Farming 101: Know Your Market Before Digging In


AphotoofColleenNewquistYou 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.

6/25/2011 3:09:41 PM

Wow. Colleen, I'm fascinated by this great information. Even though our spot of ground is already chosen, I see some possibilities of using your suggestions. Happy farming, Colleen. Thanks. MyraSaidIt.

Nebraska Dave
6/17/2011 9:04:49 PM

Colleen, you have a very novel idea that makes a great amount of wisdom. Find a market first before growing instead of growing and finding a market. It's kind of a duh moment. Don't you think? I have to be content with a backyard shared with playground equipment. A soon to be swing set and elevated fort for the grandson will be decorating my backyard. The days of easy mowing will be gone and the days of complicated weed whacking will be upon me. Ah, well, I didn't want a nice lawn in the backyard anyway. I wish you good fortune in your future endeavors. Have a great day in the garden.

Cindy Murphy
6/16/2011 6:54:52 AM

Hey! Joe's Blues is right down the road from me! Speaking in terms of "country miles", of course. Though I've never been to Joe's, there are many other farmer's around here using unique ideas and marketing to get their products to the public. Wishing you the best, Colleen, in finding your focus, and plowing ahead!

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