Agriculture: Customer Service
American farmers seek to grow top-notch fruit, vegetables and grains, or raise the finest livestock without a hitch – feeding millions and reaping hefty annual profits as a by-product. To accomplish this in today’s competitive agricultural landscape, farmers and other agriculture professionals must treat and serve customers in new ways, often employing customer service strategies derived from the retail sector.
Meeting the demands of the marketplace also plays a role in customer satisfaction. For example, a growing number of individuals are exploring options beyond the boundaries of the agricultural establishment. Among these, organic, niche and custom farming methodologies seem to be leading the way in satisfying consumer demands and, just maybe, keeping some farms in business.
Organics find a Niche
Though organic farming fills a niche, not all niche farming is organic. In a nutshell, niche farmingis defined as the production of crops (or livestock) for a specialized market. Some examples are rare herbs, heirloom tomatoes, and exotic fruits and vegetables. In turn, organic farming falls into a niche, because the aim is to produce wholesome foods using integrated agricultural systems that are both environmentally and economically sustainable.
Key organic-farming objectives include protecting long term soil fertility; using nutrient sources made accessible to plants through soil microorganisms activity; effective recycling of usable organic materials; pest, weed and disease control via crop rotation and natural processes; and intensive livestock management, with an emphasis on nutrition, housing, health and breeding.
That said, research indicates that the public demand for organic food is on the uptick, and not simply because of the American consumer’s worry over chemical feeds and fertilizers – though this clearly is one catalyst.
According to a recent USDA study, factors such as concerns for the environment; health and nutrition benefits; and flavor quality also drive the market. With consumer demand for organically produced goods continuing to show double-digit growth, organic products now sit on shelves in nearly 20,000 natural food stores and nearly three out of four conventional grocery stores across the U.S., according to the USDA.
Keep in mind, though, going organic is more than just tossing out chemicals and opting for all-natural cultivation and conservation practices. A regulatory network of government and international guidelines exists, which insists growers and handlers of organic products must be certified.
Farming Custom vs. Custom Farming
Owners of large commercial, small traditional or organic farming businesses are finding that collaboration can meet the consumer demands of the market, and cut down on overhead.
Custom farming is an arrangement wherein the custom farmer performs all machine operations on the owner’s land in exchange for a predetermined fee. The landowner then covers the cost of seeds, chemicals and other materials but in turn keeps the entire harvest. Sometimes, custom work entails a labor exchange between two separate owners whose resources complement each other. It’s also not unusual for a landowner to turn over entire management responsibility to a custom farmer on either an annual or a job basis.
Experts maintain that all parties gain from these models. The custom farmer need worry only about fuel and equipment maintenance, while earning a fixed return. And owners, particular those with small farms, can focus on production and getting the goods to market – and to consumers’ tables without taking on major machinery costs. Advice and tips for operators and owners involved in customer farming include the following:
- Make sure you have time for more work, or to cultivate additional acreage. This means considering planting and tillage cycles.
- Research the market. Don't forget to check with professional farm managers who work for larger businesses. They may need a reliable operator.
- Conduct a cost analysis. Both owners and operators should consult with the pros. Small business development centers typically offer financial, operational and management advice for free.
- Network. Let others know, by word of mouth, that you're looking for work, or that you're seeking a partner. Use local newspapers, flyers and the Internet to advertise your services or needs.
- Make the deal. Work up a written contract between custom farmer and landowner; obtain all necessary certifications, and establish a proper business entity (such as LLC). Most important, don't forget to obtain adequate liability/insurance coverage.