by Dan Kelley, Contributing Writer
It's a steadily growing market of former suburbanites and city dwellers who are drawn to the country to pursue their passion and have opened up a considerable market for enterprising companies.
Many ag-based companies who have discovered the rural lifestyle market and have created in-house teams that have created aggressive marketing techniques to cater to the market's wants. Often times it means a different marketing approach from the economic based agriculture market. Hobbyists see their passion as a luxury, not a practicality, and are willing to spend more
to maintain their craft.
MEETING THEIR NEEDS
Naturally, the needs of a hobbyist differ greatly from those of a career farmer. Companies who have achieved the most success in this new market are doing so by understanding the desires of the customers and having a willingness to customize a service to fit their needs.
One of those companies is Morton Buildings, Morton, IL. Morton spokesman Al Viney says it is essential for companies to work with customers to discover what they specifically desire.
"Folks who move from the city to the country have a passion," Viney explains. "That's why they're making a move, to get more space and do the things they want and really value in life - most are lifestyle and hobby oriented and have different needs. The key is to understand what the customer is looking for and match that with products and services."
AgFirst Farm Credit Bank spokes-person Joy Upchurch says the same principles apply when providing constructive credit to farmers and the lifestyle farmer market alike.
"To us, a Lifestyle Farmer is someone who wants to buy or already owns land or a home in a rural area," Upchurch says. "Generally, they want to own land or live in the country to fulfill a lifestyle interest, rather than meet an economic need."
AgFirst is a part of the Farm Credit System that provides marketing and other services to 23 affiliated Farm Credit and AgCredit associations in 15 eastern states and Puerto Rico.
Land O' Lakes Purina feed has taken many innovative steps to tap into this market, spokesman Brad Schu says, a market that is dominated by companion animal owners.
"Realistically, this is the entertainment business because we are competing for their disposable time and income," Schu says.
Schu says 90 percent of his business is with companion animal owners who invest a negative cash flow in their animals, unlike with cattle that can be sold for profit.
So what are some successful approaches to breaking into this new market?
Morton Buildings has been in business since 1903 and in recent years has seen the accelerated need for providing customized buildings for the hobbyist. "Our business started in the agricultural market, but with the consolidation of farms we found that market becoming concentrated," Viney says. "At the same time we saw the growing market in acreage property develop with the baby boomers moving from the suburbs back to the country and even looking for retirement communities."
Viney says the best approach to the market is finding a way to meet the customers' customized needs. "Whether they are collecting cars or keeping animals, the customer needs specialized space," Viney says. "We match the design of our buildings to the prospect's passion so it is more of a solution than just a shelter."
Typically, a customer will detail what they would like to see in their building and then Morton will install the main portion of the building. A Morton representative meets with a prospect and plans a unique building for that customer and provides the size, style and functionality the customer requires. In addition, Morton reaches out to subcontractors to complete the building to each specific customer needs.
Farm Credit's step into this market was a natural for two reasons, Upchurch says. "First, the mission of the Farm Credit System is to provide dependable and constructive credit to farmers and to provide for an adequate and flexible flow of money into rural areas. Therefore, lending to the Lifestyle Farmer market, and especially lending to young, beginning and small farmers, is part of fulfilling our congressionally mandated mission," Upchurch explains.
"Secondly, we have the expertise to efficiently and effectively serve this market. We've been making loans on land and homes in the country for 90 years. We know rural America, and we are the experts in rural financing."
Farm Credit offers the same array of products to the lifestyle farmer that they offer to farm borrowers: Fixed rate loans — with terms and amortizations of 10, 15 and 20 years, and all "odd" years in between to fit their needs; ARMs, and variable rate loans tied to the Wall Street Journal Prime Rate or the 90-day LIBOR rate.
It's also the modern day conveniences that set Farm Credit apart, she explained.
"We also offer ready access to funds with our AgriLine Checks and Online FastCash, a product that allows borrowers to transfer funds from their Farm Credit loans to their commercial bank accounts overnight at no charge," Upchurch reports. "In addition, we offer online payment and online access to account history, etc., through AccountAccess. With these products and several others, we've made it easier for our full-time and Lifestyle Farmers to do business with us 24/7."
Perhaps one of the most dramatic adaptations to the new market is Land O' Lakes Purina's creation of an entire shopping experience based on the rural lifestyle market.
Its America's Country Store (ACS) Program kicked off in 1998 and has grown exponentially since then. Nationwide, there are now 250 ACS and Premier services open and another 150 are currently in development. These stores are not like most department stores geared towards conventional uniformity. The stores are crafted to meet the needs of their regional marketplace and geared mostly towards the female shopper.
Purina is very pleased with their market strategy, Schu says. "The major element was to create a shopping environment for this clientele. It is more service oriented and an educational shopping experience." The remarkable expansion of these stores is supported by what Schu terms "flashlight feeders"— animal owners who feed their companions in the morning and evening while it is dark and have an off-premise career during the rest of their day.
A company's product line must be matched with aggressive communications in order to reach this new market. Many companies craft their strategies from years of research and surveys. Armed with this knowledge, companies rely on advertising in select media best suited to the market.
AgFirst employs a full array of communications activities to reach the rural lifestyle market. As the result of focus group research conducted in 1998, the lender coined the term "Country Mortgages" as its brand for the lifestyle market.
It utilizes television and radio advertising. Targeted print advertising in magazines put the right information in the hands of the right potential borrower; including Progressive Farmer, Hobby Farms, Living the Country Life, Southern Farm and Ranch; OEI Properties; Southeast Equine and other regional publications. The company also sponsors the Progressive Farmer Idea House and Farmstead.
In addition, AgFirst directly communicates with its customers through quarterly magazines published by each of the 23 affiliated Farm Credit and Ag Credit associations. "In recent years, our associations have added content to their magazines — and, in some cases, totally redesigned their magazines — to address the needs and interests of the Lifestyle Farmer market," Upchurch said.
"Their magazine is now distributed, not only to customers, but to real estate agents, real estate investors, timber and timberland investors, and others interested in buying land in southwest Georgia."
AgFirst has also taken quite an unconventional step in their advertising approach. "In 2005, we began displaying ads in the Atlanta airport — the busiest airport in the world — and we've had quite a few leads generated from those ads," Upchurch said.
TRADE SHOWS AND MEETINGS
Morton Building's Viney reports his company is one of the sponsors of the Living the Country Life TV show which airs on the RFD-TV channel. Along with advertising and direct mail it has representatives at a number of trade, garden, car, and home shows to interact with the customer. "We hope to educate the customer so they will know what we have to offer," Viney says. "They need to know we offer more than a shelter, we offer a solution for each of them and their passion."
The Morton Buildings Web site (www.mortonbuildings.com) is also a key component for drawing in new customers. The Web site features virtual tours for potential customers to peruse.
Land O' Lakes Purina has a solid foundation of database marketing tools to its compliment television, radio and its magazine. In addition, it sponsors more than 1,000 Horse Owner Workshop informational meetings each spring that are hosted by its dealers. They feature a wide range of professional speakers, from horse trainers to the local veterinarian.
The key, though, is to personalize the event to make it more appealing to the audience. "We try to make it educational and entertaining for the attendees," Schu says. "We call it 'edutainment.'"
As more and more suburbanites move to the country, the market will continue to grow to meet their needs. Hobbyist and nature lovers of all variety are building homes with small acreages in rural areas as the low cost of living draws new families looking for space. City dwellers are willing to extend their commute for an extra piece of mind.
Consumers are settling into rural America to fulfill an as-yet-unrealized wish, and are willing to spend more to realize it. Suppliers recognize the market as entertainment and luxury driven and have matched services accordingly. Whether it is through providing constructive credit, providing a solution instead of a shelter, or building a new store designed primarily for the rural lifestyle shopper, companies are finding creative approaches to be successful in this market.
Dan Kelley is a freelance writer based in Chesterfield, MO.