The aMAZEing Things Farmers Must Do to Survive

The Sower corn maze

Depiction of Jean Francois Millet’s painting, “The Sower,” at Mike’s Maze in Sunderland, Mass. Photo by Will Sillin.

Farming is a risky business, so most successful farmers have to do more than grow food in order to survive. At the biannual Harvest New England conference in Sturbridge, Mass. last week, I learned about some of the wonderful and wacky things farmers are doing to bring in income.

Despite the surprising influx of young people who are taking up the suddenly trendy farming profession, the number of farms in the US continues to shrink, so farmers must work hard to stay in business. According to a recent USDA report, there were an estimated 2.2 million farms in the U.S. in 2012, down 11,630 from 2011–a six-year low. I’m happy to report that in Massachusetts, where I live, the number of farms held steady at 7,700 from 2011 to 2012.

The spiraling demand for local, sustainable, and humanely grown or raised produce, dairy, meat, and other food products; growing usage of creative and/or cooperative marketing techniques; expansion of Farm to School and other Farm to Institution sales; and the increasing number of farms participating in “agritourism” are all helping farms bring in additional sources of revenue.

hnelogoGood Egg Marketing presented two workshops at the 2013 Harvest New England Ag Marketing Conference & Trade Show, including a session on branding for farmers and one on social media for farms. I was impressed with how generous the farmers were in sharing their knowledge and experience with their peers (people who, outside the conference, are their competitors). Here are a few things I learned while I was there.

Cabot Creamery, a 1,200 farm family dairy cooperative with members in New England and upstate New York, is known for their cheddar and other cheeses, but they’ve jumped on the Greek-style yogurt bandwagon. They also make regular yogurt, butter, and dips. It’s their creative and cooperative marketing, however, that’s the key to their success.

navCabotLogoTheir slogan, which only got added to their logo recently, proclaims that they are “Owned by our Farm Families in New York and New England.”  In addition, they also state that 100% of their profits go to Cabot farmers. While not strictly local business, they have enormous appeal for consumers who want to support family farms.

In her keynote, Roberta MacDonald, Cabot’s Senior VP of Marketing, urged farmers to “share your story, share what you love.” She suggested that farmers find a holiday, such “National Soup Day,” cook up a great soup, bring some to their local food shelter, then take it to the radio station they listen to. MacDonald, who sported a cow-print shirt, personified the principle that small farmers can compete with big companies by being true to themselves and using creative marketing.

By pooling resources as a cooperative, Cabot has been able to associate its brand with giving back to the community. For example, they’ve created a web and mobile app called Reward Volunteers that tracks and rewards volunteers and the organizations they serve.

Agritourism, which involves making your farm into a tourist destination, has been around for a long time, but has become an increasingly important source of revenue for many farm.  Agritourist activities can include anything from pick your own potatoes (now that’s something I’d really dig), farm tours, cheesemaking classes, winetastings, and weddings, meetings and other events.

I was particularly impressed by a presentation from Warner Farm, a ten-generation family farm in Sunderland, Mass. In addition to running a 150-acre farm, a farm stand, and a CSA, Warner Farm also operates Mike’s Maze, an 8-acre corn maze that attracts over 8,000 visitors annually.

Farmer Mike Wissemann partners with his neighbor, artist Will Sillin, to create an original design each year. They cut a path through corn stalks to create a picture, ranging from portraits of Julia Child, Albert Einstein, and Louis Armstrong to the can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup made famous by Andy Warhol. In 2012, they recreated Jean François Millet’s painting of “The Sower,” which is in the MFA Boston.

In addition to the designs, there are activities and games throughout the maze.  The year they did Louis Armstrong, they installed metal pipes along the path that you could ring to get a recognizable tune. They also built a camera obscura inside a gazebo. They have a Corn Café, as well as donuts, kettle corn, and merchandise. The maze also helps drives traffic to Mike’s nearby farmstand.

I believe that anything that gets people out to visit a farm and brings in additional revenue is pretty aMAZEing, don’t you?

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2 Responses to The aMAZEing Things Farmers Must Do to Survive

  1. Tammy says:

    Great post. I am interested in exploring this idea of agritourism to see what is working.

  2. Thanks, Tammy. I’ll email you my notes. Fascinating stuff.

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