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Marketing your diversified revenue stream

Jen Bradley for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 July 2019

“What is unique about you and your farm that you can build into your brand?” asked Tera Johnson, director of the Food Finance Institute (FFI) and founder of teraswhey, in her keynote presentation at the Resilient Farms Conference, held earlier this year in Wisconsin Dells.

She told the crowd that in her experience, she’s seen that brands matter and used the term “defensible uniqueness” to describe what entrepreneurs should be looking for to build in to their product.

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“Do your homework,” Johnson added. “Learn what consumers want. Start with them, which can be a really different way to think on a farm.”

“Our state of Wisconsin has 5 million people, but be realistic about your audience,” she said.

A market for grains

That’s exactly what Paul Bickford with Meadowlark Organics in Ridgeway, Wisconsin, did. Through trying times, he is landing on his feet by taking risks and mixing things up, he said.

He began rotational grazing in the 1990s and said: “Boy, did people talk.”

But in 2011, he sold the cows and had 900 acres of good cropland he turned into organic corn and soybeans. His current business partners, John and Halee Wepking, left New York City in 2014 to farm in Wisconsin and soon joined Bickford’s organic farm.

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They’ve been instrumental in bringing to life the idea of growing small grains, which has been successful even though it took a lot of experimenting. They grow and rotate buckwheat, rye, spelt, beans, hull-less oats, legumes, specialty corn and others with alfalfa, soybeans and field corn.

When it came to developing markets, Bickford said, “It’s tough. Talk to everyone you know.”

They attended farmers’ markets to gain interest and now offer online sales of their various grains and flours made from those products. Local stores are selling their products, and restaurants are using them for their needs.

“Don’t grow things if you don’t have a strategy to store and market it,” he said.

Johnson agrees. She said entrepreneurs must spend time building a solid network, though she acknowledges this is tough at first and told the crowd they can’t do it alone. “Success comes with persistence,” she said.

A marketing lesson from herbs

Jane Hawley Stevens, owner of Four Elements Herbals in North Freedom, Wisconsin, has been in the business for 31 years and said marketing hasn’t gotten easier in that time. She’s not a dairy farmer, but her Resilient Farms message on marketing was very pertinent to anyone looking to diversify and add new revenue streams.

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“With the growth in the natural foods marketplaces, it’s now harder,” she told a full room at the conference. “You need to get clever and be persistent.”

Her 130-acre, organic herb farm near Baraboo provides products she uses to make skin creams, tinctures, soaps, among many other things. A USDA value-added producer grant in 2012 allowed her to begin offering medicinal herbal teas to customers.

Hawley Stevens said she really believes in farmers’ markets. “Be in front of the consumer,” she advised. “Get their direct feedback and input. It’s a great way to test the marketplace and your packaging.”

When discussing the direction of her business and marketing, this entrepreneur said farmers must put their personal vision (hers was being home with children and not having a commute) and their customer at the center of all decisions.

“People like consistency,” Stevens said. “Think of your favorite customer when making a decision. Then focus on the rewards.”

She said it’s important to make a budget and stick to it, then start small and work up to larger events or goals. A trick she uses is to staple business cards in a notebook, then jot a quick message by them so she can easily refer to it later.

“Be strategic and make good use of your time,” Stevens said. “Then be flexible.”

Dairy farm destination

Darci Daniels of Hixton, Wisconsin, also has had success marketing Garden Valley Farmstead’s products with local farmers’ markets and then starting an on-the farm avenue by offering entertainment and a personal experience to her clients.

“People want to connect with the family but also the farm,” she said. For example, she’s done a Fall Fest event, a photographer has hosted mini photo sessions in the fall season, and Christmas on the Farm was a hit because of help from the Jackson County Farm Bureau. Tours are available at any time with advance notice.

She offered the same advice as others. “Think about what sets you apart,” Daniels told the audience. She said quality help is also important, as she can’t be in all places at once. She has small children but also enjoys the daily tasks of milking cows and feeding calves.

She emphasized the importance of being able to justify time and costs, and the variety of products they offer helps with that. She’s not concerned about competitors because her market may not overlap with another, as the local reach is only so far, she said.

From a roadside stand to an on-farm store, the Daniels family started with low-investment options, not wanting to go into debt, and continued to showcase the dairy industry in a personal way. The farm’s marketing materials feature a family picture, which she wants customers to see when they look on their fridge at a magnet or flyer, and then connect the products to a family.

“It brings joy to me that what I can do provides joy in return,” she said. “People want connection from the person who does the chores. I remember hoping this was a good place to start, and then it built momentum.”

Marketing is a skill of its own and, as dairy farms look to diversification, these veterans are helping others by showing a new way of thinking, a new way to look at a customer base and product offerings. Many state and local resources are available to farmers today who wish to explore new ideas.

Even with the dairy industry’s trying days, these professionals agree a light may be found at the end of a new tunnel.  end mark

Jen Bradley is a freelance writer in Chilton, Wisconsin.

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