Local farmers count on professional and social networks for success

A panel of farmers at the 2014 Michigan Good Food Summit ties much of their success to social and business connections forged through persistence and trust building.

There is always a great deal to learn from professionals when they can sit on a panel and answer questions about what has helped them to be successful. I always learn a great deal when I hear farmers talk about their work to grow great food and stay profitable. Farming is a particularly difficult business because there are so many potential pressures and challenges that are difficult to anticipate. Farmers must cope with weather, pests and diseases, and an uncertain market for their products. A panel of farmers at the 2014 Michigan Good Food Summit pointed out that working to build relationships can help overcome some of the challenges of the uncertain markets.

Vicki Zilke and her husband began farming vegetables as a second career. In addition to reaching customers through markets and a CSA – both of which require good understanding of building relationships, they have worked hard to create a relationship with the University of Michigan through the health system and other sectors at the university. The opportunity came through an invitation and Zilke said that the first step to make time to be at the table when invited – this made it easier for Zilke’s Vegetable Farm to be understood as a brand and for their values to be appreciated. This relationship has helped the Zilkes to cultivate customers at a number of different locations where they are the sole or anchor vendor.

Christine Miller of Spartan Country Meats has worked hard to build relationships to get her product sold at local restaurants, food trucks and through other vendors who have a CSA. Even when a customer’s switches to another producer, Miller tries to keep the discussion open so that she can continue to be seen as a good partner for their business. This means talking through how the labor intensive the processing is and how buyers can get the most of the product they’re buying.

Making things as easy as possible for your customer is something Zilke emphasized as well. Selling to students at a university can be difficult but some thought about who the customer is helped Zilke realize that smaller quantities and grouping of products together can help overcome minimal access to kitchen equipment.

Each of these relationships relies on trust and the eagerness to understand the customer perspective over time. Michigan State University Extension supports the growth and consumption of Michigan agricultural products through the Community Food Systems work team and can support food businesses through the MSU Product Center.

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