HECTOR, N. Y. — Matthew Glenn would rather spend his time growing vegetables than selling vegetables. That is why the Finger Lakes region grower was happy to implement the recommendations of a marketing tool developed by staff at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County.
“We found that if we increased our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) by 12 shares in the first year, we could essentially make up for dropping one of the farmers markets we were going to,” Glenn said. “We realized we could certainly do that and end up with more time to get our farm work done.”
Glenn owns and operates Muddy Fingers Farm with his wife, Liz Martin. Growing four dozen crops on two and a half acres is hard enough without spending an inordinate amount of time during harvest season trying to sell their produce.
Glenn and Martin were among the first beneficiaries of CCE’s Marketing Channel Assessment Tool, a process developed with grant money from the New York Farm Viability Institute. CCE Tompkins County agriculture marketing specialist Matthew LeRoux developed the tool as a way to help farmers figure out which marketing methods are most profitable for their individual farm.
“We wanted to encourage more growers in our region to consider wholesale marketing channels,” LeRoux said. “The idea was to really grow the local food system. (Consumers) might go to farmers markets, but then they might go to grocery stores to do their ‘real’ shopping, and there was no local food there. We wanted to encourage farmers to do more wholesaling to grocery stores and restaurants, etc.”
But first, Extension personnel had to prove that those marketing avenues made sense.
“Among the questions were, ‘Should we be telling people to get into these channels? How did they perform, and how do you gauge performance?’” LeRoux said.
Utilizing state funds channeled through NYFVI, LeRoux interviewed 14 farmers about their experiences with marketing their product and developed the MCAT, which measures time spent harvesting and preparing food for various market channels and compares the cost to farms with the revenue they receive.
“What we came up with was a simple labor log,” LeRoux said. “Everyone who worked on the farm would record their daily labor on some simple forms where they would check off boxes. We ended up condensing activities to four steps of marketing: harvest, washing and packing, travel and conducting sales.”
Each of those steps can vary depending on the final marketing destination for the produce involved, LeRoux said. If you are bunching beets for sale in a grocery store, it takes more time to select and grade the vegetables. If you are selling at a farmers market, it is more time consuming than doing invoices for a wholesale distributor.
“Labor is the single biggest marketing cost,” LeRoux said. “That gave us a lot of information.”
Researchers collected labor data for one typical week on each of the nine farms where the tool has been tested. They then ran those numbers against the factors such as profit and sales volume at each of the market channels the farms were using. The end result was a recommendation of which channels are performing the best for the farm in question and which are performing the worst.
“Farmers can decide whether they should reduce participation in the weakest channel and increase participation in the strongest channel — even to the point of eliminating the weakest channel,” LeRoux said. “That’s what we saw happen. Of the nine farms, I think seven or eight have made changes based on the results.”
One of those was Muddy Fingers, where they have bolstered their strongest performing sector — Community Supported Agriculture — from 60 shares in 2009 to 75 shares last year and 90 shares for the upcoming harvest, Glenn said.
“Time is probably our most limiting factor because it’s just the two of us on the farm during harvest season, and a lot of things get away from us in terms of weeds and the harvest schedule,” Glenn said. “That was good, knowing we’d have a few more hours on the farm.”
It was not difficult to find 30 more area residents interested in participating in the CSA program over the last two years, he said. On a CSA farm, community members typically agree in advance to cover the cost of farming in return for a share of the farm’s bounty.
Share-holders participate in the risks and rewards of farming and often get their hands dirty by helping with on-farm activities. LeRoux’s Marketing Channel Assessment Tool can be used by CSA and non-CSA farms alike and with minimal effort from farmers.
“I found it to be pretty simple,” Glenn said. “I think it was for one or two weeks that Matt gave us forms to keep track of on a daily basis what we were harvesting, how long it took us and where it was going. We filled that in as we were harvesting for each of the crops. It wasn’t too big of a deal.”
LeRoux said he has had interest from other county Extension agents and farmers in implementing the MCAT in their areas.
“I end up presenting at different conferences and meetings about this and I’ve been approached by farmers who say, ‘I’ve been asking this question for years with no way of getting an answer,’” LeRoux said. “I think we’re going to have one or two other counties do it this summer. We have farms there that are really interested and agents who are really excited about it.”
And CCE Tompkins County had a second NYFVI grant that would have expanded and refined the tool by collecting data on 50 more farms, but that grant was lost in a recent round of budget cuts. Cuts proposed in the current budget would slash NYFVI funding even further. That would be bad news for the farmers who benefit from that research.
“As a result of the Marketing Channel Assessment Tool, we scaled back on farmers markets and increased our CSA, which I think has been a good deal for us,” Glenn said. “I don’t know that we would have conceptualized it as well without MCAT. It was nice to have it in hard figures.”