Using social media to market fruit

Using social media to market fruit

Katie Finlay grows organic fruit in Harcourt, Victoria, and was recently awarded the 2015 RIRDC Rural Women’s Award to support her project to help farmers use social media to promote their produce at farmers’ markets.

Katie is a third generation fruit grower from Harcourt who now runs a small organic orchard, called Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens, with her husband Hugh.

“Mum and Dad moved here when I was eight from another farm just down the road and Dad’s father was an orchardist in Harcourt as well,” explains Katie. “It was a commercial orchard with mostly apples, a few plums and a cherry block.”

Katie and her three sisters managed the cherry block one after the other to pay their way through university where she studied medicine and then science – including botany and genetics. She spent some time in Melbourne but, after having children, she headed back to rural Victoria to raise them – with no intention of becoming a farmer.

But when her father looked to sell the orchard she knew she couldn’t let it go. None of her sisters were interested in taking it on so she and Hugh purchased it.

“We had stayed really connected to the farm,” Katie says. “But I knew nothing; I didn’t know anything about farming. So I came home and did an apprenticeship with Dad.

“After those first three years, Dad really stepped back and handed over the management reins to Hugh and I. Dad has stayed on and he’s still involved and he’s been a fantastic backstop, but he stopped making management decisions really early on. We started on the organic journey not long after we took over.”

The road to organic

The orchard had been conventionally managed, but Katie explains they simply didn’t like using chemicals and so started to move toward organic production.

“This was nearly 20 years ago and there were still some fairly nasty chemicals that were quite commonly used then. So we dropped some of the broad spectrum insecticides and fungicides out of the mix and started noticing that our predator insects were coming back,” Katie says. “Some problems began disappearing by themselves, and that just started us on a whole journey of learning about biodiversity. And we didn’t know anything really about soil or soil microbes or biological farming at all back then.

“That was the start of the journey – we had decided to go organic even before we understood just how completely important the soil is. In a way that came a bit later.”

By 2008, the farm was certified organic.

Managing weeds and pests

Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens is only a small enterprise with around 6,000 fruit trees with 90 odd varieties of cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and pears.

Katie acknowledges the business is small and that some of their organic management – such as putting chickens under the trees to help with pest and weed management – would only work on a small scale. However, she also considers that some of the techniques they use to manage their pests could be easily scaled up to larger orchards, such as their use of pheromones to control codling moth.

“To manage codling moth, we use the pheromone ties,” says Katie. “When we first went organic we had a really old apple orchard; it was probably 30 or 40 years old. It had been regrafted several times so the varieties were still good, but the population of codling moth that had built up was just too big to control organically and so we got rid of the orchard and started fresh.

“We have been very diligent with our pheromone control in that orchard, and touch wood, still have not had a codling moth in there, which in this district is just incredible because they’re everywhere here.”

Katie places a lot of importance on soil health and biodiversity as critical factors in maintaining overall health of the orchard and keeping the pest, disease and weed balance manageable.

“In everything we do we encourage – either actively or passively – diversity. From the microbes in the soil through to what’s in the understorey through to what we plant in the orchards. We keep the orchards really mixed up and don’t have big monoculture blocks because they’re just a breeding ground for pests and diseases,” she says.

Selling organic

Including the mix of stone fruit, Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens produces Fuji, Gala, Pink Lady™, Sundowner™ and Granny Smith apples as well as a few Cox, Bramley, Gravenstein and Snows. And in the pears they have Williams, Packham, Buerré Bosc, Josephines, Winter Nelis and Winter Coles.

“The premium produce goes to the wholesale market in Melbourne, and that’s about 40 to 50 per cent of what we grow,” says Katie. “Our premium fruit sometimes ends up in supermarkets, but it mostly goes to organic retailers in Melbourne. Then the first grade goes to farmers’ markets and we sell at two to three farmers’ markets every weekend. Most of our second grade fruit also goes here.”

Interestingly, Katie says that the prices they get for their fruit at farmers’ markets – even though it is not their highest quality fruit – is better than if they sold it all through the wholesale market.

“We get better prices selling it ourselves at farmers’ markets,” she says. “But we have too much volume to be selling it all at farmers’ markets, so we’ve got to send some down to the wholesale markets just to shift the volume. They are sent the best because we can sell the next grade easily at farmers’ markets whereas is if we were to send the first grade or second grade to the wholesale market we’d get nothing for it, but if we send the premium fruit down there we still get good prices.”

Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens’ fruit can be found at a number of regional markets in Castlemaine and Bendigo and three farmers’ markets in Melbourne: Collingwood Children’s Farm, Veg Out in St Kilda and Fairfield.

By choosing to sell at farmers’ markets accredited by the Victorian Farmers’ Markets Association (VFMA), the business can help demonstrate its ‘authentic’ grower brand that is at the heart of the business. This is all part of the story – and the business strategy – that Katie says is helping them connect with consumers and build a loyal following of buyers who appreciate and want their produce.

It is also via the farmers’ markets where Katie has exploited the power of social media.

Social networking power

“We have a strategy for how we tell our story,” says Katie. “We very much use social media – mostly Facebook but also a range of other social media, including a blog – to promote our business.

“We’ve got a few key messages and our social media is repeating those all the time – they are about the fact that we are organic, why we’re organic, and our stewardship of our land. But it’s also about our connection with the community, the things we do with the community and the people we invite and host on the farm.”

Community activities in place at Mt Alexander Fruit Gardens include leasing a plot of land to a small business called Gung Hoe Growers to develop a market garden, hosting an intern, and providing work for WWOOFers (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). Plus all their third grade fruit – which is fruit that’s good enough to cook but not good enough to sell – goes to a local group called Growing Abundance that runs a local community catering service that supplies the school canteen.

“We’re quite conscious about how we use social media to portray our business,” explains Katie. “We advertise on social media in the specific geographic regions around the farmers’ markets where we sell our fruit so we build up a local fan base.

“That’s one of the beauties of social media, it’s so targeted and we see real engagement with customers through that. And it makes it easy to ask people questions – so we’re doing our market research all the time. Then they come to the market and you actually get to meet them; it’s great. It’s really lovely.”

But she emphasises that you can’t rely on social media alone – you have to perform well in the real world and deliver good quality fruit too.

First published in Leading Agriculture Issue 9