Reaching the Modern Consumer
The world is changing exponentially, but humans seeking out convenience, connection, or a good deal seems timeless. Technology highlights and seeks to satisfy these human desires, but it doesn’t dictate them. No matter how much else has changed over the last 100 years, these factors have been relatively stable.
So when we think about what the future holds, and where we might place a new business idea within it, at least we can take comfort that the known variables are the core human desires which apply to all of us, no matter your age, race, nationality, or occupation.
Learning the core human desires early on in business development is a huge help in crafting an offer that satisfies at least one of them. Understanding these also helps frame the language used for storytelling and making emotional connections to get people to move toward desired outcomes (a purchase/buy-in). This knowledge is also required for leadership, action, and change.
There are timeless aspects to our behavior, but the internet has changed the efficiency in which we interact and consume. The middlemen that farmers required in the past are largely no longer needed. What used to take a full-time employee or a face-to-face handshake now can get done with an app. Reaching and managing clients digitally has become accessible and practically a requirement in this new era.
How you choose to reach and connect with your clients can depend on your personal preferences, but how clients want to be reached should be the priority. In a world where our attention is held on by a thread, simply stated—don’t make it hard for people to buy your product. Making yourself available only at a Saturday market will severely limit your ability to reach a distracted or busy consumer.
There is a multitude of ways that you can make your products available that allow you to remain in complete control.
A few examples:
An online store offers the ultimate convenience to consumers. Setting up a website and an online store can be done between meals. Best yet, everyone in your town can then visit your store 24 hours a day instead of a weekly, six-hour window at the farmers market. As someone who has an e-commerce business who literally makes money in his sleep, it feels good. You, too, should consider it. If you don’t think you’ll have enough offerings for a storefront, consider what other vendors you can easily incorporate. In all my businesses, we carry some offerings from other producers and we break even on them. I think it’s better to have a worthy selection that truly adds convenience to someone’s life, rather than just a one-off item that doesn’t shorten the number of total store visits one would need to make on a regular basis.
Let’s assume that the majority of consumers would rather sleep in and watch Netflix on a Saturday than drive to the farmers market to come to see you. No idealism here, remember? As shopping malls die and virtual experiences grow, we need to start going to where the mass of customers are—in their homes. An online store with a supporting app makes coordinating a weekly delivery a lot more manageable than it sounds.
I’m not going to assume that Walmart is simply some evil beast that’s always going to provide national brands at the cheapest prices in their big storefronts. Walmart might be a bit slower to move, but they have already rolled out a grocery delivery service, and they will continue to localize their supply chain efforts. That said, a massive opportunity awaits farmers to establish these direct-to-consumer supply chains before companies like Walmart win that relationship. By approaching this from the perspective that consumers want convenience first, we must provide convenience just as well as anyone else, including Walmart. If we can produce better, healthier, and fresher-tasting food that involves little or no middlemen, then we can compete better on price, too.
Growers have the first opportunity to service the whole supply chain to end customers. Food starts locally. Keep it local by building a community of farmers—or a community of businesses that support locally made products.
Consider being the local distributor.
Who needs Walmart or Procter & Gamble when a small farmer leads a local grocery service, conveniently and efficiently getting locally made soaps, lotions, teas, and plant-based medicines into the homes of a working family?
Who needs chain restaurants when small farmers have the confidence to add a small meal-prep kitchen to their operation?
OK, OK, looking to start smaller for now? How about owning a “farm” without actually having even rent land or a building?
This actually is possible with the growth of compact indoor growing technologies. The opportunity to service others’ raised beds and gardens has always been there, but new clients have opened up due to the local food movement—schools, bars, and restaurants.
These establishments and institutions are looking for new ways to connect with modern consumers, too, and many want to do it through unique and fresh food grown in (or on) the same building. Piper Klee-Waddle at Urban Dirt Co. is an example of a good lifestyle business built off of building & servicing raised bed gardens.
Building on the desires in higher-end food culture are the micro-distinctions in flavor profiles and pairings of food. Being around farmers who serve the most “elite” restaurants, creating new and unique palate sensations only continues to escalate and separate commodity farmers from specialty growers.
If you’re reading this book, you likely aren’t all that interested in being a commodity farmer—and I think that is a good thing. With help from advanced sensors and drones, commodity farming is stepping up its game too, but mostly around consistency, disease resistance, and drought. Commodity farmers are not in the game of close personal relationships with chefs or individual consumers looking for something that no one else has. It has been, and always will be, a race to the bottom on price when it comes to commodity farming.
The ability to create one-of-a-kind flavor profiles will be something that can separate you from the pack. Developments in technology with artificial intelligence will open up tons of possibilities to go deeper in this space. These will be tools that small urban farms are going to be using more and more, like it or not.
Health, Recovery, and Performance
The explosion of veganism, gluten-free, keto, and the like have created strong niches in just about every part of the country as people have more information about their health than ever before. What the body needs, nature can provide. As farmers, we have the benefit of growing things that can fit within just about every health trend out there.
Markets centered around human optimization—i.e., maximizing physical and mental performance through optimal eating—are wide open for farmer involvement. Crossfit, Bulletproof Coffee, and the rejuvenated interest in all kinds of mushrooms are all examples of people looking to take their well-being to the next level.
By serving these markets, we are putting ourselves in front of a potential client base that can afford the prices that provide for a sustainable and profitable business. They’ll appreciate you that much more that you’re serving them—because odds are not too many other small producers will make a sustained effort to reach these groups.
This gets into what prolific author and business mind Seth Godin would call the smallest viable audience. Even though in rural North Carolina there aren’t a ton of vegans, there are enough, and I can tell you they are the best kind of clients a new business can ask for. They spread the word for us, they support us again and again, and we support them back. I have seen this firsthand, and we will get into what this looks like a bit later.
By getting involved in their well-being, we form a new kind of relationship. A farmer who takes an interest in the health improvements of their clients by personally growing a few things for them (ginger, turmeric, etc.) is a farmer who is wanted and needed by a core group who will be evangelists.
The hardest thing about eating healthy is being able to do it consistently. There lies a major opportunity in the market to service the “health-optimization” crowd through a subscription service similar to a CSA. Most people don’t know what a CSA is, or don’t want a random assortment of ingredients, so a subscription microgreen program, for example, might be something that is more “digestible” for them. I (selfishly) advocate using heavy-duty 5×5 microgreen trays with subscriptions in mind, hoping it keeps a farmer’s customers coming back week after week, returning their 5×5 for a zero-waste service.
AI—Apps and Integration
The explosion of apps in recent years has opened doors for scale and communication never before seen. Our success in business, no matter the industry, will largely be defined by how well we integrate into the consumers’ evolving preferences; i.e. method of communication and preferred sales channel.
Consumers are infinitely more frugal with their attention now than they were just a few years ago. Pop-up ads (if they still pop up) appear as a meaningless block of text that is ignored 100 percent of the time. Pop-up blockers and apps like Facebook and WeChat have given consumers the power to choose who communicates with them. It’s a trend that’s not likely to reverse.
So, interruption marketing is (thankfully) largely dead. We should have been avoiding that style of marketing as much as possible anyway, as it is ineffective and flat-out annoying. The best marketing today is done in a way that has the consumer granting you permission to engage (e.g., following on social), but with the ability to take it away if we abuse it (unfollowing).
Shopping apps like Amazon have been the channel that MOST of us have been using recently. With almost everything we need available within two days with free shipping, the convenience afforded by apps means that we’ll likely never go back to a more inconvenient purchasing method for our daily needs. To ignore this fact puts in peril our own chances of success in keeping up with a consumer that has many other options and much easier ways to purchase an item than needing to find us at a farmers market during a small, six-hour window once a week.
Those who want the experience of walking around outside, window-shopping, or engaging in face-to-face interaction will always be there, but the trend should be obvious—a growing mass of consumers are purchasing online.
Regardless of your opinion on mass data collection, from a business and marketing perspective this advanced data allows us to reach people based on psychographics. Not just simply men or women, but what do they like, what do they associate with, and how they see themselves. This can provide you with critical insights into what your potential customers really want, and informs how you should communicate with them.
Real AI, Sensors, and Organic Commodities
We don’t need to go far into the future to see that artificial intelligence (AI) is going to disrupt every industry in existence (and some into non-existence). It has already come to agriculture in many ways. AI, combined with advanced robotics and sensor technology, is currently available to those who can afford it. But that is changing, too. Sensor technology is exponentially increasing while the cost is plummeting. The amount of sensor-level input a farm of any size will have will be astoundingly precise and granular. Yes, the big companies get the first crack at it, but competition will lead to a democratization of this technology.
Sensors and drones will detect pest and nutrient issues before they happen. Less labor, less waste with less nutrients and water are going to continue to put downward pressure on commodity crops. All will be great when the technology can scale to be affordable by even small scale growers. And the affordability may come quicker if bought as part of a local growers network who can invest early in shared technology.
The relationship between farmer and seed is going to change so much that, when we think of what farmers and farms will look like in ten years, it seems totally different from the current mainstream perception. The vast farmlands that are best-suited for a particular crop will be dominated by a faceless corporation, manned by drones, but everything else will be a vast universe of opportunity for farmers to work with and leverage technology in unique ways, creating tons of new niches. Current organic standards will be met much more easily by the biggest companies with the deepest pockets, so unless a true localization of the food supply occurs, they will likely win that race to the bottom.
There are many ways we can engage and interact with consumers that farmers are not yet taking advantage of. It’s sometimes easier said than done to do a farm tour. Location, logistics, and potential biological contamination are all roadblocks for many small farms that would otherwise love to generate revenue with a farm tour.
Coordinating portable toilets, keeping an eye on children, and even making the farm safe enough to host a crowd all add time and cost to a farm that may not be able to support it. It might be too much of a hurdle for a farmer to do this alone, so I see a wide-open space where folks can build businesses around running events with farmers—events that can include food, liquor, hay rides, interactive demonstrations, etc.
So putting aside the onsite farm tours, I recently attended a farm event that opened my eyes to a whole new kind of farm experience—a “farmers’ bounty” dinner.
Nick and I were up in Connecticut visiting Trifecta Ecosystems for their first “farm-to-table” dinner, and came away quite impressed with many aspects of what transpired.
Trifecta Ecosystems, which houses a large aquaponic farm, needed to harvest a lot of catfish to make room for some new fingerlings. There are a few legal hurdles which prevented them from selling the fish at their farmers market, so unloading the fish required some creativity on their part. Selling fish in aquaponics isn’t as lucrative or as easy as it looks on paper. Most experienced aquaponic farms don’t even consider potential revenue from the fish in their projections, so making this a profit center can be a challenge.
Working with a restaurant that is legally allowed to process whole fish was one of the most frictionless options, so thus bred their first farm-to-table dinner. (Side note: We were hoping to avoid using the farm-to-table lingo in this book, as we all know how overplayed it is, but in this case it actually felt like a true farm-to-table experience).
Everything about the event was fantastic. Local farms sourced the whole menu. Yes, there was LOTS of catfish on the menu, but there were many other items, too. It being mid-winter in Connecticut, working with other local farms for ingredients rounded out the menu. The combination of indoor and outdoor farms coming together to create a well-balanced menu for an upscale crowd was eye-opening. It showed me that if they can pull this off during that time of year and in that climate, none of us has any excuses. Even with catfish being so heavily featured, it felt right. It gave everyone a sense of what it used to be like before we were born, when you ate only what was available locally and seasonally.
The best thing about the night lay in the details. The style of restaurant they chose was a BYOB, family-style restaurant. This meant that instead of the waitstaff bringing out each course to each person, they would put it all on a large table and allow people to serve themselves. No individual orders, no special requests—just lots of options for everyone to choose from at their leisure.
This worked out great. We were in conversation with new friends the entire night, so the lack of interruption by the waitstaff was appreciated. They must have put out 20 different entrees and apps, so it would have been a heavy burden on the waitstaff. Instead, a team of two seamlessly managed 50 guests, routinely and efficiently.
The $85 ticket price felt like a deal, and that’s coming from someone who can count on one hand the amount of times he’s spent more than $50 on a meal.
The event served many purposes. As it took place at year-end, the hosts seized the opportunity to reflect on the past year and tell their story to the guests. It was great to hear how far they have come, and the fantastic meal showcased it all. Food isn’t just about flavor. It is about the people you share it with. On this night, to be sharing a meal with the farmers themselves and the community that supports them was memorable. It makes me think of 100 other possibilities that can be built off this type of event.
Layering a subscription or delivery service into an experience that makes me feel that connected to a seasonal bounty is something worth striving for.
Founder, Bootstrap Farmer, Craven Local Food Market & Urban Farm Academy