Building A Business Takes More Than Buzzwords
The caller exclaimed, “I want to start a sustainable, organic, hydroponic vegetable, vertical urban rooftop aquaculture farm. I need your help. Oh yeah, it’s going to be an agritourism destination too, ‘cause I want to get people in here to learn about where their food comes from! What do you think?”
Enthusiastic would be an understatement. Whether he had a clue about growing or marketing fresh produce was an unknown.
“Whoa! Slow down a bit,” I responded. “I think you’ve hit every hot button that would hook someone’s attention, but whether you can make it work or not is another question.”
As I chuckled to myself, I thought, “Darn. He forgot my favorite: ‘artisan,’ but McDonald’s has recently announced their new artisan grilled sandwich line, so I guess that was covered.”
True story, but seriously, a marketing plan that includes every currently popular catch phrase is going to raise more red flags than interest in a business proposal. While the caller claimed to have the backing of some well-off supporters, his proposal was facing a bit more skepticism at the municipal offices where he needed several permit approvals before proceeding.
Nuance Versus Niche
Random House’s online dictionary defines “nuance” as “a subtle difference or distinction in expression, meaning, response, etc.” At the same site, multiple meanings of the word “niche” are listed, but in marketing, it is a noun describing “a distinct segment of a market,” or an adjective suggesting “pertaining to or intended for a distinct market segment, or having specific appeal.”
All fruits and vegetables are considered specialty crops. Whether targeting those crops for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, or unique production equipment, agricultural supply companies consider them niche markets. A produce grower gets a nuanced pitch targeting the unique needs of each fruit or vegetable compared to what a grain or livestock farmer will hear. Likewise, when that produce grower sells at a community farmers market, the discussion is going to be subtly different than when calling a broker or chain store buyer to buy a truck load of the same crop.
Organic, hydroponic, urban agriculture, agritourism — these all appeal to market niches which may or may not overlap. While the caller correctly perceived a demand for each of these types of products, he did not understand the subtle differences required to respond to each distinct market segment, nor how to explain to the municipal officials how he planned to capitalize on them.
The Importance Of Market Size
Just how big does a niche market need to be to support a business?
Another true story: In a recent query on the HARO network (HelpAReporter.com), a freelance writer researching an upcoming article for Vegetarian Times asked for leads to agritourism farms catering to vegetarian/vegan consumers. In offering to put her in touch with the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association (farmersinspired.com), she indicated she had “found a great spot in Canada and [was] running down several in Italy. So far nothing stateside.”
The original query stated she was looking for “three to four agritourism destinations where guests can stay and participate in activities (working farms, orchards, and the like) in the U.S., Canada, or Europe that cater to vegetarians.” Specifically, they “must serve strictly vegetarian cuisine, [and/or] have on-site activities — milking goats or picking vegetables, cooking or craft lessons or cheese making (preferably without animal rennet).”
How small a niche is that? I could only think of a few CSA operations that likely would have a high percentage of vegetarian customers, but not that cater exclusively to them. On the other hand, I’ve had serious conversations with one of my growers about turning his high tunnel into an exercise and health spa. It’s certainly as warm and humid as any sauna, and if he could hook up a stationary bike to a water pump, clients could water the plants they would be eating while getting some exercise, too.
The real answer to developing a niche market comes in pushing a pencil and crunching some numbers to see if the potential for a profitable business makes any sense at all. I’m looking forward to reading about “some great vegan/vegetarian only farm stays” to see if they’ve built a business on more than buzzwords.