Vendor Role at The Hub
As the local food movement has gained momentum over the past decade, it has often been difficult for producers to keep up with a rapidly changing market. The main source of direct sales has been either farmers markets or off the farm sales. This has been a welcome source of income for small local businesses and has encouraged producers to grow and expand. However, as the customer base grows certain challenges have surfaced that can still restrict the growth of these smaller organizations.
Off-farm sales have been popular with consumers in recent years. There are many benefits to off-farm sales but also many hurdles that need to be addressed. Consumers enjoy coming to the farm and personally observing how the food is produced. Farm visits are more intimate and give the consumer and the producer the opportunity to form a relationship, that will often lead to a long term customer.
Off-farm sales have always been a difficult way to direct market to the consumer due to the inconvenience. In our fast-paced society, customers find it difficult to make it out to the farm and make their purchases. Not only are people busier throughout their work week but farms tend to be located “out of the way”, which further increases the inconvenience for the customer. Producers may also find farm sales inconvenient, as they find they have to be available at all times on their farms in order to reach a wide enough base of customer to maintain a sustainable income. Small producers also tend to be rather specialized in the product that they offer, so the consumer may not be as encouraged to go the extra mile to visit the producer to purchase their goods.
In order to draw the customer base to the farm, producers need to know how to properly market their farm. This can be difficult for many producers for a variety of reasons. In this day and age, marketing invariably involves using the internet. Whether it is on a business web page or through means such as Facebook, the producer may not be proficient in using a computer and more likely does not have the time available to maintain the site. Off-farm sales are a benefit because consumers like to visit the farm and learn about how their food is produced. However, they miss a large portion of the consumer market when used as the sole method for direct marketing.
Over the last decade, the number of farmers markets has increased rapidly around the country. The farmers market addressed some of the inefficiencies of off-farm sales but not all of them. Farmers markets provide a centralized location for producer and consumer to meet. There is usually a specific schedule so both parties can appropriately plan their business. As farmers markets bring together a variety of producers, the consumer has the benefit of being able to shop for a large variety of the local food needs. With the wide ranging availability of products the producer will see a larger consumer base to sell product than the consumer that visits the farm.
Although the farmers market fills a needed place in our buy local food movement there are still several challenges presented. The seasonality of farmers markets only running from May-Oct leaves the farmer/producer with no place to sell product during the off-season months. Many producers have product throughout the year and have to claw and scratch during the winter months to find the sales to keep their business running. Farmers markets are typically operated by a third party that is not a producer. This creates some difficulties for producers in dealing with the market owner, who may be operating the market for the sole reason on profiting off vendor fees.
During the market season, producers must be awake and moving very early the morning of the market preparing fresh product to take to that day’s market. They are responsible for storing excess product and often times, they must dispose of what they don’t sell at the farmers market. For the consumer, the farmers markets can be more accessible than visiting several different producers independently but the market’s set days and times of operation may not fit into the consumer’s schedule. Most markets in our region only operate for 4 or 5 hours on one day a week, and if the customer happens to be unavailable during that time, they are out of luck. Farmers markets provide more of an opportunity for the producer to touch a larger portion of the consumer base, but as with off-farm sales, they are not the answer to a total producer business.
Recently a new form of direct sales has surfaced in the form of Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. CSAs address some of the concerns of the previous direct sales models but are also limited. In a basic CSA, customers will pay a seasonal fee and in turn receive regular deliveries of locally produced, seasonal products throughout the period covered by the CSA. The CSA allows the producer to generate income before actually harvesting the produce. This model allows the farmer to plan for how much product that they will need to produce throughout the season.
Unlike the farmers markets, there is far less unsold produce at the end of the day that must be disposed of. The CSA allows the customer a nice variety and the convenience of a pick-up location rather than driving out to the farm. The variety of produce available depends on the variety the producer is able to plant and the ability to bring other producers into the CSA. On the downside, operating a CSA means maintaining some way of ordering for the customer. This usually requires a web page of some kind and a site that needs to be managed and continually updated by the producer. The producer is also responsible for filling and boxing each individual order and making the weekly delivery, whether to a person or a pre-arranged drop off point.
Each of the above local food distribution systems is appropriate and useful but none provide the complete set of benefits that a modern day farmer producer needs to be successful in the current fast paced environment. The Food Hub addresses this problem by providing all the positive aspects of the other models while at the same time, reducing some of the challenges. The Food Hub provides a year round, consistent market for both producer and consumer. Located in a central and fixed location, The Food Hub offers the consumer the ability to know where they may find their produce no matter what time of year it is or on what particular day.
Farmers find some flexibility on when they have to deliver their produce and a staff of volunteers stand at the ready to assist the producer in selling their wares. Farmers no longer have to be completely in charge of their own marketing because The Food Hub itself markets to a large consumer base and when those consumers come to the store, producers have their products in front of the customer. The Food Hub is a group of producers cooperating with one another to develop a large consumer base and provide that consumer base with a variety of produce throughout the year in the most convenient way possible.
With this amazing new comprehensive business incubator, there are still many responsibilities for the farmer/producer to consider. The Food Hub is a combination of the above models but at the same time, nothing like anything seen before. It is not a wholesale environment where the producer just drops off goods to be marked up and sold to the end consumer. It is also not a direct farm sale where the consumer comes out and gets to meet the farmer on every trip. Rather, it is a local food hybrid that must be managed as a business by each vendor participating.
Consumers today care about what they are eating and want to be sure about their food. Due to the recent deception of the agriculture industry of recent decades customers can and should be skeptical about the claims on the packaging or signing of a product. Customers want to know the farmer that produced the food. There is a trend to get back to the connectedness of a person and their food that has been lost in this country over the past forty years.
However, not everybody, has the time, resources or desire to raise the food themselves, and this is where the small local farmer/producer comes in. As this new hybrid model of food distribution grows we must not forget one of the most important aspects of the direct marketing concept, and that is getting face to face with the consumer. Producers at The Food Hub must find time to be present at the store and be available on a regular basis. When the producer is present at the store they will invariably find opportunities to build relationships with customers while explaining their methods of production. The consumers desire and deserve this type of attention when it comes to their food choices. More often than not, consumers are paying premium prices to the producer, knowing that they are supporting a local business, in turn they deserve the chance to get to know that producer. Being present at the store on a regular basis also gives the producer the time to build relationships with the various volunteers that are helping them sell their product.
The volunteers want to sell the product and answer consumer questions but in order to do that they need to know about the product themselves. This knowledge can’t come completely from a written description, though that can help. The best way a volunteer can be educated is by getting to know the producer and being able to describe what kind of operation that they have. Producers need to be at The Hub on a somewhat regular basis to ensure their product is properly rotated and merchandised. Nobody knows the product as well as the producer and it is very important to have safe properly displayed produce on the shelves. What The Hub offers to each producer is their own store front without the added cost of maintaining. Producers must treat The Hub like their own little store and take care of it with the same care and attention that they would if it was their store.
Marketing at The Hub is crucial to building a strong consumer base. Although The Hub does marketing itself, having all producers market The Hub through their various media would significantly improve the visibility. Producers should be directing customers to The Hub through their facebook conversations, in person, through their mailing lists, and whatever other media they use to reach customers. With all producers marketing to their individual customers the consumer base for The Hub will experience a tremendous amount of growth.
It is still very important to consumers to be able to observe the farm and see where there food is produced. Through The Hub, farmer/producers need to make available farm tours where customers can come out and see the operation first hand. Producers should seek to host events at their farm and market it through The Hub. These events will give the customers, volunteers and fellow producers the opportunity to come to the farm and help build a sense of community. When we do things like this we build relationships that evolve into more than a producer/customer but a neighbor/family type relationship. Consumers then get the feeling that they are purchasing from someone they know and producers take the care in producing their product because their friends will be the ones eating it.
If each producer/farmer begins to think of The Hub as their own store, it will grow rapidly. This growth will benefit all producers that are selling at The Hub as well as increase the opportunity for our neighbors in the community to find the products that they want to feed to their family. We producers need to change our thinking about The Hub and place a priority on that aspect of our business development because that is where the local food industry is moving. This is a new model and unfamiliar to many, but in the near future it will be the model enterprise of delivering food from local farmers to local customers.