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Farmers seek new markets amid 'buy local' trend in Lehigh Valley

| Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Produce is on sale at the Downtown Allentown Local Food Market, organized by Nicole and Steve Shelley as a way for growers to find buyers for their crops.
Produce is on sale at the Downtown Allentown Local Food Market, organized by Nicole and Steve Shelley as a way for growers to find buyers for their crops.

COOPERSBURG — For Lehigh Valley farmers, the mantra “if you can grow it, you can sell it,” is no longer true.

Between growing and selling, farmers now have to worry about branding, marketing and muscling out major retailers.

In the last 10 years, sales directly from farms to consumers have remained flat, even though the number of markets nationwide has nearly doubled, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It's not that people don't want farm-fresh food — quite the contrary. It's that large retailers such as Whole Foods and Wegmans have joined the local-food bandwagon, making it harder for local farmers to compete.

“Ten years ago, you could do anything, and it was easy — local food was an easy sell,” said Steve Shelley, co-owner of the 1.9-acre Godshall Farm in Coopersburg, Lehigh County, with his wife, Nicole.

Now, farmers are in uncharted territory, taking courses in marketing and rebranding to stay in business.

Whole Foods has been a central driver in steering big retail toward the local-food movement, said Neil Stern, a senior partner with retail consulting firm McMillan Doolittle. In the last five years, most supermarkets have followed suit in an attempt to appear more authentic and less “pasteurized,” he said. Some, such as Giant, Weis and Wegmans, even have proprietary relationships with local farms.

As a result, the market is becoming crowded with outlets selling local produce.

“It's taken a little bit of the mystique away from the farmers market,” he said. “It's not a perfect substitute, but it's a substitute.”

A change in strategy

A year ago, the Shelleys — whose business was then known as Gottschell Farm — sold vegetables, herbs and flowers at the Emmaus Farmers' Market. They also operated a roadside stand and ran a community-supported agriculture system — a subscription service in which members pick up weekly or biweekly boxes of goods from the farm.

The Shelleys have since pulled out of the farmers market and opened their own: the Downtown Allentown Local Food Market. They spent the winter taking an exhaustive marketing webinar, which led them to rebrand their business with a new name and logo.

The stakes are high now that their competition consists of large retailers and delivery services.

“Supermarkets have a huge budget — that's what we have to compete with,” Nicole Shelley said.

Innovating markets

Treating the farm as a business is the first step to competing in the bigger marketplace, said Brian Moyer, program assistant at Penn State Extension, who develops classes to teach farmers how to diversify their market platforms. There can be some hesitancy to change, he said, as many farmers come into their vocation for idealistic reasons.

A participant in several Extension programs, Charis Lindrooth of Red Earth Farm in Kempton became a self-made marketing manager — alongside her farmer husband, Michael Ahlert — through hours of webinars and consultations with local marketing firms. Sometimes her Friday nights consist of working on marketing strategy and writing the farm's blog.

“It's an ongoing and kind of scary, intimidating challenge for small farms. . We have to ramp up our game,” she said.

Farmers markets are innovating, too. Sales at the Easton Farmers' Market were down significantly last year — on average, by about 15 to 20 percent, said Megan McBride, the market's district director. In response, her team expanded children's programming with music, yoga, and arts and crafts; added live music; and introduced a rewards card.

She encourages the vendors not to be dependent on the market's sales alone. And the market is taking steps to provide vendors with more outlets.

It recently applied for a grant through the Greater Easton Development Project, its parent organization, to study setting up a food hub in the Lehigh Valley. It would be a sister to the farmers market, McBride said, an avenue for farmers to sell their produce to restaurants.

“If you look at the big picture, we're just offering farmers more options,” she said.

Eager buyers

The Easton market as well as others across the Lehigh Valley are considering hubs along the lines of the Common Market in Philadelphia, which offers a central location for local produce and acts as a middle-man between farmers and retailers looking to buy local.

There is a demand for such intermediary markets, McBride said, with institutions such as prisons and schools as interested in local produce as restaurants and grocery stores are.

Buy Fresh Buy Local Greater Lehigh Valley also is researching hubs and other ways to better collect and distribute locally grown food, outreach coordinator Allison Czapp said. She said hubs have been tried before in the region without success, but now demand for them and momentum are building.

“In the Lehigh Valley, there's a real lack of infrastructure,” she said.

Godshall Farm has a proposal in the works for a food hub in Allentown, which they were to present to City Center Investment Corp. The Shelleys envision a one-stop shop: grocery store, wholesaler and interactive experience in a brick-and-mortar location that's open every day. They hope to open the hub next spring.

Finding harmony

Hubs can co-exist with farmers markets, where people go to do more than shop.

Hubs and supermarkets, Czapp said, can't replicate the experience of going to a farmers market, where you can see neighbors, listen to music and shake the hand that tended to the crop in the field. For shoppers, farmers markets are a pleasurable experience. For farmers, the markets should be part of a broader business strategy.

Czapp puts stock in farmers' ability to adapt to changes in the market, as they have done for centuries.

“Farmers are really innovative people,” she said. “That's kind of their job description.”

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