Fall 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA8

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Starting a County Agricultural Marketing Program

A county-based marketing program, which includes a "Sonoma County Select" seal, has recently been created to increase consumer demand for these products by enhancing awareness of the great diversity and quality of the county's agricultural products. Extension provided Sonoma County's agricultural community with an opportunity to work together. Similar cooperative marketing programs could be successful in other areas of the county.

Paul Vossen
Horticulture Farm Advisor
Cooperative Extension
University of California, Sonoma County, Santa Rosa, California

What do varietal wines, fresh salmon, Christmas trees, and Gravenstein apples have in common? They-and a cornucopia of other agricultural products-all emerge from the lush valleys, scenic hills, and icy Pacific waters of Sonoma County, California. Just 50 miles north of San Francisco, Sonoma County is home to some of the most diverse and productive farms, fields, and coastal waters in the country. A county-based marketing program, which includes a "Sonoma County Select" seal, has recently been created to increase consumer demand for these products by enhancing awareness of the great diversity and quality of the county's agricultural products.

Marketing Problem

Gourmets nationwide have experienced the bounty of Sonoma County's speciality produce, wines, seafood, meats, and processed products. The county's reputation as a premier supplier of "top of the line" products had been steadily growing during the 1980s. Yet, many of the local farmers were unaware of the special attention that Sonoma County products received.

In addition, some Sonoma County farmers have found little incentive to stay in agriculture due partly to the lack of a coordinated marketing effort. Without an incentive, farm lands in Sonoma County have decreased 20% over the last 15 years. Other major agricultural problems facing the county include increasing competition from out-of-state marketing programs, foreign products, and strong urbanization pressures.

Since the major commodity groups, grower associations, and marketing orders don't include Sonoma County's mostly small-to- moderate-sized producers, how could they best market their products within the region and across the country? The Sonoma County Agricultural Marketing Program (SCAMP) was developed to do just that. SCAMP is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Sonoma County's agricultural heritage. Its mission is to enhance opportunities for the county's agricultural community, improve its well-being, and motivate consumers to purchase Sonoma County agricultural products. The way this agricultural marketing program was formed demonstrates a successful, cooperative effort on the part of county government, private industry, and Extension agents.

Soliciting Cooperation

The first step to promoting the natural wonders of Sonoma County involved evaluating ways to implement such a program. The Extension faculty wanted the input of the people who produce the grapes, meat, dairy, fruits, and specialty foods of the area. We also wanted to hear from local grocers, consumers, chefs, and processors to find out what they really wanted.

In the Fall of 1987, Extension county advisers contacted innovative farmers, processors, and marketers, inviting them to participate in a new program to promote their products and services. Many of these people successfully marketed their own commodities, and their input as leaders in their industries would be invaluable. The response was outstanding.

The County Board of Supervisors officially appointed these leaders to a 21-member Blue Ribbon Task Force. We worked closely with this diverse group and organized a series of six weekly planning sessions at the Extension office. We solicited many agricultural, business, and marketing experts to share their experience and knowledge with the task force.

The initial questions we set out to answer were:

  • Is there a need for an agricultural marketing program in Sonoma County?

  • If a need exists, what aspects should be included in developing a cost-effective marketing program?

As might be expected, the answer to the first question was a resounding yes. The county's agricultural market was underdeveloped, and while Sonoma County enjoyed a percentage of the San Francisco Bay area market, we also believed the county had the potential to become the "bread basket" for the entire area.

Individual producers and commodity groups had neither the funds nor the expertise to develop and implement a comprehensive marketing program. We therefore recommended forming an independent umbrella organization to oversee a countywide marketing effort.

Other recommendations included a market research study to establish an understanding of existing and potential markets and create a comprehensive promotional program. Such a program would develop media contacts, a marketing logo, product tastings at food fairs, and educational programs for the producers, buyers, brokers, and consumers of local products.

Extension's Role

The arduous task for organizing and facilitating the many different agricultural interests was made easier through teamwork among the Sonoma County Extension staff. For example, the 4-H Youth, Human and Community Development adviser, as an organization development expert, helped with meeting agendas, developed a group empowerment process, and facilitated the meetings. The Extension home economist served as a task force member, representing the consumer interests in Sonoma County agricultural products.

The meetings more than met expectations-interest and attendance were consistent throughout the six weeks. The Extension staff provided leadership and support for the sessions and introduced the group to other successful agricultural marketing efforts. Informational videos were shown, followed by discussions. A trademark attorney emphasized the importance of product registration. Chefs, supermarket managers, brokers, and distributors made the group aware of the huge current demand for high quality products, and the developing reputation of Sonoma County.

Extension faculty told the task force about the existing and potential production levels of Sonoma County agricultural products. We also organized the task force, facilitated the discussions, and nurtured the entire process. This comprehensive effort resulted not only in the formation of SCAMP, but also in a coalition of business friendships based on cooperation and shared interests. Bonds of trust replaced any initial resistance or mistrust. We brought together 21 people representing diverse agricultural commodities to promote our common link. And, it worked.

Such teamwork paid off in more ways than one. A task force member from the Sonoma County Economic Development Board helped SCAMP produce vital startup funds. In the Spring of 1989, SCAMP received $25,000 in seed money from the County Board of Supervisors. The following year, SCAMP also received a $75,000 grant from the Federal State Market Improvement Program. Additionally, in 1990, the program obtained $58,500 in promotional funding from the county.

Program Elements

From those early days, SCAMP has evolved into a visible, thriving agricultural marketing program. With its initial funding secured, SCAMP has created some useful marketing tools and engaged in successful educational programs. The program has:

  • Developed the Sonoma Select logo to help consumers readily identify locally produced farm commodities. The logo was unveiled at SCAMP's 1989 Spring Kick-Off Reception, and millions of individual packages now bear this logo (see Figure 1).

    Figure 1. Sonoma County Select seal.

  • Conducted a marketing educational seminar to help local farmers evaluate their products in the marketplace, develop distribution channels, effectively use public relations, identify consumer demand, and improve communication skills.

  • Set up booths at many area events and promotions, including the County Fair, Harvest Fair, Farmer's Market, Wine Auction, and several in-store tastings at supermarkets.

  • Developed a research program to learn about consumer attitudes toward Sonoma County products.

  • Published a monthly newsletter to keep the agricultural community informed of pertinent local, regional, and national marketing news.

  • Developed many point-of-sale materials to colorfully identify products in stores.

  • Hired a part-time merchandising salesperson to act as a liaison between SCAMP members and the markets.

  • Developed promotional ads for radio, TV, the print media, and billboards.

Since 1989, SCAMP's membership has grown from 18 to over 270 grower-processor and associate members. All services are provided by membership dues, which are on a sliding scale starting at $75 a year. For producers, membership offers a lot of exposure for not much money. SCAMP's first full year of staffed operation was 1990. The program's finances are stable, the community is supportive, and many people have come to understand the value of cooperative marketing through the SCAMP program.

Extension provided Sonoma County's agricultural community with an opportunity to work together. Similar cooperative marketing programs could be successful in other areas of the country.

What one farmer has to say about SCAMP...

If it weren't for the University of California Cooperative Extension Service, SCAMP wouldn't have been developed. It was a great visionary effort on the part of the Extension staff to see the potential for marketing our products and get the agricultural community involved. We weren't acting out of catastrophic necessity to save agriculture, but once we saw the potential for improved sales, we became committed.

Many county growers are very thankful for SCAMP's efforts because they don't have the time, money, or knowledge to market their products adequately. Farmers have too much to do already just producing the crop, and often don't have the marketing background to conduct an effective promotion.

SCAMP has the potential to really help specific agricultural industries with its programs in education, diversification, research, and tourism. We're all working at maintaining the economic incentive to stay in agriculture in the face of constant urban pressure. SCAMP's marketing efforts have really helped that cause.

Dante "Dan" Benedetti
Owner of Clover-Stornetta Dairy, Inc.
Petaluma, California
Dan was an original task force member and is the past president of SCAMP's Board of Directors.