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Opportunities Abound for Farmers to Sell Products to the Direct Market

July 12, 2010

By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau

After a bit more logistical work for his direct market opportunity, Tim Dunn plans to market his garbanzo beans in the farmers’ market arena.

Yuma farmer Tim Dunn of Tim Dunn Farms already grew a number of crops. These included seed and specialty crops, black-eyed peas and garbanzo beans, wheat and even kosher wheat for a New York community. This array of crops represents various markets too.

A third-generation farmer and someone always considering market opportunities, Dunn couldn’t imagine why the direct markets (see box defining direct markets) might need his grower expertise and product until Cindy Gentry heard about him.

Discussing the direct market with Arizona Farm Bureau, Cindy Gentry of Community Food Connections and manager for the Phoenix Public Market began listing food products various farmers’ markets are lacking.

“Items in demand right now include eggs, cut flowers, specialty melons, specialty onions and greens, strawberries, corn, various grains, garbanzo beans, and black-eyed Peas,” said Gentry.

When this author informed Gentry that Dunn’s crops include garbanzo beans and black-eyed peas, Gentry asked to meet him.

Today, thanks to that connection, Dunn is planning to eventually sell his garbanzo beans and black-eyed peas in bulk in the Phoenix Public Market’s store. And, Arizona’s the Hummus Doctor is already buying Dunn’s garbanzo beans for his hummus product.

Today’s direct market, also known as farm-direct, might be in need of more agriculture products just like it wants Dunn’s garbanzo beans.

Market Manager for Phoenix Public Market, Cindy Gentry is well known for her excitement about local produce and Arizona farmers and ranchers. Her best tip to growers: find out what no one else is growing and customers are requesting.

Market Manager for Phoenix Public Market, Cindy Gentry is well known for her excitement about local produce and Arizona farmers and ranchers. Her best tip to growers: find out what no one else is growing and customers are requesting.

It’s all about Niche

Though the Dunn Farms/Phoenix Public Market arrangement sounds like a marriage made in heaven once fully consummated, the key to jumping into the direct market is developing a product that no farmer in an existing market is currently selling to the public.

“Find out what farmers’ markets are looking for,” says Gentry. “If your local farmers’ market already is selling five different varieties of arugula they’re probably not going to get too excited if you offer to sell your own variety of arugula. What’s unique that no one else is selling?”

Denise Logan, another farmers’ market manager that’s been in the business for several years, suggests farmers and ranchers, “Be who you are. Present a great quality crop, one that no one else is selling in the market and shoppers will flock to you.”

Logan and Gentry explain that at its core the farmer or rancher is really marketing him or herself in the farmers’ market setting. Once you’ve brought a unique product to the mix, consumers will then want to connect with the farmer. They’ll want to know the history of your farm, how you use your product and even what recipes you use.

“In many ways,” says Gentry, “It’s about developing the personal relationship.” She further explains that people will pay more for a product if they feel that they know and trust the producer.

And markets are eager for agriculture product. Both Logan and Gentry contend that Arizona’s farmers’ markets need more farmers to provide product for the ever-growing number of farmers’ markets that continue to crop up. As a customer to a local farmers’ market, you yourself may have noticed one farmer in the mix of booths; the rest being arts and crafts.

Dr. Hummus is already purchasing Tim Dunn’s garbanzo beans for this ever-popular hummus.

Dr. Hummus is already purchasing Tim Dunn’s garbanzo beans for this ever-popular hummus.

Direct Market Farming is No Easy Row to Hoe

So, when farmers and ranchers jump in with both feet and diversify their agriculture operation to include some direct market farming for the local market, a lot is involved.

There are several aspects to the business that can pose challenges: Packaging, advertising, customer service and more. Set up and tear down of a booth at a farmers’ market can be taxing enough.

In fact, some in agriculture contend that they’re happy to leave direct market agriculture sales to the natural marketer in the family; they’ll stick to the traditional markets in agriculture.

This is where the value of a generational farm might come in. For younger farmers and ranchers trying to find their place in the business and already connected to the public through their social networks, it might be the place for the son or daughter to run the direct market aspect of the farm business.

This happens to be Jacob Greenburg’s story. Jacob is joining an agriculture family, the Brooks family of Abby Lee Farms in Geronimo, Arizona. Growers of fairly traditional agriculture products and livestock such as, flowers (geraniums), alfalfa, melons, beef, pecan trees and more on approximately 700 acres, their direct market efforts have expanded with Jacob’s help.

“I was tired of seeing produce from Mexico and everywhere else but Arizona,” explains Jacob for part of what inspired him to consider the direct market.

They’re now selling a variety of their melons at three different farmers’ markets that include Roadrunner Market, Phoenix Public Market and the Scottsdale Farmers’ Market.

It’s actually a good pairing. The years of traditional agriculture the Abby Lee Farms has engaged in has built domain knowledge and understanding of good agriculture practices, while the energy and enthusiasm of a younger generation ─ Jacob’s Fiancé Pam Brooks is partnered with him in the farmers’ market efforts ─  can branch off into direct market agriculture opportunities.

Perhaps it’s the energy level of a 24-year-old to keep up the pace as Jacob remarks that direct market agriculture is “intense all the way around from the long hours put into the growing end of farming to the marketing of the products.”

Somehow, for those that do farm-direct agriculture, young and old, you get the feeling they’re engaged and excited about what they do.

Abby Lee Farms owner Neal Brooks has been growing nursery stock for 35 years and in fact started at age 13 selling direct to the public at a local swap meet. “Direct marketing is where my roots were first set,” says Brooks. “But it’s tough, demanding and only for the truly crazy producers who have a passion and strong desire to build a business in this market.”

Brooks feels he’s been blessed to have his oldest child, Pamela, and her fiancé Jacob Greenberg, be so passionate not only at farming but really living examples of the new generation who believe in the value of fresh, local food that includes an incredible work ethic. “They just rolled up their sleeves and went to work to build a direct marketing enterprise,” he explains.

Though the challenges are huge, the Brooks family and Greenburg see the potential. “Having a second generation enthusiastically involved is the only way we could maintain our wholesale business and build the direct marketing through farmers markets,” says Brooks. “It’s exciting to plant a seed and then stand in front of the product and proudly present it directly to the end user. To actually let a melon ripen and fall into your hands, bursting with flavor. It makes our work worth it.”

Dunn, who is also Arizona Farm Bureau vice president, sees another aspect to the direct market farm not always touched on. “Large-scale farmers have a real proposition in providing quality product to the farmers’ market and when there, talk about Arizona’s tradition of agriculture,” he says. “This is one of the intrinsic values of participating in the direct market that you can’t put a price on.”Direct Markets in Agriculture Defined:

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