For small scale farmers who have employed more labour intensive models of farming focusing on best practice, it is often difficult to demand the prices necessary to sustain their endeavours.
Selling direct to consumers usually means lower costs and overheads and a lower number of restraints.
However, with these benefits there exist risks that can easily derail a farm business trying to get their share of that lucrative retail dollar.
Demand for products may fluctuate more frequently than the wholesale market, and typically the volume of products sold is lower overall.
A Department of Agriculture study found more time needs to be spent by farmers on marketing and distribution, and often farmers need to increase their income by value-adding and identifying various possibilities of farm-related enterprise to add to their portfolio.
With agri-tourism being one push from state and local governments, the endeavour is to help farmers stay on the land and give them strategies to grow and improve the resilience of their business.
Studies indicate that an urbanised population is increasingly wanting to connect with growers and rural landscapes, and this benefits those wishing to establish a farm gate or sell at a local market.
The Victorian Farmers Market Association attempts to support local producers by requiring the stall holder to have either grown, reared, caught or processed the produce.
The objective is a fair marketplace selling fresh, wholesome and locally grown produce not compromised by resellers.
However, with 22 per cent of Victorian farmers selling direct to the public in some capacity, the question arises as to why more farmers are not taking advantage of the better profit margins offered by direct sales.
Small diversified farms are key contenders for selling direct to the public, with many choosing this option as the only viable income stream that reflected true production costs.
However, according to the Australian Government Department of Agriculture the percentage of farmers who actually made a profit from selling direct to the public via farm gates was only 50 per cent.
Furthermore, only 21 per cent overall managed to earn more than 90 per cent of their income via these means.
This struggle results in farmers having to find off-farm work in order to survive, and hinders their ability to improve techniques and upgrade infrastructure.
Anna Kelly of Plains Paddock Lamb sold her meat at markets for nearly a decade.
It was the drought and the cost of production that forced her to walk away from her market enterprise.
Unable to pass on the cost she refused to pay for feed and just had to reduce her stock numbers.
Based in Kyneton but farming on the family farm in Deniliquin also made the weekly kilometres to service her market commitments difficult to sustain.
Markets had also changed over the years, and with the price of booking a stall at a market increasing, compounded with the additional costs of insurance, fuel and labour, stallholders had become a little more stressed.
“In the beginning it was the best place to be,” Anna said.
“All the other traders were willing to share their experiences.
“They would stand in your stall.
“They would set up your tent with you.
“Everyone was happy and there was a lot of love.
“It was a fun place to be.
“But over the years more people started trying to get that retail dollar, a lot more farmers wanting to get paid properly for their produce, it became more competitive… and I don’t know if you’re getting that many more new shoppers.”
There has been an explosion of markets and stall holders, however, shopper demand has not necessarily risen at the same rate.
“We need more people, we need more customers,” Anna said.
“I would go back to the markets, if I could pick the good ones.
“In the early days I sold to the restaurants, to a few butchers.
“There were the markets, and then later on there was a food stall, value-adding with lamb burgers.
“As money goes, the food stall was the best profit margin, and I was able to use all my product.
“On a personal level though the markets gave me the most satisfaction.
“It wasn’t a monetary thing, it was a relationship thing.
“Getting the feedback was always great, it would inspire you.”
It is also the feedback that continuously inspires David Gibbs of Sussex Farm Vealers, in Red Hill.
David sells over the hook to Cardinia Meats and they sell direct to the butchers.
David does inspect every single carcass with the buyers, to get a sense of how the animals are presenting at kill.
The feedback is invaluable for monitoring progeny and improving his farming practice.
“I occasionally go to the butcher shop with the carcasses that are identified as mine and I talk to the butcher about how the meat is cutting,” David said.
“I follow the supply chain one more step.
“The butchers are often a little bemused by my question.
“What do you mean?
“It’s cutting fine, has been the response.”
Although Sussex Farm is a boutique operation, turning out between 20 and 30 vealers during the month of December, the nature of his product dictates marketing choices.
Markets and farm gates are not an option, and restaurants need a continuous supply of meat.
David has found that it is too hard for both butchers and restaurants to do point of sale marketing for just the month of December.
So while it is a quality product from a small acreage farm, the enterprise does not lend itself to any sales direct to the public.
“You can get my meat only in December never leads to any sales,” David said.
Sussex Farm instead positions itself under the banner of Mornington Peninsula Produce and its reputation for first class agricultural practices and produce, and this commands David a better wholesale dollar.
Reputation has also proven important to Tim and Deri-Anne Wyatt of Angelica Organics in Glenlyon enabling them to evolve from weekly vegetable boxes to selling at markets to finally settling on Community-Supported Agriculture(CSA).
This model directly supports labour intensive small farms, with a guaranteed income from the start of the production year – from seed purchasing onwards.
In this farm share program members purchase up-front a share of the annual season’s harvest, and in return receive a weekly supply of fresh, premium quality, organically grown vegetables.
It is based on not only sharing the rewards of organic or agro-ecological farming but also the risks, and allows the farmer to plan and budget for the agricultural season.
“We initially started off producing boxes but we didn’t have enough practical experience in farming to make it a viable farm business,” Tim said.
“Putting the weekly boxes on indefinite hiatus we focused on farmers’ markets, restaurants and shop supply.
“We really loved farmers’ markets, really loved connecting with other people.
“It definitely helped build our business.
“But I just got to this point in life where going to the markets every weekend, and doing deliveries on Friday as well, was physically killing me.
“Then there was one market that was not paying for itself.
“We’d been told about CSA from a lady who was doing pigs, and so we did a trial over that autumn and winter and it went really well, and it just progressed from there.”
The CSA system has changed the way that the Wyatts farm, creating a more stable farm model and income.
“If we have a crop that fails the subscribers just don’t get it,” Tim said.
“We try and make it up somehow with other stuff.
“However, if it’s just Mother Nature, we all take a hit, instead of just me the farmer taking a hit.”
It has also given them access to a demographic who want quality organic food but can’t get to the farmers’ markets.
Farmers’ markets have been the best and most easily accessible market for many small-time producers for the last decade.
However, as models of food production and distribution adapt to accommodate changing time and lifestyle restraints for farmers, many need to look to alternatives to market their produce.
Many farm gates like Ravens Creek in Moriac sell all the produce grown on farm directly to the public, and strategically value-add with a café on-site.
This model works for a small biodiverse farm wishing to make its entire living off 90 acres.
However, this model does not suit such producers as David Gibbs or Anna Kelly.
In chasing the elusive retail dollar, the growing public demand to know where their food comes from and how it is grown may be the farmer’s best means of marketing their future.