SMALL ACREAGES ARE POTENTIAL BIG BUSINESS FOR AGRIMARKETERS
Who hasn't conducted business on a cell phone on the way to or from work this week? So what does that have to do with agrimarketing? A great deal when it comes to reaching a growing and emerging market.
That market is the ruralpolitan, a professional who chooses a rural lifestyle. Cell phones allow for long commutes to be productive business time. Four-lane highways and interstates connect our nation's metropolitan areas to what used to be outlying small towns but are now rural executive homeowner havens. An array of technologies — sophisticated computers, Internet hookups and satellites — allow instant communication even if your home is 50 miles from work. All these factors have combined in the past several years to allow growth in an emerging market for agrimarketers.
AN EMERGING MARKET
For years, agrimarketers have looked at big farmers and small farmers in separate segments, each providing unique opportunities and challenges for their marketing objectives. Tom Davis, publisher of Successful Farming, says, "It's important to recognize all farmers — big, mid-sized, small farmers — but collectively, there's a whole group emerging that we as a media company are paying more attention to."
That group is the rural residential landowner who is more concerned with lifestyle than profit. Davis continues, "This new emerging market is the rural lifestyle, rural homeowner. It is a ruralpolitan. They could care less about making a buck off the land. That's not their objective. In many cases these are professionals, doctors, lawyers, dentists, publishers and consultants who want to live outside the suburbs or metro area. The rural lifestyle farmer or ruralpolitan is comfortable in this segment. They are living on that rural property because they chose it and want it and can afford the lifestyle."
Mike Gustafson, manager of advertising/creative for John Deere, supports that notion. "There is not just one type of rural lifestyle people who live in the country. You even have distinctive groups of ruralpolitans. You have the gardeners, the wildlife enthusiasts and the lawn buffs. Beyond that, you have those with horses for the kids or that want to dabble in livestock such as a few head of cattle or sheep."
Usually this group holds executive or high-paying professional positions. They value privacy, independence and open space not available in more urban neighborhoods. While they do not expect to make a profit from the land, they do feel a connection with it.
Dr. Mike Duffy is associate director for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and heads up the Beginning Farmer Center at Iowa State University. "We call them by many names: sundowners, weekenders, U-turn farmers, etc., but this distinctive group of rural homeowners has different goals than traditional farmers. As marketers, it is important to understand that this group views the world differently."
"A ruralpolitan is comprised of a mixture of metro and rural attitudes. We have to recognize that," Davis explains.
Duffy agrees that ruralpolitans will pose agrimarketers some unique sales challenges. "I think companies, particularly at the retail and product levels, are going to have to do a better job differentiating to whom they are marketing, how they market, what they market and why they market a product," Duffy says.
The general manager of Federated Co-ops, Pease, Minn., is living with that challenge now. Tim Kavanaugh's central Minnesota co-op has some 35,000 customer-members. "Of that, in the trade territory, we have about 1,600 customers doing ag business, and only about 400 of those are conventional growers. The balance of customers is part-time or otherwise. Everybody's interested in the rural lifestyle. The challenge for us is to have enough intensity to make it pay."
Kavanaugh insists that to successfully service this group, good locations and good salespeople are critical. "This segment requires more from salespeople. It requires more marketing and people skills than other segments of our business. The rural lifestyle individual has different expectations than big farmers do. It requires good people with both the marketing and merchandizing ability to cater to those people. It requires a salesperson with a bigger skill set that can successfully serve the variety of people, ask the right questions, and make the best sale. The challenge for the salesperson is that you have a full-time professional farmer asking you questions about a field — a major input purchase, while sometimes simultaneously answering questions of the person who's there to pick up two bags of chicken feed. It is critical to have people who can successfully deal with both.
"Some of these rural lifestyle people don't really know much about what they need. They are looking for expertise, for convenience, and for your ability to work on their time. It requires being available later in the day and on weekends. They want more full-time service," Kavanaugh explains.
NEW AVENUES FOR THE NEW MARKET
Gustafson says it is true that ruralpolitans think differently than those in traditional ag markets. "John Deere realized that this group was not going out of its way to go to a John Deere dealer. They were shopping at Sears or Lowe's or Home Depot and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I also need a lawn mower.' To have them think about going to a John Deere dealer to buy a tractor just wasn't computing. That has prompted a shift in John Deere's thinking."
Gustafson cited his company's recent initiative that has John Deere lawn tractors for sale at Home Depot. "For years, our ag division and our consumer and commercial equipment division didn't interact on any plane. That has changed. The consumer group has worked very closely with Home Depot to develop a good program to benefit both Home Depot and our dealers. In effect, we have delivering dealers who work closely with Home Depot to uncrate the equipment, make sure it runs well and to service after the sale. The dealer gets paid and gets any referrals for other requests. We've found people going to Home Depot and saying, 'I need something a little bigger.' And we've been able to get them with the referring dealer. The dealers are just ecstatic about this approach."
REACHING RURALPOLITANS OVER THE AIRWAVES
Reach. It's the all-important, critical element, particularly in developing a new niche market. Traditional means for ag input suppliers to reach farmers have heavily involved ag media — farm radio and TV, as well as farm publications.
According to some broadcasters, the ruralpolitan market is tuning in to learn about new opportunities and ideas from voices and programs that both educate and entertain.
"AgriTalk" host Mike Adams says, "Interestingly, between e-mail and phone calls, more of our contact comes from non-farm listeners. As we have more people moving out to become neighbors of ag producers, we are seeing a growing curiosity or desire for more information, more understanding of where the food comes from, what it takes to produce it, what are these sights and sounds going on around me?"
"AgriTalk" has more than 80 affiliates across the nation that air the live, one-hour talk show from 10 to 11 a.m. Monday through Friday. Adams says "AgriTalk" focuses its programming on the entire agricultural production chain. "Our programs discuss critical, serious and interesting ag issues that are very farmer-focused. We also connect the producer with the consumer and, in turn, the consumer with the producer. That means exploring grocery and restaurant issues, people who shop at certain types of markets, and how growers and ranchers produce the food and fiber in this country in an environmentally sound manner. All of these issues are important to producers and consumers."
As broadcasters, Adams says there are opportunities in bridging these gaps. "It's a time to re-evaluate, repackage and reinvent what we do. We see a growing need to meet the educational needs of both farmers and consumers from people who have a working knowledge of agriculture and can present the ideas in a clear manner. These issues are important to everyone out there."
Advertisers who want to reach both groups, rural and urban, can find that niche in farm radio programming, according to Adams. "It is about the business of producing food, fuel, plastics and clothing and the entire process of getting those goods to the consumers. We want to show advertisers we can deliver the audience they are looking for."
For his part, Patrick Gottsch, RFD-TV president, says, "We've seen growing numbers of acreages. People across rural America want, say, three to 10 acres and a few horses. They want the comforts and options they had in the city as well, so they put in a dish. That is how we started reaching this audience." RFD-TV is the first 24-hour television network "dedicated to serving the needs and interests of rural America, and our city cousins alike."
The rural lifestyle people have moved to the country, but Gottsch points out that, in many cases, they don't have the background to fully enjoy or appreciate it. "The ruralpolitan is very hungry for information," Gottsch says. "We try hard to provide educational information that helps answer some of those questions and allows them to explore other ways to enjoy their rural lifestyle. We were amazed following a broadcast of 4-H and FFA programs about the number of calls we received from people wanting to learn more. They'd never heard of either organization. They are anxious to get their kids involved, help them learn."
Gottsch points out that some marketers think of the rural lifestyle segment as a small market. "But take a 160-acre farm and divide it into 16 executive-type homes and there is a lot of buying power there. This rural segment provides a tremendous opportunity to market products - horse feed, tack, fence, tractors, etc." In addition, Gottsch points out that they are both equipped and willing to pay for the convenience and service they hope to receive.
A RURALPOLITAN-FOCUSED PUBLICATION
Successful Farming has launched a new publication called Living the Country Life that specifically targets the rural lifestyle individual. "We've identified a unique group of rural lifestyle individuals that live within this 40-mile radius of any metro area east of the Rockies to the East Coast," Davis says.
Davis says SF and Meredith tapped into their 65 million-name database and used a process called prism profiling. It allowed them, for instance, to look at people in counties A, B, C within a 40-mile radius of a metro area who owned three acres or more, had $100,000-plus income, a home valued at $200,000, owned a truck, etc. "We came up with a unique database of people who fit the profile. It has allowed us to come up with not a clone but a unique list, which makes Living the Country Life very different from other publications out there. It is a new market."
Living the Country Life recently mailed out its sixth edition, with each edition a moneymaker. "We've found there are a lot of companies out there that have been looking for a means to reach this market. We have more than 50 advertisers who are anxious to reach the ruralpolitan market," Davis says. "The ruralpolitans have money. They're not concerned about financing the tractor — they want some information that can help them feel good and maximize the enjoyment of the lifestyle they've chosen."
To date, the challenge has been how to reach this market. "Many advertisers realize there is potential to sell a product to a rural homeowner, a true rural lifestyle/ruralpolitan. We have been able to tap into that market and deliver to 200,000 people who fit this profile," Davis says.
As the rural lifestyle segment grows, ag companies will continue to search for new ways to meet the needs and demands of this new market. And many companies are thrilled about the potential new business that these new demands bring.
"These are exciting times ... in agriculture and in this new market as well," Davis says. "Serving the ruralpolitan market through Living the Country Life is a natural fit. We have the opportunity to step over and provide editorial expertise with our other Meredith publications. In addition to farm lifestyle, these people want to know about patios, decks, landscaping, etc. and we have further expertise to round out those interests."
While not making any predictions, John Deere's Gustafson is optimistic about the overall opportunities the rural lifestyle market offers as well. "I'm excited about it because I'm one of them. The more I talk with other people, I find they either are one or want to be one. It's a very exciting market to be in at a very exciting time." AM
Kathleen Erickson is president of Erickson Communications, an ag marketing communications consultancy in Clarks Hill, Ind.