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Market planning – now’s the time

By Bob Mailander

Farmers and ranchers are getting started with the spring production cycle – new baby calves, a flush of light green across the pastures, winter wheat sending up new tillers and the smell of freshly turned earth. Equipment is being greased and readied for use. A thousand details must be organized and plans readied if the growing season is to get off to a good start. And above all, the weather is foremost on our minds. With planning and some luck, thoughts of abundant harvests occupy our thoughts.

But in this frenzy of activity, have we forgotten a major part of the yearly puzzle? Have we put together our marketing plan that will provide the cash flow needed to cover costs and provide a profit? It is not only the mix of crops that must be considered but also marketing channels and market timing.

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union (RMFU) Cooperative Development Center has supported a number of activities this year focused on taking advantage of producer marketing power. In order to become more than a ‘price taker’, producers must invest time and resources into becoming ‘price makers’. This process involves planning not only for this year, but for long-term production, financing and marketing strategies.

Two conferences focused on marketing were held recently in Durango and Alamosa, Colo. Each was an effort to acquaint producers with available resources as well as successful examples from other producers and cooperatives. Each was an opportunity to analyze one’s current operations and to examine new options for increasing effectiveness in marketing their products.

The Southwest Marketing Network Conference (SWMN) was held on March 31 through April 1 in Durango, Colo., with over 140 participants. The goal of the SWMN is to ensure that new, existing, and prospective producers—especially small-scale, alternative, and minority producers—have connections with others, technical and financial assistance, marketing information, business and marketing skills, and peer examples needed to improve their marketing success as a means of improving their profitability, viability and quality of life.

The SWMN has partners who are dedicated to community-based food systems. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Risk Management Agency (RMA) provide funding to this project as well as tools that directly benefit the farmers, ranchers, organizations and agencies involved.

A good partner, the Kellogg Foundation’s Food and Society initiative is based on a vision of a local food system for all segments of society. A local food system provides safe and nutritious food grown in a manner that protects health and the environment and adds economic and social value to rural and urban communities. The foundation is focused on partnering to support farmers and ranchers producing and marketing their products to consumers, either directly or through restaurants, grocery stores and other local venues.

The RMA supports the SWMN’s objectives to develop lasting connections between farmers and ranchers and producer groups, agencies, organizations and others involved in marketing in the Southwest. RMA provides a comprehensive education program that helps producers understand and make effective use of risk management tools and strategies, and to integrate them into their business, personal and community goals.

The second conference was held in Alamosa on April 2 and brought together four regional cooperatives that are marketing produce, fruits and meats for their members. Each of these groups has a different strategy and structure to access the type of markets that fit the product mix and delivery options of their members.

The featured presenter was Chris Fullerton, manager of the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative (TOG), Three Springs, Pa. In the past ten seasons, Fullerton has helped steer the co-op through a steady expansion in sales, an aggressive diversification of crops, and a lengthening of the harvest and sales season (to the full calendar year). He shared insights from TOG’s history as an emerging farmer cooperative until today when it is a successfully established marketer of specialty produce and fruit products with customers in most of the large urban areas of the Northeast. “Nothing beats sitting down with seasoned practitioners like Chris Fullerton,” said Dan Hobbs, manager of the Tres Rios Cooperative, Pueblo, Colo. “He understands the challenges that face us in cooperative development.”

These are exactly the lessons that emerging cooperatives need to address.