Farming Magazine - December, 2011

GROWING

Retail Outlet Advantage

Farmstands represent more than sales, they create an image
By Patrick White

For some (probably many) farmers, one of the great joys of the job is being able to work in relative isolation out in the field. However, being isolated from people is not usually a winning business plan. For some farms, CSAs have proven a popular way to connect with customers, while other farms have found that selling wholesale can be successful. Still other farms have found that selling through farmstands - perhaps the oldest and most basic type of agricultural transaction - is the way to go.


"Farmstands really are important, because they're the flagship for everything you do, and they set the tone for how the public sees your farm," explains Pooh Sprague, owner of Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, N.H. That means ensuring the building and surrounding area is kept neat and clean at all times.
Courtesy of Edgewater Farm.

Edgewater Farm in Plainfield, N.H., dates back about 180 years, but it was the decision by owners Pooh and Anne Sprague in 1983 to open a farmstand that really defines the farm today.

"Farmstands really are important, because they're the flagship for everything you do, and they set the tone for how the public sees your farm," explains Sprague.

Since the Spragues purchased the property in 1974, Edgewater Farm had always strived to sell retail as much as possible. "We had pick-your-own strawberries, and we had a small farmstand in our barn beside our house on a side road," recalls Sprague. "People would drive down there for strawberries, but wouldn't necessarily make the trip for tomatoes or corn. We saw that our business really dropped off outside of strawberry season." So, in 1983, they moved the stand to another side of the farm on Route 12A, which has much more traffic. "That made a huge difference in the number of customers, and it also kept people from pulling into our driveway when we were trying to eat dinner." he notes.

On that topic, Sprague says it's important to realize that selling through a farmstand requires interaction with the public. "You have to realize that you may not be the best representation of your farm. My daughter [Sarah] is great at dealing with the customers, it's just her personality. You have to have a temperament that I don't really possess." The lesson: For farmers who don't feel they would be the right fit in a retail environment, finding the right family member of employee to interact with customers is important.

Sprague says he personally feels more comfortable out in the field working with the farm crew than he does operating the farmstand. "The crews in the field joke that the people working up there are really 'farm stand-a-rounds' and that the real work gets done out in the hot sun," he reveals. "But, really, the truth is that without the farmstand and the person on the cash register working well, it can make or break you."

To that end, Edgewater Farm has devoted real resources, including for a capital upgrade last year, into its farmstand. This is not only to ensure that the aesthetics of the facility are maintained, but also the systems. "We put a lot of the greens on ice, so we bought an ice machine. There are probably other ways of doing it, but I don't think they look as nice. The ice gives you that nice cold moisture and the greens stay better longer," Sprague explains. He notes that another benefit of a farmstand is the ability to present your produce in the best possible light. The produce tends to look better in the farmstand, he observes. Radishes that may not look quite ripe in the field, for example, might look great when cleaned up and presented nicely in the farm store.

Investments have also been made in the kitchen area of the farmstand. Food safety considerations have changed dramatically in the nearly 20 years since Edgewater opened its farmstand, says Sprague. "They've driven a lot of the upgrades we've made over the years," he explains. "For example, we decided we wanted to make pesto. So we had to put in a state-certified kitchen. And even so, if we wanted to make a processed product like strawberry jam, we would need to submit the recipe and a $300 fee to have it tested." He says it's important when operating a farmstand to understand state regulations governing food sales and processing.

While the farm and farmstand are run as part of the same family enterprise at Edgewater Farm, Sprague says it really does take expertise in the different areas to be successful these days. It also takes communication between the field and the farmstand. For example, Edgewater Farm now grows ginger because the staff in the farmstand saw there was a demand for it. "I wouldn't have known that because I'm not in there," Sprague explains. "But if they think they can sell something, maybe we'll try to grow it."


An old hay wagon now serves as a display area at the Walker Farm farmstand. Jack Manix says he learned years ago that people eat with their eyes, so the food itself is the centerpiece of every display. "We always have all of these incredible colors around, so we just mix and match the colors to complement each other, so that it catches your eye," he explains.
Courtesy of Walker Farm.

Demand from customers is what ultimately results in profitability, and - for better or worse - operating a farmstand puts farmers in direct contact with their customers. This can change the decisions that are made out in the field. "Even if we're not making money selling corn, for example, we might need to keep growing it because it's part of the product mix that people want," he points out. "None of us got into farming because we wanted to sit inside and run a business. We want to be outside working. But farming is a business."

Customer preferences can also impact other areas of farm operations. Edgewater Farm has an extensive ornamental greenhouse operation, as well as blueberries and strawberries to pick, all of which demand attention at a time of year that makes it impossible to try to grow early season corn. Buying that corn from a nearby farm seems like a logical solution, but Sprague cautions that, "People who are coming to your farmstand want your corn; they want your vegetables. So you have to weigh issues like that."

Sprague's final tip to running a successful farmstand has to do with the basic appearance of the operation. "I've always felt that you need to make things look nice. You need to pick up the paper on the ground. You need to move the dead tractor away from the retail space. Farming is an innately dirty business, but you need to go above and beyond to keep things neat and clean, because that's how people are going to perceive your operation," he says. "Plus, we're on a scenic road, and we need to keep things scenic."

Inside, it's important to present the products in a tasteful way, says Sprague. He cites his daughter Sarah's ability to create artistic designs as an example: "She has a really good eye for artsy displays. When you go in the farmstand, it's like a photo op. It's not something that I could do," Sprague explains. Everybody has a different personality and a different style when it comes to their farmstand, he observes, adding that it does help to visit different farm stores to get ideas that might work for you. "A lot of farms do a really good job with their farmstand, so the bar is really high," says Sprague.

One specific farm that Sprague praises for its farmstand is Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vt. The diversified - vegetables and horticulture - farm is operated by the Manix family, and Jack Manix credits some advice they received when they were first opening the farmstand: "Years ago, we were fortunate to be teamed up with some local caterers who taught us that people eat with their eyes," he recalls.

That lesson has led to a constant focus on the aesthetics of the farmstand, particularly how products are displayed. "I had been to farmstands where the produce was just put out in a bunch of wholesale containers. But when you go into a nice store like The Gap, the display immediately catches your eye. We wanted to do something like that," says Manix. Albeit with an agricultural twist. For example, an old hay wagon that had been broken by a falling tree was patched, varnished and retrofitted to display vegetables. "It makes a nice, impressive display," says Manix.

The food itself also serves as a center of attention. Walker Farm grows some 90 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, 20 types of hot peppers and nearly 30 varieties of eggplant. Manix says that diversity is put to good use. "We always have all of these incredible colors around, so we just mix and match the colors to complement each other so that it catches your eye. That's something that a supermarket may not do."

Manix says he once visited a large farmstand in Massachusetts and observed that employees would replace a fruit or vegetable in a display as soon as one was selected by a customer. "We really have the feeling that things should look as nice for the last customer of the day as they do for the first," he explains. That's not always easy, and it means that the displays require attention throughout the day. "Toward the end of the day you can rearrange displays and tighten them up," Manix adds. "Instead of having five bushels of corn out there, you might have only one bushel, but it's displayed nicely. Our goal is to have the display say to the customer, 'We made this for you.'"

Another important philosophy at Walker Farm is to treat customers well. "Years ago, I saw a roundtable of CEOs of top retailers who agreed that you can capture 90 percent of your market just by saying please and thank you, because so few people do that anymore," says Manix. "So that's been a standard that we've used. We want to recognize the existence of the customer and appreciate that they are spending their money with us."

That also means that employees don't eat in the farmstand or answer the phone while waiting on a customer. Similarly, Manix feels it's important to have stability among those working in the farmstand. In addition to family members, the Walker Farm farmstand is staffed by long-term employees, which makes customers feel comfortable when they come in and see familiar faces.

It's worth noting that it's not only produce farms that can operate farmstands. Whippoorwill Farm (www.whippoorwillfarmct.com) in Lakeville, Conn., specializes in grass-fed beef, as well as pork and chicken. So the items for sale at the farm store include ground beef, tenderloin and a variety of other cuts of meat.

Robin Cockerline, who operates the farm with her husband, Allen, says that when they moved to their current site eight years ago, they operated a corn maze. She explains, "We did that for seven years, and that's sort of how we eased our way into retail." She jokingly adds, "It also got my husband used to dealing with the public! It wasn't intentional, but we created this retail environment, so we decided to try running a store." The results have been impressive: Yankee Magazine named Whippoorwill Farm as the top farmstand in Connecticut in 2010.

The farm slaughters about 30 beef a year, says Cockerline. Two local restaurants purchase ground beef, and some meat is sent to New York City through a partnership with a nearby vegetable CSA, but most of the meat the farm produces is sold on-site through its farmstand. "We get a lot of requests from restaurants and from people wanting to buy sides [of beef], but we're trying to do this just retail. We feel that if we get into the wholesale market, we're just going to have to get bigger," she states. In addition, the retail environment provides slightly higher selling prices, and thus a greater chance of success for the farm.

The customers who go to Whippoorwill Farm are primarily out-of-state residents and second-home owners, says Cockerline. At first, she admits, the couple was wary of serving this type of clientele, who can carry a reputation as being demanding. "But we've really met some very fascinating, very nice people," she says of the positive relationships the farm has built. "We do also have a small local following, but not huge. There's a lot of people who just don't buy into the grass-fed beef idea, or aren't willing to pay a little more for it. I don't think our prices are too high, but we're not Costco, either."

The Whippoorwill Farm store was built by Allen and the couple's two boys, and took less than six months to complete. It is located near the road with good visibility. "But we're not on a major road, so people do still need to see us," Cockerline explains. She's tried newspaper and other advertising strategies, but the costs of those were too high. She says, "Our best advertising for the store has probably been our website, as well as our link with [a site devoted to pasture-based farming], and word-of-mouth has really helped."

Cockerline says that the logistics of opening and running the store haven't been a burden. She says the state's right-to-farm law, which encompasses selling agricultural products, has helped: "If people tried to build the building we built in order to sell, say, postcards, they could not do it. We could do it because it's a farmstand. There's a lot of leeway for farmers here in Connecticut."

For those farms considering building and opening a farmstand, Cockerline has some basic advice: "If you're going to do it, do it well. I really strive to make the farmstand attractive and clean," she says. "I don't want it to look junky or corny or silly; I'm pretty particular about how it looks."

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast.