By SHELLY STRAUTZ-SPRINGBORN
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Michigan farm marketers had to be more creative this year to attract customers, in the wake of one of the worst fruit crop years in history.
A group of growers talked about their experiences during a panel discussion at the Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market Expo at the DeVos Place Convention Center in Grand Rapids last month.
“Most of the growers lost crops this year,” said Bob Tritten, Michigan State University extension district fruit educator and session moderator. “We’re talking significant losses – 150 to 200 acres of apples would have six apples.
“The net result for most farm marketers in Michigan is they want 2012 to be over and look forward to 2013.”
The majority of the state’s fruit crops were wiped out by a series of frost and freeze events in the spring, which had monumental impacts throughout the 2012 farm marketing season.
Panelists Sarah Jolly of Grandpa’s Cider Mill in Coloma, Abbey Jacobson of Westview Orchards and Adventure Farm in Romeo, Karey Robinette of Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery in Grand Rapids, Dede Beck of Uncle John’s Cider Mill in St. Johns and Gwen Anderson of Anderson and Girls Orchard in Stanton agreed that to weather the storm, they had to reevaluate product offerings and pricing structures at their markets.
Many of them also made significant changes in their marketing efforts to connect with customers on a more personal level. Jolly said diversification of crops and products that occurred during the past 10 years on their farm provided their market a solid foundation for 2012.
“We knew immediately when we didn’t have fruit that we would close the U-pick during the week,” she said.
She added while their cider mill is normally open year-round, they closed it early in the season due to lack of apples and to reduce labor. They also cut back on paid advertising and focused on communicating with their customers through direct mail.
“We have found that it is the most effective and the most cost-effective method to reach our customers,” she said.
Jacobson cited media hype about limited fruit availability as a large hurdle in getting customers in the door this year.
“This year it was very difficult to get customers to our farm. The media made it sound like there was no fruit, and if there was fruit, it would be very expensive,” she said.
Located in a suburb of Detroit, the Jacobsons turned their focus to a crop that they had a good supply of – pumpkins. “We added activities and incentives to get people to the farm,” she said. “With a paid admission to the farm, they could pick a pumpkin.”
They also added Rope Mountain – a play area for children – and a pumpkin maze.
Taking a sweeter approach, the Jacobsons appealed to their customers’ taste buds with creative new twists on an old favorite – doughnuts. Red velvet, chocolate bacon and maple bacon were hits.
“We would put a flavor on our sign and people told us they stopped out of curiosity,” she said.
Anderson said summer sales at Anderson and Girls Orchard were promising, with about a 20 percent increase until fall. “Then we had some bad weekends,” she said.
She credited the orchard’s petting zoo, increasing their trucking business and crop insurance as factors that helped them weather their short fruit crop.
“In our area, people didn’t want to pay the higher price for apples. People still bought apples and cider, but not the volume we usually sell,” Anderson said.
All of the panelists said they increased the prices of some of their most popular items and the short supply of apples drove up the price of cider to consumers.
School tours continued at Anderson and Girls Orchard, but took a different shape this year. With too few apples to demonstrate cider-making, the Andersons instead had children pick a gourd. They also had six “stations” for the children to visit throughout the orchard, which included seeing the animals, a wagon ride through the orchard, playing in the play area, reading books and more.
Anderson joked that while hauling apples all fall normally keeps them busy, they were trucking corn instead last year.
Robinette’s Apple Haus and Winery had a supply of frozen cider in storage and had preserved and stored all the apples they could from the previous year in anticipation of the poor crop.
“We started early working with vendors to get the products we knew we needed – dried cherries were one,” Robinette said. “Within five days of getting our cherries, the price of dried cherries had doubled.”
To connect more directly with customers, she said they increased their presence at farmers’ markets in area towns. “We looked at it as an opportunity to educate customers, to let them know that we were still open.”
Like the others, the Robinettes took to social media to let their customers know what was going on at the market. They also adjusted their store hours, opening earlier and offering breakfast, and staying open later.
Beck said the “silver lining” for their business was building relationships with their customers. With a concentrated effort on their social media presence, she said the market increased its fans on Facebook from 6,000 to 14,000 in 2012.
Although school tours declined because of limited funding for field trips, she said the market successfully added a variety of $5 deals for after-school activities. “We look at this year almost as a gift and we have learned from it,” she said.