Developing a market for the new farm

Wild Ridge Farm relies on three converging streams of revenue: CSA membership sales, Farmer’s Market sales, and Restaurant sales.

Approximately half of our revenue comes from CSA membership, which provides an essential preseason financial boost allowing us the crucial funds to buy seeds, potting mix, compost, and all the other bits and pieces necessary to get plants started early and ready to transplant as soon as soil and air temperatures allow. This early income also allows us to fire up the greenhouse as early as February.

The radiant-heated greenhouse floors use propane to maintain proper temperature which causes our utility bill to spike despite all of our other utility sacrifices—the farmhouse rarely pushes above a balmy 55 degrees throughout February, March, April, and May.

This first CSA season has been marketed predominately by word-of-mouth recommendations. While there are several publications and expos in the Milwaukee area through which to advertise a CSA membership, word-of-mouth remains our most reliable method to-date. We believe a vegetable farm’s reputation for consistently excellent and bountiful produce sells more shares than any glossy flier or half-day meet-and-greet, and though this is Wild Ridge’s first year of selling CSA subscriptions, Alissa and Anna have been running CSA’s in the immediate vicinity for the past 4 years; thus, their reputation for consistently producing excellent produce precedes us, and many of our current CSA members were Alissa’s and Anna’s members in previous years. These satisfied customers tell their closest veggie-loving friends, and those veggie-loving friends invite all their aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews to the family reunion where our watermelons grace all the picnic tables—voila—we’ve just reached the entire 5-county greater metro Milwaukee population. I exaggerate slightly. But you get the idea. Our satisfied customers are an invaluable salesforce.

The real challenge of relying on word-of-mouth advertising is producing a product which inspires your customers to constantly gush of its merits to everyone and anyone who has five minutes to hear the many benefits of eating local, sustainable fruits and vegetables. At Wild Ridge, we try to attract such enthusiasts by focusing on the details of our Farmer’s Market booth presentation, consistently arranging the most eye-catching displays at both our Fox Point and Thiensville markets. How else can one farm stall stand out among ten other vegetable vendors, but by enticing passers-by with a finely-arranged display? If no one stops to look, who will consider making a purchase? Who will be our next satisfied customer?

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by market sales this year which has helped overcome a slight deficit in projected CSA membership sales. In our first Fox Point market week, we already met our projected weekly sales average and now in our thirteenth week we’ve doubled our projected weekly average for the last four consecutive weeks. This has been a triumph of consistently beautiful displays, consistently high-quality and bountiful produce, and consistent word-of-mouth recommendations from our die-hard market customers.

Most times, our third stream of revenue seems like only a trickle. Currently we have but one loyal restaurant customer on the fashionable east side of Milwaukee: Allium Restaurant and Bar. Owner Stephen Haig Marks texts us his produce order every Friday morning while we’re out in the field harvesting for our Saturday market, and though we might only sell him five pounds of White Russian kale and three pounds of arugula, or ten pounds of heirloom tomatoes and five pounds of Ya-Ya carrots, we love having our “Wild Ridge Farm” moniker up on his prominently displayed chalkboard of local meat and produce suppliers. Maybe we’re being vain. Or maybe we are justified in our pride.

Whatever your opinion, we never want to fall into the easy temptation of disregarding all those hundreds of thousands of people living the urban life, dining out five nights a week, only because we prefer the wide-open spaces of our vast acreage and the simple life of growing and preparing our own breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. In our American culture, the rural does not exist without the urban.