February 16, 2020
With word that Amazon has purchased Whole Foods, farmers can be sure that the downward pressure on prices will continue. Farmers in many regions report declining CSA memberships and farmers market sales. Producers will have to think hard about the sustainability of their operations with regard to marketing and pricing amidst changing consumer expectations.
A model that deserves consideration within this changing landscape is the co-operative. Co-operatives have a long-standing presence in agriculture. Producer co-ops achieve economies of scale for marketing. Consumer co-ops sell groceries to many consumers and many farmers buy inputs through co-ops. Financial co-ops, or credit unions, provide financial services to many rural communities. There are even examples of land ownership and worker co-op models in agriculture.
Plan now for a crop from stored roots next winter
This trip and article are a follow-up to a trip that I took to Italy in 2014, also with Lane Selman and a few others. After that trip, I wrote an article called “How to grow heading chicories,” in the November 2016 GFM. It has details on growing many of the more common radicchios and other chicories, but it didn’t address forcing. It’s worth checking out in the archives as a companion to this article.
In January of this year I was fortunate to be one of about 20 growers, chefs and journalists to join Lane Selman of the Culinary Breeding Network on a trip to the northeast of Italy where there is a long tradition of radicchio and forcing chicories. Look at a map of that area and you’ll see town names like Chioggia, Treviso, Castelfranco, Verona, Lusia and Gorizia – all towns that are associated with one or more types of radicchio.
Market growers have been adding radicchio and frisée to baby lettuce mixes for many years to add color and texture to salad mixes. More recently I’ve been seeing increased interest in full head production for these two members of the Cichorium genus. (Some pronuciation tips here - “c” when following “i” in Italian is usually pronounced like the “ch” in cheese, and counter intuitively to an English speaker “ch” followed by “o” is usually pronounced like the “c” in corn, “cch” is like the k in key.) Chicory (an English word, with standard English pronunciation rules) usually refers specifically to Cichorium intybus, the species that includes radicchio, sugarloaf, Belgian endive, as well as many others, but not frisée, escarole, or others of the Cichorium endivia species, the other main culinary species. Out of laziness, but also common production characteristics and common genus, I use the English term chicory to refer to all of the Cichorium species.
Connect with customers when you're not there
Wholesaling is a topic that’s garnered a lot of buzz in farm business planning circles over the last half decade or so. A whole range of my farm clients have expressed an interest in exploring wholesaling as a marketing strategy.
These include farms who have built successful businesses direct marketing, but are burning out on the three-farmers-markets-and-two-CSA-dropsites-at-a-time routine; new farmers who are trying to make their way in a marketplace where the direct marketing options are somewhat saturated; and farm families with a history of growing one or two commodities who are trying to figure out how to do something new in the face of a declining market for their traditional products.
Those of you who read my last article in the May 2018 Growing for Market remember that the method we use to evaluate the potential profitability of our crops is to calculate the “unit cost” for each crop - that is, the minimum price we would need to receive in order to pay all of our expenses and ourselves. Calculating unit cost also provides us with the ability to compare the relative profitability of each crop by comparing each crop’s net margin (Net margin = (Price received - unit cost) / price received).
This is especially important for growers who want to break away from dependence on the five typical mainstays of small farm marketing - farmers markets, farmstands, CSA’s, natural foods stores, and fine dining restaurants. These markets tend to be less price sensitive - that is, they tend to absorb increases in price with relatively little effect on volume. But, as these markets become saturated, small growers find themselves looking toward more mainstream markets, such as larger grocery chains or midpriced restaurants.
Blue House Farm is a two-location operation with both farms being leased, one from a family trust, and the other from a land trust. The “home” farm is 15 minutes away in Pescadero, which is where Ryan lives, and where the farms’ wash/pack facility stands, and where the market trucks leave from on any given day. It’s warmer there and much less foggy, and Ryan leases a little apple and pear orchard adjacent to the property.
Where my wife and I farm on the midcoast of Maine, there is a general sentiment amongst diversified growers that the traditional market channels we’ve relied upon - farmers markets, CSA’s, coops, and farm to table restaurants - have become increasingly saturated and competitive. This is a sentiment that is shared by many of the farms whom I provide business counseling to as well. More farms have sprouted up - something that, in theory, most people want to support - but demand within the high value markets has not increased commensurately. The result is that sales have dipped for many, marketing costs have increased, newcomers are finding it increasingly hard to get established, and feelings of competitiveness, anxiety, and unwillingness to share information are on the rise.
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