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PORTAGE - Efficient production practices are important but when direct marketing farm products, the customer comes first.

Some successful direct marketers shared their ideas with producers at a recent grazing conference in Portage. All agreed that it is important to look at what they can sell and then produce accordingly. 

Andy and Sadie Fisher have marketed wholesale and retail premium dry aged beef, pastured pork, and pastured chicken for about 10 years. The Cambria couple shared some of the things they have learned from their experience.

Fisher says they chose the Berkshire breed because of their shoulders and quality ham that their customers seemed to like.

Their beef herd started with two and they have increased the numbers according to demand for their meat. They now market 60 beef animals a year. They do only one farmers market and they also sell to restaurants. 

“The demand in restaurants is year round and not seasonal like farmers markets,” he said.

Most of their sales come through word of mouth from one chef to another. He says an important part of selling the product, however, is to have a neat and clean appearance when dealing with potential customers.

The couple’s biggest challenge at this time is the fact that they rent their land which limits how many animals they can raise each year. To satisfy their growing demand they have made arrangements to market animals raised on a neighbor’s farm as well.

A selling point for them is the fact that their animals spend their whole lives on their farm, roaming freely on the open pastures.

“Our cattle and pigs enjoy pasture grass and free-choice spent grain ration from Karben4 Brewing, a perfect marriage of recycling and animal husbandry,” he says.

Mark and Beth Heinze, Portage, started out as dairy farmers, taking over management of his family’s herd in the mid 2000’s.  They went out of dairy last year but continue to raise row crops and hay as well as pasture for the beef they direct market.

When they began their direct marketing venture they gave their farm a new name – Lewiston Farmstead Meats.  They then set out to determine their target audience and direct their marketing to them.

They are still learning how to manage this new venture but are already selling custom cut quarters and halves of beef. They market at the Portage Farmers Market and plan to go to more markets as they grow.

They are also set up to sell individual cuts and bundles of beef right at the farm on select days. They keep their freezers in a trailer that is inspected and licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

Beth suggests that when selling meat at farmers markets it is helpful to know how to prepare different cuts of meat and share recipes for them.

She uses her Smartphone at the market to utilize the information and services provided through the Beef check off program to answer specific questions of potential customers.

She also uses social media as a marketing tool but admits that she is still learning about websites and how to make the best use of them.

Barb Salas who direct markets all the lambs she raises on her Dodge County farm uses a newsletter to let her customers know about what’s happening on the farm and through that newsletters customers place their orders. She tailors the cuts of meat according to individual customer requests.

She then hauls all of her animals at one time to the processor and customers are invited to pick up the meat at her farm or at the processor.

She also notes, “Not all of my lambs finish out by fall so then I choose to sell them as feeders.”

She cooperates with other producers, providing animals when they are short or buying lambs from them when she doesn’t have enough to fill her orders.

A challenge for all of the direct marketers is finding a processor that is reliable year round.

Salas says, “I book mine a year ahead of time.”

Fisher says “Every two weeks I take some in to my processor. It helps to have a standing order because they will make room on their schedule when they know it is coming in.”

Heinze agrees that the licensed reliable butcher shops are also very busy so planning ahead for when the meat will be needed is important in order to get on the processor’s schedule.

James Baerwald of Sassy Cow Creamery offered yet another perspective to direct marketing. Their on-farm creamery provides ice cream, milk and other dairy treats using the milk from their herd.

“If you are going to do direct marketing half of your effort needs to be on production and the other half on marketing,” Baerwald said. “It’s almost like reverse thinking. You sell a product and then find a way to produce what the customer wants.”

He added, “We look at margin — what’s left over after it is sold — not necessarily at volume.”

According to Baerwald, it isn’t necessary to sell to everyone out there but instead it is important to determine who will want your product and spend time and effort marketing to that audience.

“It costs a lot to get one new customer but not as much to hold the long-time customers,” he said. “Look at your customers as building a relationship.”

Baerwald points out that customers today are interested in how animals are cared for.  Therefore, it is important to keep the farm neat and clean, make sure animals are cared for properly and be willing to let customers visit to see for themselves.

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