by Ryan Boyd
Traditionally, farmers are not great at marketing. Many have been drawn to life on the farm for its solitude and withdrawal from the busyness of the city, where we then become price-takers in a commodity business. Of course, most farmers realize the importance that slight improvements in marketing can have on our bottom line; the best advice from experts is to know the cost of production and make a good marketing plan intent on capitalizing on positive marketing opportunities when they come along. This is sage advice, but leaves many farmers, myself included, wishing we had more control over our fate and the value we receive for the products we produce.
This past summer, our farm dipped its toe into the world of direct marketing and began selling Boyd’s Beef, all-natural grass-fed beef born and grazed on South Glanton Farms. The motivation to add another layer of complexity to our farm came after spending several months travelling abroad with a Nuffield Farming Scholarship. My research focused on finding ways that grazing ruminants could have the most beneficial impact on the farming systems of the prairies as they once did years ago – integral to the development of the most fertile soils in the world.
Good marketing can trump less-than-ideal production efficiencies and provide opportunities that seem unimaginable to a primary producer with a closed mind. At a market near Sydney, Australia I met Luke Winder, owner of Tathra Place Free Range. Luke, an electrician by trade, came across Joel Salatin on YouTube and decided to give farming a go. He bought a 100-acre farm and four years later he had a thriving business: he established himself as Australia’s premier supplier of free-range duck, Maremma Free Range Duck. When I lamented about slaughter capacity concerns, he told me that that is no excuse and explained that though duck processing capacity was not exactly abundant, never mind accessible at scale to a naïve farmer raising free-range birds, it didn’t deter him. Luke found a processor that processed conventional, barn-raised ducks and after months of persistence, convinced them to process one batch of his free-range duck. When the owner saw the quality of the duck they processed for Luke, it wasn’t long before they formed a partnership and Maremma Free Range Duck took the market by storm. If there is demand and there’s a will – there’s a way.
When good marketing meets top-notch production methods, magic happens. At Daylesford Organic Farm in the Cotswolds of England, the dairy cows’ individual output was less than conventional dairies, but their longevity was greater and the calves were well suited for grass finishing. The farm manager, Richard Smith, former manager of the Oxford University farm, explained that when supermarket executives and top chefs realized what the implications of this lower cost production system were to animal welfare, the environment and the quality of the food, they switched to Daylesford milk and meat products despite the higher price tag. Luke Winder found the same with his Maremma duck – once chefs realized that a free-range product existed, it wasn’t an option to serve anything else.
Rob Baan, owner of Koppert Cress in the Netherlands, grower of high-value microgreens, explained that a good product is necessary, but not nearly as critical as your brand’s story and what sets you apart. He imparted the following advice: the last few cents are far more interesting than the finite first few cents available in production. Most farmers agonize over how to maximize production while the best managers are spending their time telling their story, developing their brand and commanding tidy premiums for their products. Rob’s marketing strategy was to identify and work with elite chefs throughout the world. By focusing on creating demand at the top of the supply chain he was able to put himself in a position of leverage with the wholesalers, avoiding volume discounts that would eventually undermine his margins. This allowed him to maintain high margins and utilize the efficient existing distribution channels to get his product to the markets.
The value of local food production to the local economy and the environment should not be underestimated. The positive environmental impacts of a diverse regenerative system are huge and can seem quite sensational when considering how we have normalized simple landscapes of monocultures, bare soil and excessive water runoff. The contrast was never more evident than when visiting Mercado Malunga, an organic vegetable farm in Brazil surrounded by massive fields of soybeans. The soils differed only in management, but the soils at Marcado Malunga were dark in colour with a rich earthy smell, while the soil in the no-till soybean fields were lacking structure and very dense. The Brazilians were quite proud of their soybean production system, and rightly so – it has advanced a great deal in the past couple decades. Everyone has their own idea of what sustainability, or hopefully regeneration, looks like; when creating our brand we need to define our own metrics and communicate them clearly to our customers.
Travelling the world to see how efficient the current agriculture paradigm is was a sobering experience. Demand for local products of integrity is exploding all over the world. What this will look like in Manitoba I am not sure, but I have never been as excited for the opportunities that a shorter supply chain brings. Our new venture selling beef direct to the consumer has given me a satisfaction I had never felt before; it is much more motivating to provide for a customer who values and cares how the product was produced.
Not only do we need to reintegrate more grazing ruminants to the prairie landscape, we need to reintegrate ourselves and our customers within the landscapes we call home.