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I read with pleasure that small specialty farms are a growing business in Maine. There were three reasons this story interested me: first I’m a foodie; secondly, any business news that’s upbeat is welcome; and finally, I thought there were good lessons for all types of small business owners.

Highlights of the report

The story I read in the Portland Press Herald was a re-cap of The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s five-year Census of Agriculture. And the statistics for Maine are showing growth and an optimistic future. Some highlights include:

  • The number of farms in Maine increased by 13 percent, to 8,136, from 2002 to 2007
  • Maine farms recorded $617 million in sales in 2007, up 33 percent from 2002
  • More farmers are selling directly to consumers, via farm stands and farmers’ markets, and direct to restaurants—these numbers increased by 17 percent
  • These direct-to-consumer sales totaled $18 million, up 50 percent when adjusted for inflation

What is driving this change?

There is a growing demand for organic food nationwide and it is a particularly strong movement in Maine. According to the census, the number of organic farms rose 139 percent. Locavores are seeking out food grown and produced close to home which means there is a specific market for Maine food. And of course, farmers in every corner of the US should be able to use this niche to their favor.

There is money to be made. “Our customers are paying a premium price for milk because they know how we treat and care for the animals,” says dairy farmer Jim Stampone. According to the Press Herald: “More farmers, who once were grossing $1,000, are now bringing in incomes between $10,000 and $50,000,” said Jane Aiudi, director of market and production development at the Maine Department of Agriculture.

These farmers are using branding

And I’m not just referring to those searing hot metal brands used by ranchers. The success of small scale farming is a branding success story as well. These farmers are no longer just selling crops as a commodity. They have taken themselves out of the large agricultural industry and built individually-recognized farms.

Each farmer is building an identity based on: who they are are, where they are, the ethics of their business (ie how they treat their animals, how they grow their food), and the quality of their product. This identity is fused into their customers mind by actually meeting the farmer at the farm stand or at the market.

What we can learn

In the warmer months, I frequent Portland’s twice-a-week farmers market. I buy CSA shares from Fishbowl Farm and fill out my food needs from the other farmers at the market. A few things I’ve noticed:

  • Farmers don’t have time to worry and fuss over their identities, so they tend to do it once and stick with it. They’ve got a name and a logo and that is that; don’t go changing what’s working.
  • Farmers are frugal, so they build their farmers market booth with reusable and hardworking materials. They keep the same truck, the same sign, and the same display cases working for years. Again this builds consistency and shows the personality traits of a successful farmer.
  • Working the fields and getting prepared for market are time intensive, so the details of getting set up need to be quick and easy. Many of them have chalkboards or wipe-off labels that can be easily updated as price and offerings change. This is should be the thought process for any small business owner: build it once, update it indefinitely.

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