By TIM THORNBERRY
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Over the last few years, agritourism has become an important part of the agriculture industry in Kentucky, and the roadside market business has been one of its mainstays.
In 1996 Kentucky Farm Bureau (KFB) began a program to help farmers market their fruits and vegetables directly from roadside markets to consumers throughout the state. By 2009, the KFB Certified Roadside Market program had expanded to 92 members in 51 counties and includes farm ventures such as greenhouses, landscape nurseries, Christmas tree farms, vineyards/wineries and meat/cheese farm markets.
Mark Haney, KFB president, said the program has enhanced agriculture in many ways. “On the marketing side, we found there was a need there to share ideas and share some things that would promote each of our markets, and it has worked really well,” he said.
“Because we are all across the state, we’re are not necessarily in competition with each other, and it allows us to share ideas. It certainly has been positive.”
Haney knows firsthand how well the market program works. He and his brother, Don, run the family farm near Nancy, Ky., which grows apples, peaches and pears and includes a bakery and retail farm market where they sell cider, jellies and other products as a Certified Roadside Market.
Each market that meets the criteria to join the program is recognized by the familiar KFB cornucopia logo and is listed in an annual directory of certified markets distributed through state parks and tourism outlets.
KFB certifies and provides promotion for the markets. The program also allows the operators to obtain statewide advertising as a way to expand their market areas and increase sales. It provides customers assurance that the certified markets offer the highest quality service and products, many of which are grown on the same farms where the markets are located.
Cindy Peake also knows how valuable the program has been. She and her husband own and operate Bramble Ridge Orchard in Montgomery County, a venture they began in 2001. She said the marketing provided by the roadside market program has proven to be invaluable.
“This was a new venture, and we had no farming experience except the pipe dream that I have had probably since being a child,” she said. “When we first got established as an orchard, we were looking for ways to bring people here because they didn’t know we were here.
“We found out about the Certified Roadside Market program and we decided that would be an avenue to start marketing the orchard. It brought us a lot of customers who might not have necessarily known we were here, had we not been with that program from the get-go.”
Peake added that now, they have customers come from all over the area because of the apples they grow. “They like the flavor our apples have. They’re different, being grown here because Kentucky land, as good as it is for our racehorses, it’s equally as good for our farm products. It just gives it a unique taste and a particular quality they can’t get other places,” she said.
“I have people that will drive three hours for one bushel of apples. That’s what this marketing has done for us. You always need a good foundation on which to build something. Immediately, when we established the orchard, we joined the Certified Roadside Market program, so our success has been on that foundation.”
Danny Townsend of Townsend’s Sorghum Mill and Farm Market, also in Montgomery County, comes from a more traditional farming background but has had equal success from the marketing program.
“We’ve been a member of the program since it started, and it has worked great for us. We’ve gotten a lot of advertising that we wouldn’t have normally gotten,” he said. “I don’t know how to put a dollar figure on it, but I know it has greatly helped us.”
Besides sweet sorghum, Townsend still raises tobacco along with summer vegetables and strawberries for his on-farm market. The business also has a website that has enabled Townsend to sell his sorghum in 41 states, and he attributes a lot of the success to the KFB marketing program – but it starts with his local customers.
“These are country people and they just want good quality food, and we grow the better tasting, better quality vegetable, and that’s what people want,” he said. “We’re not trying to feed the world, but there are people here that want really good, fresh food, and that’s what we’re after.”
Kara Keeton, KFB director of Commodity Marketing, has had a chance to go to all the roadside markets and sees the same stories repeated, as with Peake and Townsend.
“People are looking for that local, down-on-the-farm experience, whether it is to find farm fresh products or to have an outing with the kids,” said Keeton. “The Certified Roadside Market program is a great program for markets to make that connection with consumers at a minimal cost.”
Keeton added one of the keys to the success of the program is the differences in member markets across the state.
“We have such a wide diversity of farm market operations in the program. As the number of members in the program has grown, so has the strength of our program,” she said. “Many people might pick up the brochure at their local Farm Bureau office or at a tourism office just to find a place to buy local produce, but once they see the diversity of markets, from wineries to orchards, in the brochure, they don’t stop with just produce.”
Keeton expects the program to continue to grow in 2010. As of the first of January, more than 60 markets were enrolled for this year, and the enrollment period continues until Feb. 15.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a first-year market owner or if you’ve been in the business for generations, the Certified Roadside Market has advertising, education and networking opportunities for every size market,” said Keeton.