Improving your share of the market doesn’t always take a big change

Increasing your bottom line may not require adding a completely new skill set. It may mean just using the skills you already possess to provide crops to a new customer base.

Producers often contact me searching for ideas on how to increase their income. Their initial thought is to grow an additional crop, something generally involving learning a new skill. Although I am not opposed to learning new skills, my question in return is to ask if they have fully exploited their market with the crops they currently produce. A follow-up question is then, “Are you satisfying your customer base growing your current variety mix?” I ask these questions to cause them to think about how they could expand with already known skills and to consider who their customers are or could be if they were to grow different varieties of their current species. This does not require learning new skills, but simply planting different varieties of a crop you already know how to grow, and generally grow very well.

With the right knowledge, direct marketers can make these changes relatively easily. First you need to find information on your potential customer base. This can be found at the Michigan MarketMaker website and using the Market Research tools. One of the things you can do from this site is access U.S. Census Bureau data for age, race, income and other information. You can search by state, county or census tract.

If in your search you find a significantly high population of a certain ethic group, an interesting exercise is to then do an Internet image search for pictures of the produce in markets in their home countries. What you find might surprise you. When we fail to think outside of our experience, we conclude that what I want is what everyone else wants. This is far from the case. When looking at pictures of markets in other countries often you will see the same crop species, but a much different variety. You will see different types of peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes, squash, beans, potatoes and other vegetables that can be grown here. The culture for these crops is no different than what you may already be producing. Once you start satisfying an ethnic population’s need, they will often do word-of-mouth advertising for you.

Other demographics of interest for marketing are marital status, family size, average age, education and income. These will not only tell you what you might want to grow, but also how you might want to package and display. Young, single, working populations don’t want large amounts. Higher income populations may be into food trends, so you will have to keep up on what is trendy. Paying attention to food shows and magazines will help with this. If one of Martha Stewart’s recipes calls for 2 pounds of La Ratte or Ozette fingerling potatoes, then you better have some – and price them higher than your standard offerings.

“Foodies” also want the latest trends. Highly educated populations are often better traveled and may be looking for the same food experience they found in another country, so try to find out where they have been traveling. Dual income families with children are looking for things they can cook quickly so they can get to work or sports activities – so package for convenience. Any slicing or dicing is considered “processing” and will have to be done in a licensed facility.

A request for free business counseling about your value-added idea may be made at the Michigan State University Product Center website or by calling 517-432-8750.

When trying to increase your income, don’t just look at offering more species, but offering more variety within the species you already grow. Identify who your customers are, or could be, and grow what they want, not what you think they want.

If you have further questions concerning commercial vegetable production, contact your local Michigan State University Extension county office or Ron Goldy at

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