A Marketing Lesson From Farmer Fred


Isn’t it great to meet new people, and find yourself unexpectedly inspired?

Fred Flemming of Shepherd's Grain

Fred Fleming of Shepherd’s Grain

My friend Tom McArthur is co-host of Business Talks, a radio program I “produce” here in Spokane. (Scare quotes intentional; more on Business Talks in a future post.)

A few days ago, Tom invited me to join him for coffee with his friend Fred Fleming. Farmer Fred, as Tom calls him, is one of a nearly disappearing breed: the family farmer. Nearly, because they’ll never disappear if Fred has anything to do with it.

How’s Farmer Fred helping to save the family farm?

In the broadest sense: marketing. Fred is a wheat farmer. He learned a long time ago that farmers can be cruelly tied to commodity prices completely beyond anyone’s control. So Fred and his partner Karl Kupers took matters into their own hands.

Fred said (and I paraphrase liberally): 

If a farmer is simply a source of raw material, he has to depend on a lot of luck.  But if he creates a more direct line to the end user, he’s got a whole lot more control.

In order to own more of what management types call “the value chain,” Fred and Karl created Shepherd’s Grain.

In a nutshell: 43 local farms, dedicated to sustainable farming practices, have banded together to produce and market a special brand of flour that stands out in the marketplace. Chefs and retailers can tell their customers precisely where the wheat came from. It’s guaranteed to be farmed with sustainable techniques. And Fred says it tastes great. I believe him—some of the best restaurants in our region use Shepherd’s Grains.

Varieties are distributed through wholesalers and are used at locations across Washington, Idaho and Oregon in restaurants, bakeries and pizzerias. Profits that might have gone to huge multinationals now go to local producers.

Everyone wins, except the multinationals.

Marketing once was mainly about promotion.

Promotion is still important. But today marketing is evolving more towards strategy—figuring out how you can serve customers better, and how to win in an increasingly complex marketplace. Can you identify customers who aren’t being well served? How can you use your imagination and energy to create extra value? How can you differentiate?

Convincing someone that your commodity is sexier than the other guy’s isn’t enough.

The global marketplace continues to change.

Like Farmer Fred and Shepherd’s Grain, we all need to change with it. How is your business, and your marketing strategy, changing? Please comment below. 


11 thoughts on “A Marketing Lesson From Farmer Fred

  1. Barrett, you are to be commended for not succumbing to the temptation of liberally using bad farmer puns in the writing of this post (i.e., ‘And oh how Shephaed’s Grains have harvested success!’).

    Nice post.

  2. It’s ethos, it’s philosophy as much as strategy. What is your brand about, what’s the role of your company beyond giving people jobs and selling stuff, how why you grow, adapt, evolve? It’s Apple seeing digital as a consumer and enterprise revolution, not limited to computer but expanded – and connected – to music, images, content, consumption, creation giving us all these wonderful iToys.

    My business is changing. Doesn’t matter my ‘experience’ or social status, I know I’m worth more and am shifting my model to go after it, get paid that – find the clients or job that’ll take me where I want to be in my career. I’ve got a lot of learning to do this year, even more work – but here’s to making it count. FWIW.
    Davina K. Brewer recently posted..What is YOUR Super Bowl?

    • I don’t disagree Davina. I tend to wrap philosophical aspects into strategy — “strategy” can be such a big all-encompassing word that it can lose meaning. Or mean different things to different people.

      And I hear you on the “experience” part. Paraphrasing from Lord of The Rings: “Change is upon us, whether you would have it, or not!”

  3. Hi Barrett.

    What an awesome idea. It always makes me feel good when I hear stories like this. If a group of farmers can innovate in a market that is so controlled then it should inspire us all to wake up to new realities.

    I loved your mis-step in the post……”some of the best restaurants in our restaurants” I think I get your point tho. Hahahaha…..cheers!
    Ralph recently posted..QOTW 2013: Week 7: Everyone needs a little help to be productive, including you!

  4. Hey Barrett

    In these hard times, farmers definitely need to adapt to survive as we all do.

    I’ve broadened the subject matter I talk about on my blog mainly because I want to do more story-telling, conversational pieces. That’s what I enjoy doing.

    I’m trying not to go too far from the tag line of my blog though, although I am adapting and moving on from that more and more so I may need a rethink at some point on that!
    Tim Bonner recently posted..Insomnia Is My Nemesis

    • Thanks for visiting Tim. You’ve been on quite a journey over the past couple of years, haven’t you? Change is your thing. Paraphrasing from Lord of the Rings: Change is upon you, whether you would have it or not!

      In my new role as a producer of a business-oriented radio program, I get to talk to lots of successful business people. Change is what they thrive on.

    • Justin, it seems that the ag community is learning that their customer is not just Monsanto and other gigantic corporations, but also the end user. It’s a nice trend, isn’t it?

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