In Small Fruits Extraordinaire, we learned about Erin Schneider and Rob McClure, who own Hilltop Community Farm in LaValle, Wisconsin. Their small-scale farm markets produce through a CSA and artisanal restaurants. In 2011, the couple along with two other farmers received a SARE grant to research direct marketing of non-traditional fruits: hardy kiwi, currants, honeyberry, aronia, American elderberry, Russian quince, saskatoons, and seaberry. In collaboration with other Wisconsin farmers, they showed that hardy kiwi, currants, Russian quince, and saskatoons grow well in Wisconsin and have good market potential, while aronia, American elderberry and seaberry would be better for processing. Now we’ll focus on their market research and customer education efforts to learn more about the commercial potential of these crops.
Marketing Research Highlights
The project was initiated because of a demand for more fruit, but lack of information about specialty berries. Hilltop’s customers had expressed a desire to see more fruit in their CSA boxes. At the same time, Rob and Erin had a need to grow and raise more sustainable fruit choices, which would be resistant to insect pressure and able to withstand typical Wisconsin winters. Last winter, the young fruit and berry orchard got a true test with an extremely long cold winter; all the fruit crops had an excellent survival rate.
Marketing these unusual fruits required more complicated messaging which they chose to address through a combination of focus groups, tastings, celebratory events, and classes. This approach was quite effective in raising customer awareness and building a market.
A marketing survey, completed by 65 participants, generated quite a bit of useful information. One of the key insights from the survey was that involving people through education and allowing them to sample the product will increase their interest and allow farmers to charge more for their product.
“People are willing to pay more if you engage them through a tasting and tell your story,” said Erin Schneider.
For example, before any marketing efforts had been made, survey participants stated that they would be willing to pay $4-6 per product. After the tasting and education efforts, participants were willing to pay $7-9 per product.
Survey participants also indicated that they were more interested in the concepts of local agriculture and supporting family farms than they were in purchasing organic products, though this was also a consideration.
As part of the grant, Erin and Rob conducted many different outreach events to increase awareness and garner feedback for the new berry crops. Here’s a sampler of the kinds of
activities they engaged in. Marketing new crops requires a substantial investment of time and energy. Since 2011, they have engaged over 600 farm friends, fellow farmers, CSA members, and others in everything from planting the orchard to providing input.
Focused discussions and tastings
These consisted of a number of different activities, mostly consumers such as CSA members and farmer’s market customers. Topics of discussion included brainstorming on ways to use fruits and feedback on price points.
Erin and her partners from the grant program taught several classes to different groups, including a workshop at the Midwest Value Added Agriculture Conference (2012), the Women Food and Agriculture Conference (2013), as well as a poster presentation at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference (2014).
Erin and Rob hosted “Currant Events: Growing Fruit, Building Community” during July of 2012, 2013, and 2014. Fruit and product tastings and cooking demonstrations were the focal point, with orchard tours, music, and social time rounding out the mix of activities. The event was featured in an episode of “Around the Farm Table” on Wisconsin public television.
Linking with other farmers
A number of other farmers provided assistance with events, such as Ian Aley of Living Earth Community Farm. Around 30% of program participants were farmers, and several have shown an interest in adopting the new crops.
An investment of time in marketing and education yielded a payback in increased sales. In 2013, Hilltop Community Farm realized a 48% increase in fresh fruit sales, and a 21% increase in value added products produced on the farm. Their customer base increased by 18%, and they added two new restaurant accounts. During early 2014, “farm currantcy” generated $650 in advance sales. The coupon allowed people to purchase different fruit products available by preorder. Erin and Rob have an easier time pricing their product because of the cost of production models that were created as part of the project.
In a CSA marketplace where customers have an increasing number of choices for farms with a diverse product base, new and different fruits have proved to be a strong selling point.
“Fruit has helped us carve our niche,” said Erin Schneider.
Advice for new growers
• If you are trying to establish a market for new specialty crops, you can expect to spend 25% more time on research and educating customers about your product.
• It’s good to remain flexible, to be open to adaptation and change as you negotiate your way through establishing a new customer base and market for the product.
• Before you make health claims about your products, make sure you can back them up. The data is out there, but the jury’s still out on the health benefits of specialty fruits.
• Make sure you have the fruit sold before you pick any berries. The shelf life of these berries is a little longer than raspberries or strawberries, but not as long as tree fruits.
• Ask for help with research. Erin received invaluable assistance from a librarian at the University of Wisconsin business school.
• Track your data, and if you can’t make a profit, don’t do it.
• For classes and events, find a group to partner with which can help to advertise the event and connect with customers.
Fruit Profitability Calculator
This is an Excel based model, based on a similar effort led by the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry Research and developed for elderberries. The calculator shows a return on investment for different experimental fruits and their inputs including labor.
SARE Final Report
“Forest Gardening: Growing a Community for Your Orchard” in USDA’s Inside Agroforestry http://192.168.1.1:8181/http://nac.unl.edu/documents/insideagroforestry/IA_vol22issue2_interactive.pdf
Erika Jensen is a freelance writer in Waupun, Wisconsin.