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COUNTRY LIVING LIFESTYLE: WORTHY OF ATTENTION
Editor's note: This is the first of two articles focused on understanding the population of individuals who live in the country as a lifestyle choice.

Central to developing and growing brands is an intimate knowledge of each unique market segment. Since markets are anything but static, continuous monitoring and analysis of market trends is critical. Within agriculture one emerging market segment experiencing significant growth is the population of "country living" folks who choose to reside in the country as a lifestyle choice. The variety of terms used to describe this population, such as lifestyle farmer, hobby farmer, ruralpolitan, part-time farmer, sundowners, etc., touches on the complexities of this market segment.

Market Directions, Kansas City, Mo., recently released a study of the country living population. The study initially investigated the size, growth and market trends of this emerging segment. Given the large size and growth trends, focus shifted to understanding the demographics as well as the lifestyle, hobbies and interests, shopping habits, and purchasing preferences of this group. The combination allows marketers to quantify the size of the market opportunity and identify specific brand development opportunities.

The study contains both primary and secondary components. The primary component includes input from more than 800 individuals recruited from counties with a high incidence of country living folks, while the secondary component analyzes data from a variety of government and industry sources.

It turns out that among the myriad of terms, these people simply refer to their lifestyle as "living in the country." As simple as living in the country sounds, further investigation is warranted due to the complexity of the population — its wants and needs as compared to other market segments, and the significance of this market segment's growth and purchasing power.

MARKET DEFINITION

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides considerable data relevant to this market segment. While more complicated than "living in the country," the USDA term that best applies to this population is "residential/lifestyle farmer." The USDA distinguishes residential/lifestyle farms as one of five farm categories.

By definition residential/lifestyle farmers generate $1,000 to $10,000 in annual farm income and report a major occupation other than farming. Clearly, generating less than $10,000 in income from the farm would indicate a need for income from other sources. Producing farm-related revenue greater than $1,000 enables the operator to claim "farm" status. In doing so, there are positive tax implications for farm-related capital expenses. However, many country living folks do not take advantage of these tax benefits, which indicates that generating farm income is not a key motivator for farming.

MARKET SIZE

Using the USDA definition, the study evaluated the size of this market segment today as well as its growth trends and geographical hot spots. The analysis determined that not only is this market segment sizeable but it is growing. Currently there are approximately 1.2 million residential/lifestyle farms, expanding to 1.6 million if you include "farms" with less than $1,000 in revenues. These 1.6 million farms represent more than half of U.S. farms.

When considering growth among farm categories, the category with the most significant growth from 1997 to 2002 was farms with less than $2,500 in sales. While residential/lifestyle farms are found in every state, geographical concentration is apparent, with the top 10 states representing more than one-third of the farms. Whether counties with the greatest number of residential/lifestyle farms are metro-fringe counties or are in outlying areas varies from state to state.

THE LIFESTYLE

Individuals living this lifestyle are typically middle-aged, educated, married and have traditional values. In some cases children are still at home; in others this lifestyle may follow an empty nest. Lifestyle farmers generally work full-time away from their homes in addition to working on their "farm," indicating these are hard-working folks. They have higher-than-average incomes, with the bulk of their earnings and assets not related to the farm.

Another important finding is that women are primary purchasers and users of products and services supporting the rural lifestyle. Gender differences in product and service evaluation criteria, as well as specific product and service needs, make understanding women's needs important to understanding the country living population.

To effectively understand the population, one must determine why hobby farmers have chosen this lifestyle. The top three reasons for living in the country are love of the outdoors, interest in privacy and getting away from the city. Lifestyle farmers' interests and purchases reflect those priorities. For example, a love of the outdoors is reflected in how this group uses its land, the specific activities and events in which group members participate, their choice of hobbies and the publications they enjoy " all leading to the products and services they purchase.

PASSION FOR ANIMALS

In addition, owning land in the country enables them to embrace another passion ? owning multiple animals and frequently multiple kinds of animals. The country living population's passion for animals is also reflected in the ways they spend their time, energy and money. Dogs and cats are the most common animals, and having a number of each is common among ruralpolitans. Additionally, the incidence of owning horses is much higher among this population than among the general population. Land ownership lends itself to owning multiple horses and participating in a number of horse-related activities. Many of these folks consider their horses a part of the family.

While farm income is not the driver for the lifestyle choice, for those interested in generating farm revenue, animals are more frequent revenue generators than crops. Animals are less labor intensive and offer more flexible labor options than crops. This is particularly important when one considers the full-time jobs, often at a distance, that are held by these small-farm operators. Cattle are the most commonly owned, with approximately 40 percent of the group specializing in cattle. The average number of cattle is 10 to 20 head. In addition to cattle, other common animals include sheep, goats, poultry and exotics such as alpacas and llamas.

IMPACT OF THE LIFESTYLE

Combining demographic information with lifestyle insight provides a rich understanding of this market segment's current and future purchasing behaviors. The individuals who have chosen this lifestyle are investing in the country life. The wide variety of lifestyle-related products and services they purchase demonstrates this investment. Shopping patterns and purchasing habits reflect a combination of their city and/or suburbia background with current wants and needs of their acreage or farm.

THE OPPORTUNITY

A number of factors converge to make this a particularly attractive market segment. Consider a significant and growing population " currently 1.6 million households " with higher-than-average income that is investing in products and services that support the rural lifestyle choice. Consumers are actively seeking products that support their lifestyle and have unique product and service needs. Brands that understand this market segment, develop products and services tailored to the segment, and then market them effectively will enjoy increased brand presence. However, capitalizing on the opportunity begins with understanding this unique market segment.

Next month's focus will be on the benefits of achieving successful consumer relationships through understanding country living folks' technology and media habits as well as their shopping habits and purchasing interests. AM

Susan Spaulding is president of Market Directions Inc., a Kansas City, Mo.-based firm with brand-building expertise and experience in agribusiness and related products and services.


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