Marketing is the life blood of any farming enterprise. As cattle producers we have sold most of our stuff at the sale barn. We have sold some on a couple of video sales but were not even a little satisfied. Last year we sold some calves to a young couple who are just starting to produce and sell grass finished beef. It seemed to be a good deal for all concerned and hopefully this will be a growing market for our calves. I would like to, with a little patience from the reader, relate two examples of just how important marketing can be the difference between profit or loss and success or failure.
One evening our son Donnie and two of his high school buddies Wayne and Gerald came to me and said they wanted to talk to me about something. This in itself was kind of unusual, but after I had recovered from my surprise, I asked about what? They had come up with this idea of a way to make some money by growing and selling, of all things, tomatoes. Wayne and Gerald’s Dad had agreed to the plan and said that he would let them use a piece of ground on his place if I also thought it was a good idea.
Knowing how it is very easy to start a project, but sometimes it gets very, very hard to see it to the end. I asked a few questions just to see if they had really thought this out. Why tomatoes? Everyone that I know puts out a few tomato plants every spring. Where is your market? How are you going to sell all of those tomatoes?
The plan was to plant a 1000 tomato plants. They had talked to the lady who ran the kitchen at the TB hospital at Greenwell Springs and she had agreed to buy her tomatoes from them and they had talked to several of the stores in the area.
Not trying to discourage them but to make them understand what they were getting into, I put another question to them. “Y’all know you have to stick all of those tomato plants. That means coming up with 1000 tomato sticks. Where are they coming from?”
“We are going to cut them.”
Now I must give these three boys credit they did it all right. They raised the plants from seed and had enough plants survive to plant 900 in the field. They prepared the ground, set the plants out and they did cut those 900 tomato sticks in a big gum thicket on our place. I will admit by this time there were two dads and an agriculture teacher who were a little overwhelmed and very proud.
My brother David was involved in a 3-day event that required feeding several hundred people lunch and he offered to buy all of the tomatoes from these boys if they thought they could meet the demand. Naturally the answer was yes because they knew this could make a big difference in making profit or breaking even or losing. These three boys were stepping high and walking with their heads held high and their chests puffed out and rightly so, they had worked long and hard.
Then it happened.
It seems that a deal had been made for the 3-day event to buy all of the necessary vegetables and fruit from one of the produce companies in Baton Rouge. When this company was told that all of the tomatoes were being bought from another source, the answer came back short and sweet: You don’t buy our tomatoes you don’t buy anything.
I was not involved in any of this, but I never believed it was about tomatoes. It was, in my opinion, seen as an invasion of the produce company’s domain that needed to be stopped before it became a problem. Again I was not involved in any of this so I don’t know what options were available to the folks doing the dealing, nevertheless Donnie and Wayne and Gerald lost the deal that would have made their tomato enterprise a real success. With what was sold to the TB hospital and on the roadside I believe they figured that they paid for their seed and fertilizer and made about $20 each. So these three boys learned early on their first lesson just how business works in our country. Most of the tomatoes that were not sold were fed to the cows that belonged to Wayne and Gerald’s Daddy.
With no market, the interest in tomato farming died a sudden death.
Now, without question, mistakes were made. After all, living in the country, there is to be sure a limited market for garden produce. This all happened in the late seventies before the growth of farmers markets in our area. But the fact remains the produce company did what it did because it could. Likewise, a cattle buyer told me some types of cattle are discounted for no other reason thant because cattle buyers can discount them. I have heard that one of the most dangerous places a person can be is between a mama bear and her cub. If that is true, and I have no reason to doubt it, I would nominate for the second most dangerous place a being between a businessman and a dollar.
Sometimes Things Work
The exact opposite happened with Donnie’s pea crop. I had fenced 2 acres of pasture for his FFA project of growing peas to sell. One acre was planted with purple hull crowder peas, which is an old Southern favorite and one acre was planted with sliver skin crowder peas, a variety that, at the time, was new to most folks down here, but has since become a big seller. Now this enterprise was entirely different than the tomato project, there was to be no middle man involved. This was direct marketing at its simplest. You could pick your own peas or have them picked for you for a picking fee of a dollar per bushel. The dollar was what the school kids were paid to pick a bushel.This was in the mid- seventies and a bushel of peas sold for $3.50 you pick, or $4.50 we pick. A few weeks before the peas were ready an ad was put in the Baton Rouge paper. Peas For Sale with our phone number. A couple days passed and then the calls started, and with the calls came the questions, what is the price, where are y’all located, how do I get there, are the peas ready now? The caller’s name was taken along with a phone number and added to a list first come first served with the number of bushels of what kind of peas and if the order was for “you pick.” (There were very few “you pick” orders.) When the peas were ready to be picked a call would be made to confirm the order and a pickup date was set.
This simple system worked very well for all concerned. The folks who ordered peas were on time for their pickup, the few people that picked their own seemed to enjoy the experience and the school kids who picked made a few dollars. And Donnie managed to make a few hundred dollars. One of the lessons learned from this enterprise was that a “you pick” bushel of peas is not as large as a “we pick” bushel of peas.