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FB: Produce sellers should get to know buyers better
Illinois Correspondent

KANKAKEE, Ill. — In an all-day “Meet the Buyer” event sponsored by area county Farm Bureaus, James Theuri of University of Illinois extension explained to fruit and vegetable producers various techniques to improve their marketing abilities.

“You want the best buck for your product,” he said in the opening session, on assisting producers to create and strengthen healthy relationships with buyers. “Anybody, even a part-time farmer with some goods to sell, by using the tools that appeal to the buyer, will get better prices for their product.”

About 30 producers attended the Jan. 29 event on methods to improve marketing strategies for their produce. The opening session, “MarketReady,” dealt with ways producers could approach prospective buyers, how to ask the right questions and how to strengthen relationships with these buyers.

Although geared to those who grow produce such as sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes and squash in quantity for area restaurants, grocery stores, supermarkets, wholesale and foodservice sales, the standards Theuri discussed are also applicable to smaller producers like those who participate in weekend farmers’ markets.

“Farmers’ markets do have longtime relationships, but there you take a product that is well known to people who come to you and buy, so you know exactly what they need and when they need it. It’s a one-on-one relationship,” Theuri said.

“But, you’re more likely to please the person who runs a restaurant or grocery store, or supermarket,” he told the large-scale producers at the session. “These are the people you are primarily targeting for the meats and other fresh things like fruits and vegetables.
“You are primarily targeting these people because you want this longtime, established relationship.”

The MarketReady program is a guide on accomplishing this goal. Theuri detailed several means of accomplishment available to producers, including best methods of communicating with the buyer, packaging and labeling produce for professionalism and attractiveness and pricing produce to sell.

Appropriate packaging includes producers asking buyers what they want and assuring them the beans, corn, lettuce, squash, peas and other produce will be packaged appropriately to protect the integrity of the product, its temperature and free it from contamination.
Another assurance the producer can make is having access to industry standard packaging materials, and providing a product that consistently meets USDA or industry grading, sizing and quality standards.

Attractive labeling can help build the seller’s farm identity and improve product presentation. Producers also should know and follow any legal regulations for labeling their products, including country-of-origin labels and USDA inspection seals, label claims and weights.

Communication is important in providing advance notice to the buyer about produce availability and any changes in quantity or quality. Also, Theuri said to have contact information readily available and to make appointments in advance to meet with the buyer about their products.

The producer should present a professional and clean personal appearance on business calls with potential customers.
Pricing is another important technique for producers. This includes researching current market prices, knowing their cost for transporting and delivering produce and having ability to quote prices by pound or by quantity for products like asparagus, corn-on-the-cob and eggs. Also, price the product at a level where they can make a profit and be a stable supplier.

“We don’t want producers to be outpricing their product, because they will drive themselves out of the market,” Theuri said. “There are certain ways of determining what the market should be, and to keep their prices as low as possible so they are able to sell their product. It’s supposed to be a win-win situation with the producer, the buyer and the consumer.”

Delivery of a product was discussed, along with quality and consistency of the product once the producer has begun delivery. “Different buyers want their products to be handled in different ways, and that needs to come from the buyer. Communication is vital here, too, and getting to the buyer is critical because some want to do it their way,” he said.

“Sometimes they don’t even want the producer to package and deliver it for them, they want to come pick it themselves because they want to handle it the best way they see fit, especially in this day and age where food safety is such a big deal,” he said, of pick-your-own enterprises.

“Then, also, when you invite (pick-your-own buyers), you want to make things look professional and keep records. And then, in this day and age, you want to have insurance because of liability and other consequences that could occur.”

In marketing their goods, producers should be prepared to guarantee satisfaction, make production adjustments to improve the final product if necessary and stand behind their products 100 percent, including additional product to compensate for a poor-quality incident. The producer should take total responsibility for the integrity, quality and safety of the products.

Cynthia Haskins of the Illinois Farm Bureau noted Meet the Buyer events are popular venues for farmers who want to make contact with the decision-makers of grocery stores, foodservice distributors, restaurants and similar market channels.

The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service supplied information on best practices after interviewing more than 70 chefs, retailers and experienced growers. The Illinois and Kankakee Farm Bureaus, neighboring FB organizations, U of I extension, Illinois Department of Agriculture and Illinois Specialty Growers Assoc. sponsored the event.