Collaborative Marketing: Farms Get Creative to Meet Customers' Needs


Collaborative marketing in Central Massachusetts’ agricultural community is a new trend with old roots. It’s showing up as hand-lettered signs over bins of corn at a farm stand noting that they come from another local farm, or trays of a neighbor’s artisan cheeses that pair well with the farm’s own tomatoes and basil.

You’re also starting to see menus spotlighting local farms that provide everything from eggs, salad greens and vegetables to cheese and meat at restaurants from the family-friendly Birch Tree Bakery in Worcester to the high-end Sonoma in Princeton.

Spurred on by growing numbers of customers who are seeking out local products and aided by a coordinated marketing effort—Central Mass Grown—many farmers are eager to collaborate.

“Having other farms’ products at our store is a good way to promote buying locally,” says Tim Wheeler, owner of Indian Head Farm in Berlin. Known for its variety of pick-your-own berries and wildflowers, Indian Head Farm also grows an array of vegetables sold in the farm’s store. There, you’ll also find beef from Lilac Hedge Farm in Rutland, goat cheese from Crystal Brook Farm in Sterling and Smith’s Country Cheese from Winchendon.

“The more local products we can find, the better it is for all of us,” Tim says. “Customers tell me they’re now coming to our farm store first, then going to the supermarket.”

There’s nothing new about the practice of selling another farm’s products; it’s gone on for years. Customers wouldn’t know that the “picked this morning” corn or “fresh off the vine” tomatoes were not necessarily grown on the farm where they were sold—few of them ask—and farmers didn’t used to tell.

In most cases it’s been a stop-gap measure rather than an attempt to deceive. If a corn crop or tomatoes are slower to ripen than anticipated, many farmers have supplemented their own supply of produce or vegetables from another farm.

 “There’s a farmers’ network,” Tim explains. Davidian Brothers, a farm a few miles away in Northborough, often “has corn before we do” so Tim buys it wholesale from Davidian and offers it at his store. On the other hand, Indian Head’s blueberries and raspberries have often been sold at the Davidian farm store.

It’s a different story at farmers markets; most are producer only, which means farmers can sell only what they grow. But some markets have policies that allow farmers to supplement their own produce with another local farmer’s in order to augment their own offerings. At the Copley Square farmers market managed by the Mass Farmers Markets (MFM) organization, for example, there’s an extensive supply farmer policy that allows farmers to bring in another farmer’s produce. The supplied products, however, must be well labeled that they are from another farm, and the amount of supplied products may not exceed one third of the rest of the produce grown by the farmer selling at the market. Additionally, MFM may limit or restrict a particular product from supply requests if it is already plentiful at the market from farmers who are growing it themselves.

The MFM-managed farmers markets at Davis Square Somerville and Central Square Cambridge are also producer-only markets, but they allow a modified supply policy. At these two markets, if a farmer asks to be allowed to sell a local product—farmstead cheese, for example—and there is no cheese offered at the market, all other vendors will be polled. If everyone approves, the cheese will be approved by MFM as a supply product.

“It’s trickier when you consider farm stands,” said Martha Sweet, director of programs and operations for Mass Farmers Markets. “As far as I know there aren’t any such policies in place.”

At Cooper’s Hill Top Farm Store, in Rochdale, the policy is to promote other local farms. The fourth generation dairy business has more than 20 local farm partners and showcases their products.

Their herd of 45 dairy cows produces 250 gallons of milk every day. The farm grew from a small operation in the early 20th century with home delivery by a wagon to its retail business operating from the store since 1931.

The heavy cream ranges between 45% and 50% butterfat; you’ll find it in ice cream sold at farmers markets by Thompson’s Maple Farm of New Braintree; in pastries at Sweet, Worcester’s trendy bakery/bar/restaurant; and in cream sauces for pasta at The Castle restaurant. There’s a loyal following among retail customers too, especially for Cooper’s eggnog. Some customers drive from New York and Connecticut to stock up during the holidays.

Heidi Van Aucker, whose husband, James, is a fourth generation Cooper, works with her aunt, Marjorie Cooper, running the store. She also manages the farm’s website and social media and tends to the animals, which now include a herd of beef cattle, pigs that forage in the farm’s wooded acres, and chickens.

I didn’t grow up on a farm,” Heidi says, “so I bring a customer’s perspective.”

When she targets local products to feature at the farm store, Heidi considers their sales appeal. “I choose things I know will sell—things I’d want to buy,” she says.

Locally grown and artisan products at Cooper’s Hilltop Farm store include pickles and salsa from the family owned Town Farm Gardens in Brookfield; Golden Girl Granola from Shirley; apples and cider from Carlson Orchards in Harvard; and honey and honeybee pollen from Hebert’s in Oxford.

  Heidi points out that customers in Central Massachusetts are a different breed from shoppers in other parts of the state who willingly pay premium prices for organic or locally grown products.

“Our market is very different from Boston,” she says. “The price point is very important here. People don’t want to pay exorbitant prices and the organic label isn’t necessarily a draw.”

On the eastern side of the Highway 495 border, customers at the Tangerini Farm in Millis are not so much into bargain hunting. Crowds of families with small children swarm the farm store and pick-your-own fields of the sprawling 67-acre farm. They’re drawn by produce grown with organic methods on land protected by an Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR).

Owner Laura Tangerini notes that she collaborates with a number of local farms, artisan cheese makers, as well as a local pasta company. Tangerini customers also can buy Jordan Brothers’ fish fresh from the Boston pier, trucked out to the farm store twice a week.

Gooseberries, currants, and raspberries arrive regularly from Nourse Farms in Deerfield, as do cuts of beef and pork from Chestnut Farms in Hardwick.

“My goal is to never have to go to the terminal market in Boston,” says Laura.

Her rich supply of local farm products is a result of Laura’s enthusiastic networking. “I’ve met other farmers at agricultural meetings and farmers markets,” she says. Laura also serves on the board of Central Mass Grown.

Central Mass Grown is a coalition including farmers, retailers, consumers, non-profit organizations, legislators, and government agencies. Earlier this year it published a directory of farms and artisan food producers, restaurants, farmers markets, resource organizations, and supporters. In July they sponsored a chefs’ tour of farms in Central Massachusetts resulting in a spirited discussion of how the two groups can work together.

The buy local effort represents “a paradigm shift in buying habits,” said John Lawrence, co-owner of Peppers Fine Catering in Northborough. “We have such tremendous local resources and such wonderful stories of how farmers are growing local food. Having this network is helping to get that information out.”

Farmer Tim Wheeler also credits Central Mass Grown for starting “conversations started between farmers who never talked to each other before.”