Local food retailers offer insights into ways beginning farmers can be successful

Retailers want their local food suppliers to understand markets, build up production expertise and business skills.

The recent Michigan State University Extension project “Assessing Common Factors of Success Among Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Beginning Farmers” included interviews with two leading Upper Peninsula organizations that purchase farm products from local beginning farmers and market them to the public in their retail stores. Both organizations were asked the same set of two questions:

  • What are the most important factors of success among the newer farmers you deal with?
  • In your experience, what are the most common pitfalls newer farmers should try to avoid?

After careful consideration of the responses, several themes emerged. These themes can serve as a checklist for newer producers to consider as they plan to work with a local wholesale purchaser. The same ideas apply to farmers who sell directly to consumers.

  1. Understanding and developing their markets, ability to adjust to changing market demands.
  2. General business skills, including organization, communication and good recordkeeping (including cost of production).
  3. Production expertise.
  4. Good time and labor management.
  5. Good people skills and community involvement.
  6. Commitment to quality and dependability, reliability and consistency of products and business practices.
  7. Willing to seek help or advice.

Both organizations offered anecdotes about new producers that want to market through their stores, but fail to follow through. For example, small scale egg producers often vanish when they become aware of the requirements or the retailer for labeling and consistent supply. New producers are sometimes disappointed when they learn about price differences received from retail versus wholesale markets. This demonstrates the need for beginning farmers to learn about their marketing options before committing to an enterprise.

The strongest message received from these interviews is that new producers of “local food” need to build up basic business skills. Often, new farmers are excited and motivated about the production aspects of their business, as they should be, but less enchanted by the financial, recordkeeping and marketing tasks. Time spent at your desk with a paper and pencil, calculator, phone and computer may not be as attractive, but is equally important.

In addition to these interviews, eight Upper Peninsula “beginning farmers” from farms of various types and sizes were interviewed to learn how they perceive success from their farming operations.

For a look at the full report, click on the following title: Assessing Common Factors of Success Among Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Beginning Farmers. The project was funded by the Michigan SARE Professional Development Program.

For more information, contact Jim Isleib, MSU Extension educator, at isleibj@anr.msu.edu or 906-387-2530.

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