On a warm, sunny day in late May, Jon Brenckle and Bev Green of Brenckle Farms in Hartville, OH, sat down to discuss how their farm has changed over the years and how they have made adjustments to remain profitable in an evolving marketplace.
Established in the 1940s, the farm sells the bulk of its fresh produce to grocery store chains. Brenckle is a fourth-generation grower, who still works side by side with his father Tom. In addition to his father and Green (his aunt), Brenckle works with his sister Amy (Brenckle), who helps out with sales at the local farmers market, a new venture for the farm.
To adapt to the marketplace, the farm has had to adjust its crop lineup when necessary. “We have seen our lettuce acreage dwindle a little bit,” explains Brenckle. “Consumer eating patterns have become erratic. Some years you see certain crops kind of die down and there is less demand for a few items, but then two to three years later, interest picks up. It is a ch
So how does the farm determine what vegetables to grow from year to year? According to Brenckle, yearly sales data generally indicates what should be planted. Nevertheless, he says there is always concern about overproduction.
“If there is no demand for an item it doesn’t matter what you charge for it, it’s not going to sell,” explains Brenckle. “You hope you get enough sales data together so you can see trends on what is selling.”
Offering a wide variety of produce, Brenckle Farms grows radishes, green onions, sweet corn, zucchini, yellow squash, curly and plain parsley, cilantro, green bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, and different types of lettuces, such as red and green leaf and Romaine. The Brenckles grow on about 150 acres and sometimes double crop some of the short-season vegetables to produce on about 250 acres.
Capitalizing On Locally Grown
Heeding the old saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” and seeing the trend toward locally grown, Brenckle decided it was a no-brainer for the farm to participate in an inaugural farmers market last year in nearby Alliance. “Over the last couple of years, ‘buy local’ has been an important marketing aspect,” says Brenckle. “Consumers want to know where their produce is coming from. That was one of the reasons we opted to get involved in the Alliance Farmers Market.”
According to Green, who is in charge of Brenckle’s farm stand at the market, they began their venture last season simply by bringing what they thought they could sell. “You never know if people are going to try it,” she adds.
The market is held in downtown Alliance, which Green says is off the beaten path. The location was chosen to help revitalize the area. Last year, the market was open on Saturdays in the summer and early fall from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“The first couple of Saturdays we sold out and had to come back to the farm for more produce,” she recalls. “I requested a change of location [at the market] so I could bring a refrigerated truck. That way everything stayed cool, we had better quality of product, and I didn’t have to waste anything.”
Green, who is the former mayor of Hartville, attributes the success of the market last year to plenty of publicity. Radio promotions and newspaper advertisements were used to entice consumers to patronize the market, and students from nearby Mount Union College set up the market each week as part of a community service project.
The Retro Look
Green says the market setup she opted for to showcase the farm’s offerings included tents with awnings and tables covered with tablecloths. “I went back to what the old market stand was in the ’50s and ’60s,” she says. “I used gingham pink-and-white checkered tablecloths and displayed the vegetables in baskets. I also made sure my signs with prices were very visible.”
Some of the other farms participating in the market simply set their produce on tables. “I wanted to keep my produce from drying out,” she explains. “That is why I put up the awnings.”
Last year, the farmers market consisted of a handful of local growers and other vendors. This year, more farmers are participating.
“The more the better,” says Green about the increased number of vendors. Now more than ever, she says consumers want a place to do “one-stop shopping.” This year, market vendors also will have access to water and electricity, which will allow them to expand their offerings.
In addition, the market will host food demonstrations. And like last year, Green says live entertainment will be provided.
On top of the Alliance Farmers Market, this season Brenckle Farms also will sell produce at another new farmers market in the area. This spot is located near soccer fields, says Green.
The new market will be open on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. The day and hours, says Green, are to entice potential shoppers as they drop off and pick up their kids at soccer camps and practices.
According to Brenckle, the local farmers markets also are another way to garner publicity for the farm and get its name in the public eye.
“We offer quality produce sold at a reasonable price,” he concludes. “Last year, we had customers who came back to shop each week. I told them that if they didn’t like something to bring it back and I’d give them a refund.”
A Different Kind Of Shopper
After participating in a farmers market for the first time, Bev Green and Jon Brenckle of Brenckle Farms in Hartville, OH, learned that those who shop in the
grocery store aren’t necessarily the same shoppers at the farmers market.
For example, most grocery store shoppers want a specific size and color of tomato, explains Brenckle. At the farmers market, however, different sizes of virtually any type of produce can easily be sold. “We can easily sell smaller peppers,” he says. “The people who shop at a farmers market don’t expect a perfectly shaped fruit.”
These shoppers also are interested in a wide array of produce. “When I had fresh carrots and beets, [the customers] went crazy,” says Brenckle. “People also were asking for bibb lettuce, kale, and collards, and they wanted recipes to learn how to prepare these vegetables.”
The farmers market shoppers also expressed an interest in Brenckle’s canning tomatoes. “The chain stores would never even think of taking them,” he adds.
Right now, the crops sold at the market are just a small portion of what Brenckle Farms produces. Thanks to requests from market patrons, however, Brenckle says he planted a little more yellow corn this year than he would have because some customers have requested it for freezing.