There’s little incentive to be a farmer these days. Unless you’re destined to be a third-generation dairy farmer or someone who has always aspired to work land and livestock, the outlook is fairly bleak. Farming requires long hours, little stability, and little financial payoff. We’re facing a future where all of our food comes from mega-farms run by massive corporations.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? Not if it were done the right way, but watching five minutes of Food Inc. gives you a small view of how things can go awry. Mistreatment of animals, a myriad of pesticides, untold ecological and geological damage — large scale agriculture is fraught with issues, but they become easy to ignore with benefits like abundance and low cost.
Small scale, local food is usually grown/raised with care, far fresher, and naturally pairs with ecological diligence. Oh, and it tastes far better. But there’s a cost here. Relatively speaking, you’d save far more money shopping at a grocery store over a farmer’s market.
A product that’s nearly double the cost needs to be “sold.” There needs to be salesmanship for it to make sense. It needs a story.
So outside of face time at the farmer’s market, what’s a farmer to do? How can they get the word out that their food is worth your hard-earned money? And how can they run their farm as the business it is and ensure they’re sufficiently marketable while turning a profit?
I am joining my good friend John Suscovich at his company, Farm Marketing Solutions, leading strategy and marketing. The current mission statement for FMS is “to help further the slow food movement by educating farmers and consumers on the production and business of small scale agriculture.” But essentially, our goal is to help small farmers sell themselves and achieve a sustainable business.
John’s recent history includes lighting design for the Howard Stern show and biking across the country with his wife, Kate, but he’s now “settled down” as the farm manager at Camps Road Farm in Kent, CT. The farm is part of a business called The Food Cycle, which also includes a brewery and distillery. The idea is the farm can grow ingredients like hops and apples, which are then turned into beer and brandy, the sales of which ultimately further fund the farm. In addition to crops, the farm also produces organic eggs and chicken and plans to introduce sheep, pigs, and ducks this year.
So John is a full-time farmer, which is a key part of our ability to make this work. He’s in the trenches on a daily basis providing us with a sense of empathy for farmers, but more importantly, lending credibility to our mission. As a digital product manager, I couldn’t be further from fulfilling this purpose, but as a team, we feel we can start making some big strides.
We have our work cut out for us. The FMS presence is currently spread over the website, the podcast, and a litany of social networks. Part of my role is to come in and make sense of all this, through broad strategic direction, but also granular analytical insight. Once we have a picture of how things have been working so far, we can aim to focus on the channels that work the best, for us and our readers. The site could use a redesign and we could benefit from some social focus, but overall we think we have a solid base on which to build.
I also hope to introduce some product management methodology into the way we approach our work. We’re going to have a roadmap and backlog, working in two-week sprints, and we’ve introduce some great tools into our workflow; most notably Slack, but also things like Google Docs and Trello. We’ll incorporate minimally viable product (MVP) thinking, continual iteration, and increased transparency with our readers.
And on the topic of transparency, one initiative we’re particularly excited about is the Farm Finance Challenge, where Camps Road Farm and 12 other American farms will be posting monthly financials. This will be a great way to encourage small farmers to better incorporate fiscal responsibility in their businesses and provide non-farmers with a perspective on how difficult it is to stay profitable in this business.
So why am I doing this? Because ultimately, I believe in it. I believe it’s to everyone’s benefit to have a better idea of where their food comes from. I believe farmers shouldn’t need to sacrifice their well-being and be forced into a life of continual financial hardship. But mostly, I believe in playing a small part in ensuring a future of ecological sustainability.
I’m certain some FMS stuff will find its way into my personal Twitter feed, as well as into conversation, both at my job at Victoria’s Secret and in my personal life. So if you’re ever interested, feel free to ask. We have the usual mix of social handles/site/email newsletter, so you can also follow along there.
I’m excited about 2015.