Cultivating the customers

Marketing: Howard County farmers hope to take advantage of a growing interest in their products.

April 18, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

This spring, while farmers are tending crops of lettuce, broccoli, strawberries and onions, they are also seeking ways to cultivate customers.

In Howard County, that means the start of several direct-marketing strategies. The county farmers' market will open again next month and add a new location in June. Howard County Growers LLP is taking applications for its subscription service. And the county Economic Development Authority has two new ways to get children interested in local farms: barnyard coloring books and a teachers' guide to farm field trips.

According to a survey last year by the authority, there is a distinct trend in the county toward direct-marketing efforts. Pressure from development was identified as the top problem facing county farms, but the growing customer base was seen as the most important opportunity.

Getting individuals to buy items at a farmers' market, pick-your-own operation or roadside stand means more profit for the growers, which helps offset the high cost of farming in the county, said Ginger Myers, agricultural marketing specialist at the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Statewide, more than 60 farmers' markets were operated last year, with at least one in every Maryland county and Baltimore City, according to the state Department of Agriculture. A survey by the department showed that in 2002 Maryland markets involved 526 vendors and took in an estimated $7.1 million.

The farmers' market will return May 4 to Mount Pisgah AME Church on Cedar Fern Court in Columbia, where it will be open from 2:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays. The market will be at the east Columbia library on Cradlerock Way during the same hours Thursdays, starting May 6.

A grand-opening celebration will be held at the east Columbia library location June 3, said David Shaw, a Columbia farmer and market manager. Next month, vendors will be at the market locations with plants, hanging baskets of flowers, spring greens, strawberries and apples.

This year, the market will also operate from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays at the Glenwood library. It will open there June 12 and close Sept. 18.

A Saturday market seemed like a good way to draw more customers, said R.J. Caulder, who makes homemade soaps and other products in West Friendship and manages the Saturday market. "A lot of people are working during the times of the other markets," she said.

Susan Stonesifer, the library's manager, was eager to get the market started at her location. She said that on her commute from Rockville, she would see plenty of fields along Route 97 but no farmers' markets.

She collected more than 400 surveys from customers indicating "this would be just the perfect place," she said.

Another way to reach customers directly is through a subscription service, in which customers pay up front and receive a portion of produce or other goods each week.

Shaw's Farm has its own subscription-based operation - commonly called a CSA, for Community Supported Agriculture - as does Jasmine Farm in Glenwood. Caulder is starting such a service for her soaps, jams and other products.

Two years ago, several farms joined to form a group subscription service known as the Howard County Growers.

The Growers are taking applications and hope to get 125 subscribers. Participants pay $450 up front and pick up a cooler of fresh farm items - including vegetables, bread, cut flowers and herbs - at one of three locations every week for 16 weeks.

The combination of providers "worked really well because we were all a little different," said Linda Brown, owner of Triadelphia Lake View Farms in Glenelg. When the weather - which was particularly rainy and difficult for growers last year - meant one farmer didn't have a particular crop, another was usually able to fill the gap, she said.

This year, a new participant, Falcon Ridge farm in Brookeville, will add more fruit to the mix of items, Brown said.

Two efforts this month by the Economic Development Authority are targeted to customers of the future. That office is producing a coloring book full of local farm scenes that is intended to be a marketing tool and a reference for residents.

Farmers sent in photographs of fields, cows, horses, emus and other agriculture scenes, and Todd R. Hampson, of TNT Studio in Crofton, converted them into line illustrations. The text describes individual farms and farming trends and offers facts about Howard County agriculture, along with coupons and a map.

"We try to really tell a story in the book," said Myers.

The department will distribute 10,000 copies of the book at the farmers' markets, the county fair and tourist sites. Multiple copies are available to groups upon request.

The office also wants to encourage school groups to visit Howard County farms and has developed a resource guide to make it easier for teachers to plan such trips.

"We want to show them how visiting farms will meet standards of learning and still be fun," Myers said.

A booklet outlining the activities at particular farms and how they tie in with school curricula will be sent to teachers and homeschool parents shortly, Myers said. It will also have instructions on finding and contacting local farms and tips for teachers and parents on having a successful trip.

Myers said her office focuses on supporting local agriculture, but its efforts benefit children, as well.

Many children have no idea where their food comes from, she said. "A lot of kids have no contact [with farms] any more."

Information: Economic Development Authority, 410-313-6500, or the Howard County Growers, 410-489-0139.

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