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Reaching this important market.

The specialty ag market is spread across the country and growers raise a diverse crop and with no one operation being homogeneous. They are always looking for new markets, new varieties, new crops and can change their operation much more quickly than a typical row crop or livestock operation.

To keep up with this changing industry and the changing media marketing channels, we began annually surveying the readers of our three specialty crop magazines--Fruit Growers News (FGN), Vegetable Growers News (VGN) and Spudman--six years ago.

We wanted to get to know our readers better; we wanted to find out: who they are, what they want from our publications, where they get their information and what influences their buying decisions.

In 2003, when we conducted our first survey, 83% of our specialty crop readers used a computer, 73% had access to the Internet and 47% went to our web sites on a monthly basis.

Fast forward to today--99% use a computer, 95% use the internet for their businesses and 75% visit our web site on a monthly basis.

All of the results I will talk about in this article are based on responses from the decision makers in these specialty crop operations.


To get a baseline of our readers we asked them some basic demographic information. VGN and FGN ages were nearly identical with 66% being 51 and older, 22% between 41 and 50 and 11%, 40 or younger--with 80% being male.

Spudman decision makers were, surprisingly, a little younger but more were male compared to the other publications. Fifty-six percent were 51 and older, 20% were 41-50 and 23% were 40 and under, with 88% male.

Education was very similar across all publications with 60% having a bachelor's degree or higher, 30% having some college and 10% having a high school diploma.


A big focus of the surveys has been how specialty crop growers get information and what they perceive as the most reliable resources.

The first question we have been asked along this line is "What is the most reliable source for good crop production information?" Keep in mind that growers could pick more than one choice.

University Extension service led the way with 71%, followed by 30% for the crop protection manufacturer, 13% for independent consultants and 13% said they relied on a family member or friend. We purposely did not list any media as an option for this question as we wanted to get a feel for their thoughts on non-media influences.

When asked how the growers learned about new crop production products, Extension was the No. 1 choice with 66% followed closely by trade publications with 64% and meetings getting 62%. A fieldman/ distributor was picked by 44% of the growers.


We also wondered what influences growers to make a purchase. Again, growers could pick more than one choice.

Seventy percent of respondents chose trade publications as the top influencer of their decisions. Trade shows were picked by 61% of growers and direct sales garnered 55%.

In 2005, we added the internet as a choice but only 5% of the growers picked that option. It has quickly grown and this year 55% of respondents picked it as having an influence on their purchases.


As the internet has become an important resource for growers we added a few more questions this year to find where they were going.

We asked the question, "What web sites do you visit on a regular basis?"

Topping the sites looked at were University Extension with 66% followed by trade magazine sites with 55% and local newspapers at 30%.

When asked how many times growers visit our web sites, 75% checked it out 1 to 3 times a month, 10% visit it 4 to 5 times a month and 3% visit our sites more than five times per month.


Since it is clear growers are going to the internet for information we wanted to find out what kind of connections they had. If everyone were on dial-up then we would need to simplify our web sites and e-newsletters to reflect the connections speeds. So this year we added a question about this and found, on average, that 51% had DSL, 27% had cable, 11% had satellite and 10% were on dial-up.

Interestingly, the highest percentage of specialty crop growers we surveyed with DSL were potato growers with 57%. They also had the lowest dial-up connections with 6%.


Now that you are armed with all this information, what's an agri-marketer trying to target the specialty crop market to do?

I think everyone can agree that there are three pretty obvious choices for your marketing mix: trade publications, trade shows and the company's own sales staff. These three choices have been very consistent the past six years. It's pretty easy to figure out what the specialty crop growers are reading and what trade shows they are attending.

Also keep in mind that many fruit and vegetable growers are constantly changing their crop mix. Our FGN audience alone grows 28 different crops--many of them vegetables. The same is true with our VGN readership, so there is a constantly moving base of growers that need to be educated about products.


The Internet is clearly becoming an important new channel. Extension and trade publication Web sites are the top two Internet resources specialty crop growers are using to find out information.

The Extension service is under huge budget constraints and will probably be cut more and more. I do not see universities having enough resources to build and support crop portals for specialty crops, which is a shame.

Publication web sites have become great tools in communicating quickly and effectively with an audience. We can now post the news as it happens, touch the reader extra times during the month with our e-newsletters and even post videos. Our goal is to be the central clearinghouse of everything they need to know about their crops.

But internet advertising is not going to be the be-all, end-all for this industry. Many sources report that the average click-through rates on banner ads are only 0.025 %. And we have found generic banner ads don't get much attention--grower's need a reason to click on to a web site ads. For instance, auctions ads on our sites see 10 times as many click-throughs as generic online ads do. They need to call a grower to action and give them a reason to click through.

Our survey also shows print is not even close to being dead. More than 70% of our readers said they responded to a print advertisement from our publications the past year.

We know 75% of the decision makers are older than 40, about 85% are males, 77% of them have decent internet connections and 75% visit our web site monthly. All studies have shown that the younger and more educated use the internet more often.


Dick Lenhert, the FGN Managing Editor and agriculture publication editor for more than 40 years, wrote his editor's letter a few months ago and asked for the readers to respond for their take of social media and the internet.

The response fell in two camps--one that saw no need for it and the other who said it is just a natural evolution of things. Here are some of the responses.

"I bought an old, used Ford tractor for bush hogging and the like. It struck me how peaceful it was to do work on the tractor, take in the sights on the farm and reflect on the things that were going on without being interrupted by telephones or other distractions. Why would I ever clutter up my life with silliness like social networking?" wrote a grower from Kentucky.

While taking the other side of the debate was a farm marketer from Ohio who said, "Social media and the debates around it will fall on the dust pile of history someday. Just as the debates that went on about tractors replacing horses, hybrid corn, herbicides, GMO, GPS etc."

I think the specialty crop operators who sell their products directly to the consumer from their farm or at farmers' markets will embrace this new way to communicate effectively and cheaply with their audience. After all, their business plan relies on connecting with the consumers.

However, the majority of the growers who sell through brokers, packinghouses or processing companies will not adapt as quickly. I think everyone realizes that farmers are more conservative and slower to adapt to new technology until they see it is proven and works. They also live in more rural areas that aren't "hooked-in" like urban centers. Most farmers work the land to get away from the hectic lifestyle of sitting in rush hour everyday just to sit in front of a computer screen.

Our job as "media experts" is to find where this technology makes sense and give them the resources they need. We are launching many new multimedia efforts this year and will continue to adapt and change to what the market demands.

I don't think anyone has the perfect answer right now, except to implement an integrated media plan using print and online advertising and supporting company efforts at trade shows and at the dealer level.

The most important thing we must all due is to work together so we can make this new technology fit the growers' needs.

by Matt McCallum, Great American Publishing

Matt McCallum has owned Great American Publishing in Sparta, MI for 16 years and grew up on a fruit and vegetable farm in Michigan. To reach him e-mail
                     2003   2009

Use a computer       83%    95%
Internet Access      73%    99%
Visit GAP
  web site monthly   47%    75%

Source: Average response from
annual survey of Spudman, Vegetable
Growers News and Fruit Growers
News readership.


"What influences you to make a

Trade publications--70%
Trade shows--61%
Direct sales garnered--55%




"What is the most reliable source for
good crop production information ?"

Chemical Manufacturer--30%
Independent Consultant--13%


"How do you learn about new crop
production products?"

Trade publications--64%
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Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:McCallum, Matt
Publication:Agri Marketing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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