Ken and Barb Hall can certainly speak confidently on the subject of farm marketing. Ever since Barb’s parents opened Edwards Apple Orchard in Poplar Grove, IL, in the 1960s, the success of the farm has been dictated by its ability to maintain a regular base of customers year after year.
As owners of Edwards Apple Orchard, the Halls have spoken at several industry meetings, including the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable & Farm Market Expo and the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Conference, about their experiences in running a successful farm market destination. So why has it worked so well? We recently asked Ken Hall that question, and he boils it down to five principles he and Barb swear by as keys to their success.
(Note: We actually asked Hall about what works for them in farm marketing, and what doesn’t work for them. He admittedly shied away from the latter question for two reasons. First, as an eternal optimist, he likes to focus on the positives. Second, and more importantly, he emphasizes that what doesn’t work for one farm may actually work very well for another.)
1. Business Culture And Personality
No one ever told the Halls they had to sit down and think about what their business culture should be; it’s just that over time they realized the reason certain things work well for them is because they reflect the culture they are trying to develop. “Everything we do is an attempt to fit that culture,” says Hall. “Some of it comes from the owners, some comes from the employees, and the rest comes from your customers.” For example, Hall says they have made the decision not to sell soft drinks, instead offering cider, lemonade, and water. “With every product we offer, we ask if it fits who we are.”
This goes hand in hand with your business culture, says Hall. “Your employees will almost always reflect the personality of your business. We make a real effort to find people who fit in every sense we can.” Ken credits his wife Barb with having the ability to identify and hire people who fit the farm’s culture. “That’s not easy to do,
but fortunately she has a double-dose of people skills,” he says.
One of the benefits of hiring employees you are confident in, says Hall, is that you can then empower them to make their own decisions. To help foster this empowerment, Ken writes a daily newsletter that is distributed to all employees. The newsletter includes anything from apple varieties available in the market that day, to announcing a live bluegrass band performance, and even to making note of an employee’s birthday. “The newsletter helps all of us stay connected and informed,” says Hall.
Hall also cites an example of something that would not work for his farm. He recently visited a market where the cashier who waited on him had a nose ring, blue hair, and was chewing gum. “For someone who is the first person you meet when you visit, she would not have been a fit for us,” he says. In other words, employee appearance should match your farm’s image.
“We try not to do more things than we are capable of,” says Hall. “We try to do fewer things, and do them well.” For example, Edwards Apple Orchard often has few items on its store shelves, but the products it does carry are featured in big displays. “We don’t add anything without knowing if it’s sustainable for us, and if we can meet the demand for it.”
Another example of keeping things simple is entertainment farming. Whereas other farms might feature a wide variety of attractions, Edwards Apple Orchard is positioned more as a typical farm market, with wagon rides, a farm museum, and occasional live music performances on Saturdays and Sundays.
According to Hall, keeping things simple also means not growing too fast. “Every business starts out on a smaller scale, and moves up,” says Hall. “Growing slowly will build a lot stronger business than trying to do it all overnight.”
“Part of what makes us authentic and unique is that, unlike a box store, there isn’t one of us in every town around the country,” says Hall. With the local food wave continuing to gain steam, this gives farmers an even greater chance to highlight their uniqueness. The key, says Hall, is having a story to tell, and knowing how to tell it. “When people come to your market, it’s important to tell that story of who you are and why you are different.”
Hall’s best example of this hits very close to home. In January 2008, a freak tornado left much of the farm’s old buildings in ruins. “At first, we didn’t know how to put it all back together again.” However, the storm may have been a blessing in disguise. While rebuilding, Ken and Barb chose to replace the old barns and buildings with even older ones, at least on the outside. While the wiring and plumbing was modernized to meet current codes, the buildings that enclosed them maintained a historic tone. Such was also the case with a willow tree that needed to be replaced near the entrance.
This is one trait that separates farm markets from just about any other type of retailer, including the produce section at a grocery store. “You can only get our Galas when we have them,” says Hall, “and you have to come back for another visit if you want another variety such as Honeycrisp.” This creates a natural demand if there is a dedicated customer base. “Part of why seasonality works is that products are simply scarce,” says Hall, who notes this scarcity can be more than just a limited window for availability. For example, he says that when the farm started putting a limit on the number of donuts that could be purchased, almost everyone bought whatever the limit was. “We joke sometimes that we should raise the limit from a dozen to four dozen on slow days,” he says.
Edwards Apple Orchard is only open for 14 weeks a year, from mid to late August until Thanksgiving. Not only does this create seasonal demand, it also helps reduce employee burnout, as well as employee conflict.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of seasonality is that “we have a chance to reinvent ourselves every year.” After they close for the season, says Hall, they tear down all the displays and empty the store. Extra food is given to employees or goes to the Second Harvest food distribution network. “This way, we can reinvent by completely rebuilding the following season with a fresh look.”
Setting The Tone
There are a couple additional tips that did not make Ken Hall’s top five suggestions, but can be considered just as important. One of them is what farm retail consultant John Stanley refers to as “atmospherics,” or the sights, sounds, and smells of your store that reach the senses of your customers. “We work on that a lot,” says Hall, whether it’s the smell of the bakery or the music playing in the market. One other example of this is an old willow tree that was lost during a tornado in 2008. The architect assisting in the rebuilding efforts asked Hall if he was going to plant another tree. Hall wavered for a bit, until the architect pointed out that a visit to Edwards Apple Orchard wasn’t official until you drove under the willow tree as you entered. Heeding these words, the tree was replanted soon after.
Another more basic suggestion from Hall is to make sure you have a business partner who loves their job as much as you do. “So much of what works for us is the partnership Barb and I have,” says Hall.