Message to farmers: It’s about marketing

EVERETT — What can an insurance ad guy tell local farmers about surviving in an industry dominated by factory farms and corporate titans such as Monsanto and ADM?

“It’s the voice of the customer that really matters,” Rod Brooks, PEMCO Insurance’s chief marketing officer, said shortly before delivering the keynote address at the Focus on Farming Conference earlier this week at Comcast Arena.

Differentiate your product and get customers talking to each other about it, he said.

That is the basic idea behind PEMCO’s “Northwest Profiles” ad campaign, which helped the regional insurance company compete with the industry’s national powerhouses, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars on marketing.

The funny and on-point profiles highlighted some of the Pacific Northwest’s quirky personalities, such as the “goat renter guy” and “blue-tarp campers.” They got people talking about PEMCO, which could back up consumers’ newfound interest in the company with quality services comparably priced to its competitors, he said.

That approach can help local farms succeed in the modern marketplace, Brooks said. “How are you going to talk about your farm in a way that is remarkable?”

Not being a farmer, he didn’t have any immediate answers, Brooks said.

Perhaps it is as simple as marketing a farm as the one with the blue barn, not the red one. Or advertising that you will donate a penny to the local school district for every potato you sell and calling it “pennies for potatoes.”

The goal is to get customers talking to each other about your product, Brooks said.

There are three steps to accomplishing that, according to Brooks:

  • Know who would talk about your product.

  • Give them something to talk about.

  • Make it easy to access and share, which could mean starting a Facebook fan page or advertising on the side of your delivery van.

Swan Trails Farms is already setting itself apart with its fall festival and direct marketing to consumers.

Owners Ben and Carol Krause have learned to adapt to survive. They bought the farm, which sits on 125 acres about four miles west of Snohomish, in 1984, when it was still operating as a dairy farm.

“That was our whole plan — keep milking cows,” Ben Krause said.

Thin and tall with weathered features, Krause looks like a farmer from central casting.

But dairy farming has largely left Puget Sound for the arid climate and open spaces of Central and Eastern Washington, where farms have thousands of cows on thousands of acres.

Now, the Krauses grow sweet corn, apples and pumpkins, and host events from weddings to company lunches to a huge fall festival that draws people from as far as Seattle and beyond.

Swan Trails’ u-pick pumpkin patch is the centerpiece of a fall festival during which the Krauses bring on more than 100 employees. The event includes duck races — yes, duck races — apple doughnuts, a giant corn maze in the shape of Washington and a pig show, which Krause emcees.

It’s hardly pastoral American agriculture, but it is something much more important — profitable.

“You need to create a memorable experience,” Krause said.

At the same time, the Krauses also sell some of their produce to Whole Foods, a relationship which Snohomish County’s Linda Neunzig helped line up.

Neunzig is the county’s agriculture coordinator, and a farmer herself. She runs Ninety Farms in Arlington, where she raises cattle, chickens and lambs.

She helped organize the first Focus on Farming conference 10 years ago, when the conservation centered around preserving farmland, reducing regulations for farmers and making farming attractive to the next generation.

A decade later, Snohomish County’s farms are producing higher-value crops on more acreage, and “the kids are coming back to farms,” Neunzig said. “It’s all on the rise.”

It isn’t clear exactly how much things have improved, though.

County officials will have numbers by early next year that could shed light, after they finish their own agricultural survey and the U.S. Census Bureau releases a periodic farm census.

The interest in local produce is customer driven, Neunzig said. “People choose with their dollars.” More and more “people want to know where their food came from and who grew it.”

Local farmers are optimistic about the future, too.

Snohomish County, which sponsors Focus on Farming, has worked to ease regulations, allowing farmers to try new things, such as put in wedding facilities, said Don Bailey of Bailand Farms just south of Snohomish.

His great-grandfather started the farm in 1913, and his grandfather expanded it into a full-time dairy a few years later.

Like Krause, Bailey left dairy farming and now does everything from u-pick vegetables to selling compost to running events, including a fall festival with a pumpkin patch. “You have to find your niche, and try and direct-market as much as possible,” Bailey said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com.

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