DOVER, Del. — The first step in selling farm products is knowing what consumers are looking for.

That was the message from a marketing workshop during the Feb. 13 MidAtlantic Women in Agriculture Conference at Dover Downs Hotel and Casino.

Perception drives buyer behavior, said Kimberly Morgan, a Virginia Tech ag economist.

Farmers need to better understand who wants their product, why they want it and how much they are willing to pay for it.

With that information, farmers can tailor their labels, packaging and other marketing tools to serve those needs.

Labels are now a common marketing tool for food. Gluten free, cage free, free of genetically modified organisms, organic, and locally grown claims all are intended to meet consumer demand for those niches.

“Food is emotionally driven,” Morgan said. “It is not just how it tastes. It is ‘How does it make you feel?’”

Many consumers are concerned about ingredients, animal welfare and environmental impact.

“Consumers know stuff,” she said.

And the more consumers know, the more farmers need to know consumers.

Consumers can be attracted to farmers who tell their story and find a way to differentiate their product.

Super Bowl commercials, which reach 100 million people during the game, have changed as a growing number of women and millennials tune in.

The selection of products being advertised has changed, as sellers now consider products like avocados worth the roughly $5 million per minute of air time.

Other companies have made appeals to shared values.

Budweiser’s ad promoting its use of wind energy was an obvious attempt to appeal to environmentally minded viewers, Morgan said.

Dairy groups were not amused by Mint Mobile’s ad describing a made-up chunky milk, and with good reason.

Dairy prices have been low for the past several years.

Still, farmers can find creative ways to buck that trend.

Studies show milk drinkers are willing to pay an extra 60 or 70 cents to buy milk in returnable glass bottles because they like the idea of recycling, Morgan said.

And people who have difficulty digesting milk are turning to lactose-free milk and A2 milk, though the latter’s health claims are still disputed.

Farmers have several outlets for marketing directly to consumers, including farmers markets, you-pick, restaurants, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture businesses and food hubs.

Each has advantages and disadvantages, according to Elizabeth Beggins of Chesapeake Harvest.

Farmers need to consider marketing costs, customer expectations, location, scheduling, liability concerns, and transaction and transportation costs.

Roadside stands limit transportation costs and allow farmers to set their own schedule, but a good location helps a lot, she said.

You-pick farms also save on transportation costs, as well as harvesting and labor.

But customers can sometimes act like “rogue puppies in your field,” causing crop damage and raising liability concerns, Beggins said.

A community-supported agriculture business provides money at the beginning of the season, but it requires careful crop planning and a full-season commitment.

Farmers markets will do some advertising for the farm, but space may be limited — some even have waiting lists — and farmers are locked into a schedule.

Selling to food hubs may require farmers to follow specific agricultural practices.

Farmers will have face-to-face transactions with customers in most of these direct market formats, so they must be as comfortable chatting about cucumbers as they are driving a tractor.

“Finding sales outlets for your produce takes time and skill, and there are many different avenues to be explored,” Beggins said. “Sometimes the hardest part of farming is connecting to the right kind of buyer.”

Lancaster Farming