Farming 101: Know Your Market Before Digging In

You want to be a farmer. Where do you start? Before you buy land, plant crops, purchase livestock, or check out tractors, do one important thing: find your market, says Ellen Phillips of the University of Illinois Extension.

The farming business is just that–a business–and to be successful, you need to approach it as such. This was the message I took from “Farming Fundamentals: Know Your Food, Be a Farmer,” a daylong workshop on June 10 in Countryside, Illinois.

Sponsored by the Cook County Farm Bureau Commodities/Marketing Team, the Cook Area University of Illinois Extension, and the Illinois Farm Bureau, the day featured several speakers and two panel discussions and covered topics ranging from key elements of a business plan and grant writing to conversation with a beekeeper and using social media.

To market, to market
For me, the “aha!” moment came with the marketing presentation. It prompted me to bring focus to my vague dream of country living and including some sort of farming in my way to make a living. I don’t know yet what I would like to do, but I do know that I need to research the market and have a buyer lined up or at least a marketing plan in place to make it a successful venture.

I learned there are essentially two ways of selling your product: direct marketing (selling directly to consumers) and indirect marketing, such as selling to wholesale markets and food processors.

Among the many ways to direct sell that were discussed–u-pick, roadside stands, farmers markets, CSAs–was the intriguing option of selling to restaurants or chefs. I particularly loved anecdotes of a farmer who started growing lemongrass for a chef who couldn’t find a steady supply of the herb and now grows lemongrass as his primary crop, and the city dweller whose chef friend wanted a particular type of pepper and was having a hard time finding it. The friend approached his neighbors and arranged to trade produce for the opportunity to use their yards as gardens. He now “farms” full-time in 10 backyards, supplying peppers and more to the restaurant chef.

One blueberry farmer, Joe Corrado in Bangor, Michigan, owner of Joe’s Blues, has introduced the opportunity to rent a blueberry bush for the season. Just $35 buys you the opportunity to pick a guaranteed 12 pounds of berries or to have them shipped. Brilliant! Another farmer is going the agritourism route and rents his scenic site with a pond for weddings and other events.

These stories of innovative entrepreneurship opened a world of possibilities in my head.

Online resources
Talking to presenter Phillips at the break, I mentioned that my husband and I are hoping to buy a farm in Wisconsin eventually, and that her comments about determining a market made me think more about location and ease of access to populated areas.

She added another piece of advice: before buying property, know the soil. The one thing you can’t change about land is the soil, she pointed out, and if you want to farm it’s essential to know whether it is suitable for growing crops–and if so, what kind–or for providing pasture for livestock.

A source for knowing an area’s soil is the Web Soil Survey, which provides detailed reports on 95% of the land in the United States, searchable down to home address. I haven’t completely figured out how to use the site yet, but she assured me that if I have a hard time deciphering the information, someone at the Extension office would be happy to help. I have a feeling I’ll be taking them up on that.

Another wonderful resource is the Market Maker website created by the University of Illinois. An interactive site linking farmers and food industry professionals in participating states with each other and with consumers, the site is currently one of the most extensive collections of searchable food industry related data in the country. Recent buy-sell listings in Illinois, for example, included a country club chef seeking locally grown produce and an organic strawberry farm seeking customers.

The site also provides a wealth of information with fact sheets on topics ranging from preparing a business plan and relationship management to state-specific information, such as markets for goat meat in Illinois or honey labeling regulations in Florida.

It’s a complex site with many of layers of information, including demographics. According to an example on the site, a producer wanting to sell meat to Hispanic consumers can request a map showing the greatest concentration of upper-income Hispanic households, then request a complete demographic profile of those locations. My advice for using the site:start with the “Learn Market Maker” tab.

I want to be a farmer. So where do I start? With a passion for good food, a desire to work outdoors–and, thankfully, an excitement for owning my own business. Thanks to the Farm Bureau and Extension professionals for bringing my dreams down to earth. Knowing where I need to focus first, I can start plowing ahead.

Published on Jun 12, 2011

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