Conversation with Daniel Salatin, Polyface, Inc., Swoope, VA

Direct marketing and the attendant importance of forming relationships with customers have become important for many small farms looking to find ways to stay profitable, but that hasn’t always been the case. It started as a movement spearheaded by a small number of influential farms at a time when many farmers still sold their products to distributors or buyers at the stockyard. On March 2, Matt Ludwig, our project’s media guru, and I were privileged to interview one of these direct marketing pioneers, Polyface, Inc.

Polyface is a third-generation family farm nestled in the hills of Swoope, Virginia, just southwest of Staunton. Polyface is most closely associated with Joel Salatin, the farmer, author, and speaker who made the farm famous. Joel has spent decades touring the country and appearing in print, film, and audio media to discuss his take on sustainable farming practices and advocate for local food systems. He has written several books about sustainable agriculture, including Folks, This Ain’t Normal and Salad Bar Beef. He has also been featured prominently in books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and films such as Fresh.

We interviewed Joel’s son Daniel, who, in addition to his own speaking duties, now handles most of the day-to-day management of the farm. Daniel’s wife Sheri also has speaking engagements where she discusses her experiences as marketing director at Polyface.

Any farm that is serious about marketing in today’s economy must proactively engage with consumers, but Polyface takes that to the next level. The speaking engagements have benefitted the farm on several levels. While primarily a way to discuss the principles behind Polyface (more on those later), these speaking engagements have also helped build the farm’s brand and drawn visitors to the farm–a major pillar of Polyface’s marketing strategy.

Daniel highlighted the importance of free samples in their marketing strategy. When selling to restaurants, Polyface will often send large sample baskets to chefs so that they can taste the product and cook with it before making buying decisions. I actually happened to run into Daniel and another member of the Polyface Team a few days after our interview at a Virginia Cooperative Extension networking event in Luray -they believed in samples so much that they’d driven an hour and a half just to hand out free samples to chefs!

Perhaps the most interesting point about the Polyface team is that their marketing strategy is driven by the same principles that shape their lives–their focus on personal relationships is a huge part of their brand and their lives. Activities like checking in on restaurant accounts weekly and inviting people to see the product being made help them maintain loyal customers. Living in a small rural community has a tendency to make you reliant on personal relationships, so this comes naturally to them. The Salatins have used these principles to their advantage in the business world. By the same token, their support of local food systems and pasture-raised proteins are fundamental pillars of their message, their personal beliefs, and elemental to the Polyface brand. They argue that their products are intrinsically different not just because of the discernable difference in taste and texture, but because of their positive effects on the land and community. They are farming on their terms, and they’ve excelled largely due to their ability to describe the ethos that drives them and targeting customers who hold the same beliefs.

That brings me to a point Daniel made in our interview: Polyface is not trying to be the low cost producer, because that wouldn’t work for them. Consider their broilers: it costs them more to raise a chicken to market weight, process it, find a consumer, and deliver that chicken to the consumer than it would for a large, publicly held, vertically integrated poultry company. Part of the difference in cost is due to the differences in production practices, and part of it is due to the fact that Polyface doesn’t have access to the economies of scale that larger producers do. But Polyface has still flourished selling their product for a higher price. Price is a way to communicate value. Farmers looking to enter direct markets should not be hesitant to raise prices if they feel their product is better than competing products.

Although the Salatins have done a stellar job making their farm business successful, not every farm can do exactly what the Salatins have done and still be successful. But despite the differences between farms, there’s plenty that every farmer can learn from the Salatins’ story, from their success in belief-based marketing to their ability to find and maintain a place in the market without having to compete with lower-cost producers.

If you’re interested in learning more about Polyface but don’t want to wait on the video, feel free to visit http://www.polyfacefarms.com/ or swing by the Polyface farm store. You can also find Joel’s books and information about other Polyface media resources. Many thanks to Daniel for sharing Polyface’s story with us.

Ben Garber

B lacksburg, Virginia

March 18, 2017

Conversation with Sarah Lynch at Baja Bean, Co., Staunton, VA

On the morning of October 19th, 2016 I took a nice little two-hour drive to Staunton, Virginia.  There I visited a local restaurant, Baja Bean Co., manager Sarah Lynch to discuss her fresh produce she buys from farmers to create her delicious meals.

 

Sarah loves buying locally grown food from farmers who contact her. Usually she has at least one item or ingredient on her menu that is from local farms, and her customers love it. The idea that they are eating food that is fresh and good makes them come back for more.

With her schedule it is not easy to search out farmers who are willing to sell her their direct food items she needs, so she relies on the farmers to contact her through email. She believes email or calling is the most effective way to communicate between buyers and sellers in direct sales. It is easy and she can just add it onto her spreadsheet in order to plan out of her menu for seasons.

The atmosphere, the fresh food, and the smiles of the reoccurring customers make this restaurant festive and fun. I highly suggest if you are ever near Staunton, Virginia to stop by and try out this lovely restaurant. Make sure you ask what the farm fresh food of the season is! For more information and a look at their menu visit http://bajabean.com/staunton/.

 

 

Emilie VanDyke
Emilie@vt.edu
Baja Bean Fish Taco
October 19, 2016

Conversation with Page County Area Farmers at the Mimslyn Inn – Luray, Virginia

I returned to the valley to visit with Page County Area farmers and chefs to talk about their experiences with direct marketing their products. This interview was set up a bit differently than our other interviews. Kenner Love, extension agent from Rappahannock County, coordinated the interview. We met at Mimslyn Inn, located in downtown Luray, Virginia and conducted the interview over lunch. The lunch, by the way, was delicious! I was able to speak with Jared Burner (Skyline Premium Meats, LLC), David Sours (Public House Produce), Darrell Hulver (Survivor Farm), Lynette Shenk (Little Cabin BBQ), Mike Peterson (Heritage Hollow Farms), and Chris Harris (head chef at Mimslyn Inn).

Entree served at the Mimslyn Inn, Luray, VA

Entree offering, Mimslyn Inn, Luray, VA

One main takeaway from this interview relates to getting started in direct marketing to restaurants. They all talked about getting your foot in the door, both literally and figuratively. Whether that is offering the restaurant your product to try for free, or repeated calls and visits. A great way to make your name known is to attend the social events in your area. Some examples they provided were the Farm to Table Conference or “the ice cream social”. Also, utilize the web to market your products such as a Facebook page or website. In Page County, David Sours started Page County Grown, a website designed to help local farmers market their products and to also to brand local products. The website features local farmers, products and different eateries which support Page County Grown. They also have a Facebook page, which keeps followers up to date with different local foods events happenings.

Communication is key. When talking about what tips they had for those looking to get involved in direct marketing, communication was a big one. You need to be honest about your products and straightforward in what demand you are able to meet. Building that relationship with your buyer is absolutely necessary, because your relationship may be what keeps them buying from you and not from someone who has a lower price. Another tip was to “sit down, figure out your costs and do a breakeven analysis”. Loving what you do, although a great thing, is not going to keep you in business. “At some point you have to draw the line between a hobby and a business”. Also, realize that customers are not going to pay more than what they think it is worth.

Overall, I had a wonderful time hearing about each farmer’s background and their stories with direct marketing. It always amazes me how much I don’t know about agriculture even though I’ve been involved with it my whole life. Learning about new things, especially when it comes to something I’m so passionate about, is something that excites me.

Morgan Meador
mmorg14@vt.edu
Blacksburg, VA

Conversation with Steve Baker of Baker Farms, Mount Jackson, VA

I made a trip up to Mount Jackson, VA to interview Mr. Steve Baker about his hog operation and his involvement in direct sales. I met Mr. Baker at his USDA inspected processing facility, located across the road from his hog farm. It only took me driving past the big, red building twice, a phone call, and Steve coming to find me on his four-wheeler to locate the facility; this goes to show my great sense of direction and how it fit right in with the scenery.

Mr. Baker has a strong history in agriculture. He has two Century farms on both his mother and father’s sides of the family. Steve’s passion for hogs started when he raised his first pig as a 4H project to compete at his county fair when he was about 9 years old. At the time he graduated high school, his herd was around 12 sows. After graduating community college, he decided to make a living out of raising hogs. Today he runs an operation of about 80 sows in an all outdoor, labor intensive operation.

Baker Farms, Mount Jackson, Virginia

Baker Farms, Mount Jackson, Virginia

In 1998, when the hog market crashed and the prices dropped out, Mr. Baker decided to move into the direct marketing his own pork products. He capitalized on this idea by transitioning from just selling a commodity to processing a commodity into a food product. Baker Farms started out by going to their local farmer’s market with just one processed hog to test of how their product would be demanded. Although they didn’t know whether consumers would like their product, their products turned out to be a big hit. As Mr. Baker said, “Our product sold itself.” Since that initial farmer’s market, they have expanded to other farmer’s markets, restaurants, and schools.

Mr. Baker also touched on how he runs his business. One important area he focuses on is having competent and dependable employees to represent your product and your business. He emphasized how employees are the face of any business and must be able to answer questions about the business, and market the product to customers. His hog operation is managed so that the end product sells itself.

Mr. Baker graciously gave me some of his products to try after our interview and I enjoyed some bacon from Baker’s Farm Fresh Pork the other day for breakfast. I would definitely buy it! The amount of fat contributes to the wonderful flavoring.

Farming is a full-time job, and then some. When it comes to farming, there is never a day off. The animals still must be cared for, no matter if the calendar says it is a holiday. Selling your product direct takes a lot of effort, but getting your foot in the door is usually the hardest part. It is obvious how much care and pride Mr. Baker puts into his operation. At the end of the day, repeat customers are what keep him in business and hearing customers praise his product is one of the most rewarding and humbling experiences.

Morgan Meador
mmorg14@vt.edu
October 18, 2016

Conversation with Sarah Lynch, Baja Bean Co., Staunton, Virginia

 On the morning of October 19th, 2016 I took a nice little two-hour drive to Staunton, Virginia.  There I visited a local restaurant, Baja Bean Co., manager Sarah Lynch to discuss her fresh produce she buys from farmers to create her delicious meals.

Sarah loves buying locally grown food from farmers who contact her. Usually she has at least one item or ingredient on her menu that is from local farms, and her customers love it. The idea that they are eating food that is fresh and good makes them come back for more.

Craft and Draft beverage offerings, Baja Bean Co., Staunton, Virginia

Craft and Draft beverage offerings, Baja Bean Co., Staunton, Virginia

With her schedule it is not easy to search out farmers who are willing to sell her their direct food items she needs, so she relies on the farmers to contact her through email. She believes email or calling is the most effective way to communicate between buyers and sellers in direct sales. It is easy and she can just add it onto her spreadsheet in order to plan out of her menu for seasons.

The atmosphere, the fresh food, and the smiles of the reoccurring customers make this restaurant festive and fun. I highly suggest if you are ever near Staunton, Virginia to stop by and try out this lovely restaurant. Make sure you ask what the farm fresh food of the season is! For more information and a look at their menu visit http://bajabean.com/staunton/.

Emilie VanDyke
Emilie@vt.edu
Baja Bean Fish Taco
October 19, 2016

Conversation with Cathy Powell Cavender from Monrovia Farm, Colonial Beach, VA

On the morning of October 17th I got in my car and drove 4 hours to conduct an interview about direct sales. The interview exceeded my expectations and made that drive entirely worth it. The information I learned was great, and hearing Cathy Powell Cavender’s story about their family farm warmed my heart.

Cathy Cavender was born and raised on her family’s farm. She decided, when it came to building a life for herself she would move away from home. She built her life in North Carolina with her husband, but soon it came time for one of her family members to return to the family farm and work with her aging father; she decided she would make the move.

monrovia-farm

Upon returning to the farm, she realized that not all operations on the farm were covering input costs, so Cathy and her husband looked for ways to improve profit margins for existing farm operations. The family farm originally was only selling their beef cattle through another company like Sysco that is a multinational corporation involved in marketing and distributing food products to restaurants, healthcare and educational facilities, and other foodservice and hospitality businesses.

The Cavender’s decided to dive into direct sales, and Cathy Cavender believes that was the best decision they could have made to increase profits on their family farm.

Selling direct to restaurants is a full-time job, but, according to Cathy Cavender, it allows the family to set their beef at prices that cover all costs and include a reasonable profit.  Cathy currently sells direct to around six restaurants all across Virginia and is looking to expand by increasing her advertising efforts by using more marketing tactics. Currently, she uses Facebook and word of mouth to advertise.

One of the biggest problems she faces in direct sales is that restaurants will be interested in having farm fresh food on their menu, but not realize that it is completely different than ordering through a company. The quality is better, but she cannot provide multiple cases of one cut of beef at a time like a company would since she has only so many beef cattle on her farm.

The benefits of direct sales outweigh the negatives. Cathy says the best moment is when she takes her dad to a restaurant, that her sister owns, and they eat a steak that is from their own farm.  It is so rewarding for the Cavender’s to enjoy the work they do, and see the creations that chefs come up with from their own beef cattle.

The wisdom and story behind Monrovia Farm excited me; it made me eager to gain more knowledge on farm to fork in upcoming interviews and through the market trainings. I encourage you to learn more about farm-to-fork and Monrovia Farms by visiting their website http://www.monroviafarm.com/about.htm

Emilie VanDyke
emiliev@vt.edu
Monrovia Farm
October 17, 2016

 

Conversation with Wade Hawkins and Terry Sager of the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative

I was in a good mood when I went to this morning’s interview. I was a little nervous, the kind of low-grade stage fright that comes with any kind of public event, but it was a good day. I got off Interstate 81 in Woodstock just as the fog was burning off. The birds were chirping and the air was just crisp enough to make me alert as I drove down the backroads to Pleasantdale Farms.

My good mood was justified when I stepped out of the car. Pleasantdale Farms is surrounded by mountains that paint a glorious picture, typical of Shenandoah Valley farmland, and I was greeted by the sweet, unmistakable smell of corn silage. I spent the morning talking to Wade Hawkins and Terry Sager, growers who direct market their beef to restaurants as members of Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative (SVBC).

One of the more interesting things about the cooperative is its balance between the past and the present. Every single member is from a farming family. Wade is the third generation to farm at Pleasantdale, and he hopes that one day his son will be the fourth. Their sustainability-focused farming techniques, however, are more indicative of the direction modern agriculture seems to be moving in. Their flagship beef products are natural, which means they are not exposed to growth hormones or antibiotics. Every animal that requires treatment with antibiotics is identified and sold conventionally after the withdrawal period has passed. The cooperative considers animal welfare and environmental stewardship not just a matter of personal principle, but also a business decision. They raise their beef the way they do so that they can market it as a premium product. As Terry clearly pointed out, maintaining a premium brand is the kind of marketing strategy that will help keep family farms afloat in the long run. If family farms are going to continue to be such a touchstone of American life, product differentiation is one of the keys to keeping them alive as businesses, helping them to stay profitable and supporting the lifestyle with which they are associated.

Terry and Wade also make it clear that farmers can find strength in numbers. SVBC producers all work on finding new leads for the cooperative independently and as a team. Customer demand is met by whichever producer can best meet each buyer’s logistical needs. This ability to keep a more consistent supply of quality product is a key component of the SVBC’s success.

Six years ago, Wade Hawkins was a producer trying to sell beef on his own. After struggling for two years and becoming frustrated with the difficulty of marketing the Pleasantdale brand to buyers as an individual farm, he joined SVBC. Now beef from Pleasantdale Farm is served at Washington Nationals baseball games and at the Clyde’s family of restaurants in the D.C. area. SVBC believes that they can provide a better product for their buyers and a better return for their growers by adopting the cooperative model.

In both my interview with Mr. Rob Harrison of Foods for Thought, Inc. and my interviews with  Terry and Wade, I’ve been struck (although not surprised–important distinction there) by the expertise of the growers.Terry and Mr. Harrison, together, do an excellent job of summing up the situation. One of the things that stuck with me the most from my talk with Mr. Harrison was when he said, “as a small producer, you have to understand that you’re competing against the most effective food-producing machine in human history.” In the same vein, Terry noted that “people think that any dirtkicker in bib overalls can be a farmer. That’s simply not the case. To be an effective farmer, you have to be effective in every area that touches your farm business.”

I think that explains some of the success that both Mr. Harrison and the producers of SVBC have experienced: They are experts in the field of agriculture. They’ve spent their entire lives in the industry, in one form or another, and they’ve made a point of learning everything they can about it. They pay just as much attention to their customers, their supply chains, and their bottom lines as they do to the health of their herds. Clearly it’s not impossible to be successful selling farm products directly to restaurants, but it does require commitment, knowledge, and experience. I, for one, am more comfortable as a consumer knowing that my food is in the hands of such thoughtful, dedicated producers. I’m even more excited that these producers have been willing to work with those of us on the Virginia Market Ready team to help train the next wave of experienced, conscientious farm-to-restaurant producers.

If you’re just chomping at the bit to see the video and hear all the insightful things Wade and Terry had to say (as well as laugh at all the shots of cows glaring at me for interrupting their breakfast), you can tide yourself over by visiting the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative online at http://www.shenandoahvalleybeefcoop.com/our-beef/.

Ben Garber
gben3@vt.edu
Verona, VA
October 14, 2016

The feedlot and facilities at Pleasantdale Farm in Woodstock, VA. Pleasantdale Farm is operated by the Hawkins family as part of the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative.

The feedlot and facilities at Pleasantdale Farm in Woodstock, VA. Pleasantdale Farm is operated by the Hawkins family as part of the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative.

Conversation with Rob Harrison of Foods for Thought, Inc., Troy, Virginia

Fall calves from the 2013 season on Mr. Harrison’s farm in Troy, Va.

Fall calves from the 2013 season on Mr. Harrison’s farm in Troy, Va.

On October 6, Morgan and I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Rob Harrison, a beef producer from Fluvanna County. Mr. Harrison’s farm is organized as part of Foods for Thought, Inc., a Virginia supplier of Roseda beef. Mr. Harrison’s products are all natural, dry aged, and use only therapeutic antibiotics.

Morgan and I caught up with Mr. Harrison as he made deliveries to restaurants in the Blacksburg area, a weekly occurrence that he handles himself. He makes deliveries towing a refrigerated trailer behind his SUV, which can make navigating the city streets a bit of a challenge at times. Although the site of the delivery, Blacksburg Tap House, has a parking lot too small for Mr. Harrison, that didn’t even slow him down. He pulled into the center lane in front of the restaurant, threw his hazards on, and got to work with a practiced efficiency that blew us away. He unloaded the trailer, deposited the product in the restaurant’s walk-in freezer, went inside for the check, and was back on the road within three minutes. After his deliveries were through, we followed him back to his house to hear his story.

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