Apple Valley, Minn. — Gary Pahl grows more than 1,000 acres of vegetables and flowers in Dakota County. But that’s just his seasonal job. He spends 52 weeks a year promoting and selling his farm products.
“People raising local products should be marketing it 365 days a year,” says Pahl, who farms with his brother Brian. “It’s all about building relationships. You have to be out there shaking hands, promoting yourself and your business.” Gary Pahl was one of six Midwest farmers who shared their expertise as part of an AURI market study. All agree that a strong sales plan is a must for competing in wholesale food-distribution channels.
Gary and Brian Pahl raise a dozen sweet corn varieties, six types of squash, green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages and pumpkins. They also raise annual and perennial bedding plants in their greenhouses. The family sells into both retail and food-service markets, primarily in the Twin Cities. They also operate a year-round, on-farm retail store and garden center.
Gary Pahl’s great grandfather began farming along the Minnesota River in the early 1900s. In the 1970s, the family began selling homegrown produce out of the back of a truck. They built an on-farm store in 1982, the year Gary graduated from the University of Minnesota and joined the family business.
The Pahl family expanded rapidly over the next two decades, increasing the operation eightfold, Gary says. Today, the farm encompasses 1,100 acres around Apple Valley and Rosemount and employs 10 full time and 100 seasonal workers. The farm is certified as “sustainable” by Food Alliance Midwest, which provides thirdparty site inspections.
About five percent of the farm’s fresh produce is sold at Pahl’s Market, the family’s farmstead store. The rest is distributed to Cub Foods, Super Valu and Rainbow Foods stores in the Twin Cities, where the vegetables are merchandised as Minnesota Grown. “We also ship some product out of town to Wal-Mart Distribution Centers,” Gary says.
Produce spoken for in advance
“I never plant a crop unless I know I have some buyers prepared to buy it,” Gary says. Before the season begins, he coordinates variety selections and production plans with his customers’ weekly advertising programs. “Then we plant accordingly.”
During the growing season, he talks to his customers every day, so they know what to expect. Cold, rainy weather or harvesting delays “can wreck your marketing plan for a time,” so clear communication with distributors is essential, he says.
During the harvest season, which runs from late June to October, the Pahls pick and ship produce daily. For dependable quality, you need an efficient system for field packing, rapid cooling and cold storage, Gary says. “You can sell just about anything once.” But to be successful year after year, “you have to have consistent quality for the customer.”
The same goes for sanitation and foodsafety practices, he says. “It’s up to our industry to make sure we have safe foodhandling practices.” Food borne disease outbreaks “hurt us all, whether it’s a tomato grown in Arkansas or a tomato grown in Apple Valley.”
The local advantage
Selling locally is a big advantage for Pahl Farms, on the southern edge of the Twin Cities Metro. The brothers run a fleet of eight refrigerated trucks, and their location keeps shipping costs low. Product freshness and quality benefit from market proximity, too, and “we can grow varieties for taste,” rather than shipping sturdiness, Gary says.
Gary, who often speaks to grower groups, has one main piece of advice for farmers who want to produce food for local markets:
“Make sure you have a decent marketing plan. If you’re going to expand your operation, make sure you have a market for it first. End of story.”