ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Growing vegetables and milking cows are some of the things that come naturally to farmers.
To help them with some other aspects of their business that may not be so familiar and routine, there was a gathering this weekend at the Schoodic Education and Research Center of Acadia National Park.
Marketing was the main focus of the first-ever Maine Farmers’ Market Convention, which was put on by the Down East Business Alliance. More than 80 people attended the convention on Friday and Saturday to learn how to market their products and themselves, and about more-technical issues such as electronic monetary transfers and licensing for food production and sales.
They also got a chance to rub elbows with each other. Aside from the topical group sessions, attendees were expected to eat locally produced foods at the convention’s Sunday lunch and to trade war stories at a fireside gathering Saturday evening.
“There’s plenty of need for this kind of thing,” Mark Guzzi of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont said during Saturday’s lunch break. “You just can’t rest on your laurels.”
Aside from Guzzi, who spoke about his experiences as chairman of the Orono Farmers’ Market, attendees also heard from Greg Franklin, a Lebanon, N.H.-based consultant who helps out at his brother’s dairy farm. Franklin told attendees that farmers who directly retail their products can help promote themselves better just by talking to and getting to know their customers.
Through these direct interactions, farmers can emphasize their connections to the local community and the customers can learn more about the farmers and their farms and animals. This, in turn, will help garner a local following for that farm’s produce, he said.
“Your story is your marketing,” Franklin said. “Word-of-mouth marketing continues to be the most effective.”
Steve Miller, a consultant from Cornell, N.Y., talked to attendees about how to brand farmers markets with logos. He also said there are research data on the Internet, from the Down East Sustainable Tourism Initiative and at Wacobiz.com, that Maine farmers can use to promote themselves during the summer.
“Tourists that are here for a weekend or a week generally tend not to spend that much [money at Maine farmers markets],” he said. Tourists who stay for a month or more, he added, “tend to buy a lot more than people who are here for shorter periods.”
Jim Nichols of Stockton Springs, who grew up on a farm outside of Lansing, Mich., is a carpenter by trade but is trying to expand his home garden so he can open a roadside garden stand. He said Saturday that he would like eventually to team up with other growers in his area to start a Stockton Springs farmers market.
Nichols said he was hoping to network at the convention but also is interested in learning about accepting different types of electronic and public assistance payments and marketing through social networking sites such as Twitter. But his more immediate goal, he said, is just earning a little bit more pocket money.
“That’s in the future for me,” Nichols said of using technology to boost his produce sales.
Guzzi said that some of the challenges of running farmers markets are recruiting and managing market members. Farmers who participate in such markets need to stay on top of the marketing side of their businesses, he said, so they can expand their customer base and stay abreast of consumer demands.
For smaller farms, direct marketing and sales will have long-term importance to farmers’ livelihoods, according to Guzzi.
“Years ago, it was just fruits and veggies at the market,” he said. “Now, you can [also] get milk, meat, eggs and seafood. We’ve got to keep increasing the customer base.”
The convention concluded Sunday afternoon. More information about farmers market programs and resources is available at www.downeastbiz.org.