Bernard Smith at Full of Life Farm thought he had it all worked out. Inspired by a compelling lecture on food and nutrition by Dr. Thomas Cowan in 2003, he found the motivation to start working towards his dream of returning to his family’s Oregon farm. He spent the next five years working on a business plan, researching farming methods, working on farms and learning everything he could about animal stewardship. In 2008, he and his family of four moved 650 miles north to his parents’ farm in Oregon, ready to start a new life.
But it didn’t turn out quite as he’d imagined.
“When we started I had visions that we would live ‘happily ever after,’ supplying pastured, grass-fed meat to the city of Portland, but it didn’t turn out that way,” Bernard said. “It’s too small a city to adequately support the many independent farms in the area and we were not able to charge what was necessary to earn a living wage, even though we had a presence at nine weekly farmers’ markets in Portland.”
By 2011, running out of money and tired of splitting his time between Oregon and his farm stand in Mountain View, California, Bernard knew that he needed a new approach if Full Of Life Farm was to be a self-sustaining business.
“I realized that price and convenience are the biggest parameters shaping the purchasing decisions of potential buyers. If I can offer quality meat at a reasonable price, delivered straight to your door within a few days of your order, that’s a compelling proposition that not many farmers are offering at the moment,” he said.
This meant a smaller pool of potential buyers spread out across a larger area, turning the farm’s online shop into a key distribution channel.
“My online sales are currently a little less than half, maybe 40 percent, of my total sales. But they are growing,” Bernard noted. “I don’t do any online advertising. I just listed my farm on Eatwild (an online directory for pasture-raised meats) and that’s where most of my online customers find me.”
Entering the world of online retail came with its own challenges, like offering his customers the flexibility to fully customize all of their orders.
“I was spending all my time packing orders and didn’t have enough time to do anything else,” Bernard shared. “I quickly learned to standardize our online offerings.”
Despite the variety of marketing and social media tools available today, the farm has a relatively low-key presence on Twitter and Facebook, preferring instead to build its relationship with customers the “old-fashioned” way, through emails and in-person conversations at the market. This willingness to let the market expand at its own pace is proving to be the most reliable strategy for driving sales.
Said Bernard, “Over the five years I’ve been in business, I’ve assembled a list of customers that have signed up for my emails. If I want to drive sales, I send out an email to my list. That direct relationship with people that have met me and know me is immensely valuable.”
After focusing on the Portland metro area and the San Francisco Bay Area for the past few years, 2013 will see an expansion of Full of Life Farm’s home delivery services to Southern California, a litmus test for their web store and supply chain.
“I think it’s important for aspiring farmers to really focus on the marketing and distribution of their products,” Bernard shared.“I’m not saying that production methods and ensuring the quality of your products is not important – it is, but up to a point. There’s no value in creating a great product if you’re not able to sell and distribute it, right?”
All photos courtesy of Full of Life Farm.