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May/June 2009 – What farmers can learn from publishers


In the curious bi-polar world that I live in—magazine editor by day, small farmer by evenings and weekends—the magazine tends to benefit from the farm more than the other way around. I’ll come across an idea while farming and, if it seems suitable for a national audience, find a way to work it into a successful feature in the publication.
For example, the story on soil testing that Ray Ford wrote in the March/April issue was the direct result of a need I felt, and that I shared with other local farmers, to better understand soil dynamics of their fields.
There are other examples of the magazine piggybacking on the farm.
However, in the last year I‘ve noticed that our farm is benefiting from the publishing side of my life.
In the magazine business there is an old saying that a company is only worth as much as its list of readers. The reader list—Small Farm Canada’s included—is made up mostly of individuals with shared traits. Our readers are small farmers, interested in food and food production, keen to learn. . . . That’s why advertisers are willing to pay good bucks to reach the likes of me and you: because the odds are high that we could be consumers of their products, like seeds, or tractors.
I recalled this several months ago when one of our farm’s biggest pork customers slashed his orders. The cancellation left us with several dozen unsold feeder hogs. What to do? The auction would yield less than the cost of raising them. Somewhat desperate, I pawed through old receipt books and bank deposit forms and assembled a list of about 70 customers that we had dealt with in the last three years. In many cases these were people who had bought lamb, or firewood, or hay, or grain. Then I got on the phone and started selling pork. An hour later and we had pre-sold every hog on the farm except the sows and boar.
There was no secret to this success: the list I was working off included people who: (a) knew us and our farm (and trusted us) and (b) were of a mind to buy local (and knew not to expect Costco pricing).
I encourage you to think of the same thing.
If you don’t already have a list of customers there are easy ways to begin. Start with people you’ve sold anything to. When you are talking to them, ask if they have family or friends that might be interested in your products. Ask people at work, or on sports teams or school groups. It may seem like you are tapping them for a favour but remember, too, that in these times of intense interest in local food you are doing them a favour.
Advertising helps build lists too (of course I’m going to say that—
I’m a publisher too!). Last fall our farm spent $280 on ads in several local newspapers. I calculated we got $1,600 in direct business from those ads. On a strict cost/benefit analysis advertising wasn’t worth it. But in the months since the last ad was published, we have had a number of repeat orders from the customers and several reference-related orders as well. The ad may have expired but it is effectively still at work. The concept of a long-payoff should be something all of us farmers are familiar with.
On a sort-of related matter, you may have noticed that the magazine has a different feel. Beginning with this issue, Small Farm Canada will be printed on an earthier, more environmentally friendly paper. Not only is the new stock more in keeping with our subject matter, but it allows us to keep advertising and subscription rates to reasonable levels during tough economic times. And—bonus!—we’ve upped the page count in this issue to 56 pages. That means even more articles and stories for you to enjoy.