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farmers’ markets

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. 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

Farmers’ Markets Go Festive!

in Farmers' Markets/Marketing/Organic Community/Winter 2016
Sam at the Market

Chris Quinlan

What’s food without a nice glass of BC Pinot to pair with it? The sale and sampling of beer, wine, and spirits at BC Farmers’ Markets brings the market experience one step closer to maturity.

In 2014, the Whistler Farmers’ Market became the first to have a liquor producer approved for the sale and sampling of liquor at a market. The first producer was Pemberton Distillery, producers of Shramm Vodka amongst other spirits.

In 2015, the Whistler Farmers’ Market had 15 initial applications from liquor producers to vend at the market. There are currently three or four producers sampling and selling their products at both the Sunday and Wednesday markets. It is not unusual for a winery to sell out at a Whistler market.

This is a win for markets, producers, and customers. Regional producers gain access and exposure to customers who are tuned into their product. Customers are able to meet and talk to producers about how their product is made. And Farmers’ Markets come closer to meeting their mandate of providing a complete regional shopping experience.

Moving Away from Teetotaling

How can markets and producers take advantage of this opportunity? That requires understanding how we got here.

Before 1986, if you wanted a drink on a Sunday, outside of your home, you either went to a restaurant, few of which were open on “the day of rest”, or you had to go to a private “sports club.” Arguably, this was a large part of the business plan for many of the racquet clubs that flourished in my hometown of Nanaimo. We definitely smashed more Caesars than volleys as members of the Quarterway Racquet Club.

Then came Expo 86 and the beginning of the evolution of liquor laws in British Columbia. It all began as an experiment to ensure that the international tourists who visited Expo 86 did not have to endure the trauma of not being able to get a drink on a Sunday. Fortunately for the hospitality industry, the experiment became the norm and Sunday liquor sales opened up a whole new business opportunity.

Fast forward to 2013. As a result of the long-awaited provincial liquor review, and possibly an Okanagan MLA making his seat available for a seat-less Premier Clark, consultations began with industry and the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets with the aim of enabling the sampling and sale of BC-produced beer, wine and spirits at Farmers’ Markets.

Quinny at the Market

Overcoming Fears

While the move to bring the Farmers’ Market experience in line with that of markets around the world was met with great enthusiasm by the majority of markets and municipalities, it was amazing how many of these organizations still feared this move would somehow result in rampant liquor consumption and public inebriation at Farmers’ Markets. At one consultation meeting a local market manager expressed the fear that the proposed legislation might result in “non traditional” customers attending the market to purchase a bottle of wine and then heading over to the neighboring park to drink it out of a brown paper bag.

One year after the legislation came into effect many markets are still struggling to obtain zoning from their municipal governments that would allow them to host liquor vendors. Much of this is because most municipalities were unaware of the legislation themselves. They were, and some still are, scrambling to enact the necessary zoning and business regulation bylaws.

Whistler Seizes the Moment

How did Whistler become the first to have vendors approved under the new legislation? We were fortunate to be part of the initial consultations with the province and as a result had some insight and input into what was coming. As a former municipal councilor I understood the need to keep the municipality informed as to what was coming down the pipe. By working with municipal staff we were able to ensure that the required business regulation and zoning bylaws were in place when the legislation came into effect, just in time for the Canada Day long weekend market. Pemberton Distillery was already a member of our market, selling their line of non-alcoholic elixirs and syrups. We made certain that we kept each other informed. So when the legislation came in, I called them and they had their application filed within the hour. They were the first, and they continue to be regular vendors at the Whistler Farmers’ Market.

Wine Sampling

Over the past year I have walked many producers through the process of obtaining their permit to sell at Farmers’ Markets, in addition to consulting with Farmers’ Markets on specific liquor vendor policies and municipal relations. From these experiences, and observing liquor vendors at the market, I offer the following:

For a Farmers’ Market, this is one of the greatest opportunities to gain not only excellent revenue from a new vendor category, but also to draw in new customers, as well as retain existing ones with a new product offering.

For the producers, whether you are making beer, wine, spirits, or even Honey Meade (that was a new one this year) it is critical that you go beyond “sending a rep” to sample and sell at a Farmers’ Market. As a rule, we are “make, bake, or grow”, so sending “staff” to cover the market is not acceptable.

Farmers’ Market customers are very specific in what they are looking for. They are educated consumers and can be demanding of producers. The reason they come to a Farmers’ Market is to connect with their farmer, their artist, and their crafter. They want to know and trust the product they are taking the time to purchase. Respect their investment in time away from a big box retailer by investing in the best representation of your product and you will be successful.


Chris Quinlan is a former Business Operator and Municipal Councillor who found his a way to satisfy his passions managing the Whistler Farmers’ Market. Innovating and pushing the boundaries of conventional market management, Chris has grown the Whistler market into one of the largest animist successful in British Columbia. He has worked as a project facilitator and coordinator for the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets, Strengthening Farmers’ Markets’ program and recently launched Marketwurks.com, an online Vendors Application and Management program for Farmers’ and Artisan markets.

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