who we are and what we are offering to our community. It’s not so much about hard sales with Instagram, it’s more about the slow process of relationship building.

“Like” Each Other

Our philosophy as a co-op is that there is no competi- tion, only more room for collaboration. We take this approach in social media too. When that amazing local yoghurt company is launching a new avour, or a new locally-owned feed & supply store is opening in town, share that news on your social media feeds!

Building this network of businesses who support each other’s work means we are creating fantastic new local economies where community members can clearly see where to redirect their dollars. Think of it as over-throwing the stodgy, competive capitalist system, one “Like” at a time.

In Person at Farmers’ Markets

If you’re running a CSA, potential members really appreciate the chance to talk to a real person and ask questions about the program. It also helps that we have solid weekly face-to-face connections with people at the market—that kind of trust helps people to take the leap to try something new. The marketing tactic on this one is so simple: put up a sign at your booth that says, “Ask us about our CSA program!”

Co-ops Love Co-ops!

Don’t be shy about reaching out to the co-ops in your community if you’re starting your own collective venture! The beauty of co-ops is that they are creating a culture of collaboration, and what could be more exciting than more people joining in?

Suggestions for Starting Your Own Marketing Co-operative

If you are interested in starting your own marketing co-op, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get together and host a meeting with farmers in your community who you think you would enjoy working with (liking each other IS essential)
  • Look for common ground: What challenges are growers facing? Do you have shared goals & values?
  • Brainstorm opportunities: What could you do together that you can’t do alone?
  • List needs & resources: What do you have that you can share? What do folks need to improve their farm businesses?
  • Start small: collaborate on something simple & manageable in the beginning and expand on your successes

Moss Dance is an organic farmer & founding member of the Merville Organics Growers’ Co-operative. She also works with the Young Agrarians on Vancouver Island.

Photo credit: Boomer Merritt

Facebook: MervilleOrganics
Twitter: @MervilleOrgCoop
Instagram: @mervilleorganics

Fresh Starts at Shalefield Organic Gardens

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories
Veggie crops at Shalefield Organic Gardens

Hannah Roessler

You don’t need to be young to succeed as a new farmer, as this intrepid pair from the Columbia Valley are proving.“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!” explains Yolanda Versterre when I ask her about the name of the farm in Lindell Beach, BC she owns with her partner Brian Patterson.

The story of Yolanda and Brian’s entry into farming puts a fresh twist on the new farmer tale: as Yolanda puts it, “we are old young farmers.” While discussions of the aging farmer base and the challenges faced by young entrants into farming are a frequent theme in farming news, its not often we hear about people embarking on farming careers later in life.

“There is just so much shale in the field, we’re always picking up rocks – so there you have it: “Shalefield Farm” was born!”

Brian has owned the 10-acre property south of Chilliwack, near Cultus Lake, for many years, but Shalefield Organic Gardens only started taking off in 2005, when Brian began his professional life as a farmer — at the ripe young age of 55! He had been laid off from his job as a printer, as new mechanization and technology made his job of 35 years obsolete. It was an opportunity for a new start, and Brian began growing blueberries, raspberries and garlic — no longer as a hobby, but with an eye towards making money.

Inevitably, there were challenges in the transition from hobby farmer to professional grower. As Yolanda describes it, “Brian had been growing one row, so then he just started growing 10 rows! But of course, everything changes with scale, doesn’t it?”

Yolanda and Brian of Shalefield Organic GardensWhile Brian had years of experience growing vegetables for family and friends, Yolanda was completely new to farming. She had moved to BC after working as an operating room nurse in Holland, and met Brian while they were both enjoying their other hobby – trail running. Did this athletic training prepare them to be the successful farmers they are now? Certainly farming requires stamina: “It’s a LOT of work,” Yolanda sighs, noting that they’ve given up trail running, along with tennis, since farming provides all the exercise they have time or energy for!

 

Today, Yolanda and Brian and their dedicated staff have nine acres in production, growing strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and a variety of field crops. They have a few experimental crops, such as ginger, which they source certified organic from Hawaii; it’s done very well this year, and it’s a hit with market customers. Sprouts are another Shalefield specialty crop, one they started to develop a source of farm income throughout the winter months. Their sprout blends, which they create using over 10 types of sprouts, are a customer favourite at the market.

Using Technology to Build Customer Loyalty

Yolanda explains that they mostly sell at farmers markets, and have started using a market share program to help retain customers. Customers can purchase a market share for either $500 or $250 and then receive a gift card for the amount, which they bring to the market with them. Yolanda scans the card with an iphone app, which subtracts the amount of their purchase and sends an email to the customer to let them know how much credit they have left on their card.

This year they are expanding into a CSA program and they are determined to provide a veggie box to a family in need. They’ll need to attract 50 CSA box customers to attain this goal, and are well on the way there. As Yolanda notes, “how many times do you just have the one bunch of carrots left that didn’t sell, just because it’s that last bunch of carrots? I’ve asked for a lot of help from other people to get to this stage of farming and I am so, so very grateful for what I get to do in my life, because farming allows me to eat so healthy and live well. And I really want to help someone else access that.”

Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement.

A Biodynamic Commitment

Growing up in Holland, Yolanda became familiar early on with the use of homeopathics for healing. Today, she and Brian practice biodynamic agriculture at Shalefield, and Yolanda feels the philosophy behind biodynamics fits with the ethic of healing holistically. Following biodynamic cycles can be challenging given the tight rotations of market growing, but the pair are committed to making it work for their operation. Yolanda and Brian’s experiences starting their farming business at Shalefield Organic Gardens makes it clear that, whatever age you begin farming, a willingness to learn new things and take chances is the first requirement. Add a big measure of love and commitment to the job and you’ve got a recipe for success: “We just love what we are doing. We are so excited about the fact that we are still here. We made it! It’s do-able. You can do it. You can make it happen.”


Hannah Roessler has farmed in Nicaragua, Washington, and BC, on permaculture farms, polyculture cafetals, organic market farms and a biodynamic vineyard. She has an MA in Environmental Studies and her research is focused on climate change and small-scale organic farming. She currently farms on the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island.

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