By: Alison G. Martin, The Livestock Conservancy
1. Who are your customers?
2. Marketing Strategies
3. Friends and Family
4. Farmers Markets
5. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
7. Internet marketing
8. Online Farmers Markets
9. Regional Collaborations and Promotions
11. Options for Larger Herds
12. More resources
Marketing is the process of generating goodwill toward your farm and products. Through communications and activities, you and others promote a favorable relationship with your customers. To be successful with heritage breeds, it’s important to understand the dynamics of marketing. It seems obvious to say, but unless farmers have customers for their animal products, they cannot make a living. Fortunately, interest in local foods continues to grow throughout the country, and heritage breeds aptly fit within this growing niche.
Consumers are becoming more and more interested in the origins and impacts of the food that they purchase, and want to buy more locally produced foods. Finding these potential customers and communicating about your product in a way that encourages people to buy is what marketing is all about.
Who are your customers? Where will you find them?
By understanding why consumers purchase local meats, farmers raising heritage breeds can communicate to customers how their products fit these interests. Your potential customers are “Big Picture” people concerned with flavor, quality, and environmental and social factors in their food purchase. Your customers consider more than savings when making food choices. They will pay more for your pork and sausage because they believe in buying local food from local farms, because your pigs represent an important link to biodiversity, and because they love the flavor and texture.
Most of your customers will come from urban areas. USDA data indicate that more than 84% of direct-to-customer farm sales occur in counties immediately adjacent to metropolitan areas (Martinez et al., 2010). Urban areas are more affluent, may be more influenced by food trends, and just plain have more people. If you aren’t lucky enough to be near these markets, you will need to investigate marketing methods that help get your products to where they are most likely to find an appreciative audience.
Why do they buy from you?
Potential consumers may be divided into three categories: traditional, foodies, and green consumers. Traditional consumers have always bought from their neighbors and may base food buying on personal relationships with farmers. Traditional also includes consumers with cultural connections to their food – for example, first generation immigrants seeking pork that tastes like what they knew as a child. These buyers often purchase whole or half pigs, or even on the hoof, and seek price and value over a story or social cause. They are often loyal to the first farm that they have a good experience with. Foodies are enthusiastic about foods and seek out new flavor experiences. They have become wholehearted supporters of heritage pork products. Foodies tend to be the least sensitive about the price of food, and are often the most involved. Green consumers turn to local foods to reduce environmental impacts, and may be concerned with health and nutrition. They want information about how animals are raised and treated on the farm, such as whether your pigs are pasture raised. Green consumers also want to support the local economy and social causes. They want to hear the stories of heritage breeds, the farms they are raised on and the farmers who raise them.
Direct marketing strategies
There are many ways to sell heritage breed products, and with some planning and experimentation you will find the ones that are right for you. Using several strategies is likely to improve your chance of financial success with heritage breed products. It can help to even out your income, and prevent relying too much on any one customer. Developing different customer bases also helps make sure you aren’t left with too much of any one product in the freezer, and your kids don’t have to help eat it up every day.
Friends & neighbors
Sales to people you already know are often the first sales of a new farm, and can be a great way to get started. Use these opportunities to get comfortable with selling, practice your marketing message, and ask for feedback about price; the feedback you get may help highlight some of the positive attributes of your product and be used as testimonials in future marketing efforts. Be sure you are compliant with state and local regulations, such as obtaining a meat handler’s license, before arranging sales. If your customers will pick up orders at your farm, find safe ways for customers to visit your farm without threatening the health and security of your pigs. To plan for biosecurity on your farm, visit: http://bit.ly/1On470V
Promotion to people you already know is mostly via word of mouth and business cards. Sell whole or half pigs and sausage. This doesn’t mean your customer has to butcher their own pig, just that they have reserved all of the cuts from a whole or half pig ahead of time. You may even ask them to pick up the pig directly from the processor, which would allow you (and the customer) to use a custom processor. Selling the entire pig means you don’t have to fuss with selling individual cuts. Selling to friends and neighbors can be very profitable if you are good at marketing, so spread the word through all your social networks such as your schools, gym, church, and businesses who know you.
Your marketing story
Farmers markets attract customers who are keen on buying local and healthy products. Market policy and local ordinances may limit whether you can sell meat on the spot at the market, and the number of customers at different markets can vary, so plan well in advance. In most states, a meat handler’s license is required, and you will need a means to keep products at safe temperatures. With these in place, a variety of products can be sold with broad appeal to regular customers and those just “stopping by”. A black board or other signage informs customers what products are available this week, or what to expect next week.
First time customers at farmers markets typically want to buy cuts and products they are already familiar with. Less popular cuts can be harder to sell, so a combination of pricing, education (recipes, etc.), and taste tests will help make sure you aren’t overstocked.
Most markets require stalls to be manned during regular hours, and this time off-farm must be considered. On the other hand, farmers markets offer the opportunity to develop relationships with one’s customers. Customers enjoy hearing about you, farm happenings, and the story of why and how you farm. These personal relationships are important to building a base of repeat customers. Getting acquainted with your customers has other benefits, too. You will learn their tastes and needs, and receive feedback to make your products more appealing and to set prices right. There are many ways to connect and speak to people, which make farmers markets a great place to turn a profit and do market research simultaneously.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
This form of direct marketing is very popular with urban customers. Based on mutual support and trust, this arrangement allows customers to pay the farmer a sum in advance, usually at the beginning of the growing season, but sometimes paid in increments throughout the season. In return the customers receive a weekly (or monthly) selection of goods. CSA customers are often focused on food origin and are willing to pay for those goods. CSA customers can be adventuresome, so consider including less well known cuts from time to time, and a variety of charcuterie will be appreciated. Trying out new products in a CSA box is a great way to get feedback on these offerings and find out if they will catch on. A nice way to get started is to partner with other farmers who already offer a CSA. You can add product diversity while taking advantage of an existing customer base. Depending on how they are structured, CSA’s provide either regular income in the form of monthly payments, or payment in advance. With wise financial management both of these can be advantageous for the farmer.
Restaurants have discovered the flavor and attributes of heritage pork and are an excellent avenue for sales. Chefs at fine-dining restaurants are especially in tune with local food culture, and farm-to-fork is now considered essential. If you don’t have much time to develop your customer base, this is the first place you should spend your time.
Restaurants are a different world from farming, and you may find yourself learning new means of communication. Begin by calling or visiting the restaurant - mid morning and early afternoon are good times. Be prepared to explain what products you will have and production schedules. Many restaurants will purchase whole animals to prepare special “nose to tail” dinners or to use creatively on their specials menus. When working to establish a restaurant as a customer, providing samples or a one-time discount can be an incentive for chefs to try the products. Know your costs before discussing pricing, and explain how the attributes of pigs you are raising differ from what they are buying wholesale. Don’t finalize a price until they have tried your pork. Some restaurants don’t have any flexibility in costs or vendors, in which case, be sure to end the visit by providing your business card and asking them to call you if the situation changes. If your visit goes well, be sure to ask the chef the best way to keep in touch. Follow up soon, and invite them to tour your farm.
Chefs and their staff are looking for reliable farms that will communicate with them regularly and are dependable suppliers who deliver what is promised on time. In return, you will learn a great deal about preparing your pork and how to make it shine. For the farmer who is flexible, when working together with a chef you may also discover how different methods of finishing your pigs can affect the final product on the plate. Sell whole pigs to restaurants, whole, halved, butterflied, or butchered to their specifications. As your farm grows, you should be able to increase the number of pigs per month that you provide to a restaurant. Once a chef has committed to a farm’s meats, he or she can be a great marketing partner, featuring your farm name on the menu and even hosting a tasting for other chefs.
There are a number of ways farmers can market their products to consumers through the internet and social networking. These provide a way to reach a much larger audience, and for people from far and wide to connect. Many farmers use webpages and Facebook to provide a hub of information, pictures of animals, updates on farm progress, and a place where potential visitors could go to look up hours and contact information. Some take it a step further and offer product sales via their websites.
You can register your farm free of charge on website lists maintained by the following national organizations. Be sure to find and promote your farm on similar lists for your state and region.
If you choose to sell via direct mail, test out your packaging and shipping ahead of time by shipping to friends and family. What will you do if a customer has a bad experience with what they receive? Be sure to check shipping regulations with your post office, and tuck in two business cards with each order so that satisfied customers can pass the word to their friends. Although mail order can be challenging, if you live remotely it may be the best way to get your products to customers, and offers flexibility whether to sell individual cuts or specific packages.
Online Farmers Markets
This exciting new trend offers farmers some help in getting their products into the hands of customers. The online farmers market establishes a website and the infrastructure for consumer orders and delivery. Each week, farms post their available products on the website. Usually, each farm will be responsible for delivering the goods to a central location, and the online farmers market handles getting the products to the customers. This has the advantage of getting your products to customers in urban areas that may be more distant from your farm, in return for a percentage of the sales. Online farmers markets offer the opportunity to sell whole, half, cuts, or cured meats.
Social Media Engages Your Customers
Regional Collaborations and Promotions
Join regionally based marketing efforts created by collaborative organizations to support local producers. These groups may have promotional events such as “Farm Days” and follow up by publishing lists of members and products, often with maps to locate growers of local products. Groups such as these deliver a strong, place-based message: Eat locally and support small farms.
Regional and state certifications or logos that promote locally raised farm products also help distinguish your products. Your extension agent for food may be aware of these, or you can check out local food products at the grocery and farmers markets. Collaborative marketing is a powerful tool. You can be an interesting, dynamic fish in a school of other fish, and you can swim places you wouldn’t go alone.
The qualities of heritage pork and the national publicity that has accompanied its return to the market has created interest from natural food co-ops, independent butcher shops, and other retail stores. Explore these outlets in your locale. Although you may not realize the benefit of full retail price, these opportunities offer great exposure for your product. If these outlets look promising, talk to your meat processor about getting a custom label certified for your meat that includes your farm name, the name of the breed, and any third party certifications you hold such as pasture raised, humane certifications, organic, and so on. These will draw more attention to your product and lead satisfied customers to your farm. Sausage sales are a good place to start with retail. If you are fortunate enough to have a local butcher shop, be sure to promote your products to them. Butcher shops will often take whole animals and some do their own curing, and thus may create interesting new products from your pork.
Options for Larger Farms
Marketing your own pork has both economic and social benefits for you and your customers. You get top dollar and the gratitude of the people who value your product. In return, direct contact gives your customers the satisfaction of knowing the origin of their food. They will know they have purchased product from a conscientious farmer whom they know personally.
If you just don’t want the hassle of marketing and are interested in selling mostly to a single larger buyer, consider selling pigs or products wholesale. There are some tradeoffs, as these buyers often require farmers to commit to supplying a certain volume per week, and you will be paid wholesale prices. If you don’t have a large herd, maybe teaming up with a few other farms will enable you to get into these markets.
Working with a Professional Marketer
A professional distributors or marketers will typically purchase your whole processed animals, and sell to their network of commercial and individual customers. National companies include Niman Ranch, D’Artagnan, Dean & DeLuca, and Heritage Foods USA, Small grocery chains may also fall into this category, and many regional companies have sprung up to distribute locally produced foods to customers, particularly around urban areas. For example, Firsthand Foods in North Carolina buys pasture-raised livestock from small North Carolina farms, and markets the meat under the Firsthand label to restaurants, retailers, and individual consumers. By working with many farmers, Firsthand Foods can supply larger restaurants and stores. The volume of product needed for a professional distributor could be filled by a larger farm, or several farms with the same breed of pigs working together. There is usually an application process, and there may be requirements for specific husbandry, welfare certifications, or a designated slaughterhouse.
Selling your pigs on the hoof
A traditional model for farmers raising pigs is to synchronize farrowing so that batches of piglets will get to about the same weight at the same time, and selling these piglets live to niche pork companies. Niche pork companies buy the batch of pigs on a specified date, the pigs are loaded onto the company trailer and you can get back to farming. Most niche marketing groups pay market price for your pigs, plus a premium designed to reward the farmer. Market prices for slaughter weight pigs can be found here:
A few niche pork marketing groups specialize in heritage breeds, and their premium may reflect this. If you consider working with a niche marketing group, be sure to review their carcass standards against what you can expect from your heritage breed. Standards that are designed for lean breeds will be challenging for many heritage breeds to achieve. If you are raising pigs that meet the carcass standard, the minimum batch size, and at a price that covers your production cost, selling your pigs wholesale can be a low-impact way to market your pigs. If you want consumers to understand your breed and farming methods, though, this is generally not possible when selling wholesale.
There are many ways to develop a strong base of customers for your farm. Using the information in this guide, decide who you will approach first, and do some research to learn what they want. Spend the time to develop a compelling story that will make you memorable with potential customers, then practice telling that story until it comes naturally. Finally, learn as much as you can about your products in order to educate your customers, and use feedback from your existing customers to keep them coming back and to recruit new customers. Learning to market your products, your farm, and yourself will contribute positively to your bottom line.
For more help planning your marketing approach, check out these links:
Livestock Conservancy Marketing Toolkit
Appropriate Technology Transfer for Rural Areas (ATTRA):
Agriculture Marketing Resource Center:
Carcass Characteristics of Heritage Hogs:
National Directory of Farmers Markets, CSA’s, and Food Hubs
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