Need help with marketing fabulous heirloom tomatoes

gponder(7/South OR)March 11, 2005

Hi All. I have a small certified organic farm and sell veggie plants in the spring .This past year I've lurked on the GW and have come up with what I think is a fabulous list of heirloom tomato varieties that I will be selling. Now nearly everyone now a days sells "heirlooms" but I believe my varieties are among the best and I was especially particular of the seed source from which I purchased them. (TGS, Sandhill and SSE commercial catalog). Anyway my dilemma is marketing these beauties. I will have signs for each variety with a color picture of the fruit. What I need is some type of banner with a catchy phrase that will get people to stop at my booth (at our local weekend plant sell). I really don't think "Heirloom Tomatoes" is quite enough. Do any of you out there have any ideas??? I am really excited about growing these varieties and having the plants available for others to share. Thanks to all for your advice and input.


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GrassIsEvil(z6 TN)

Something along the line of 'Remember when a tomato tasted like a tomato?' Okay, now you know why I'm not in advertising.

You're in a bit of a bind. The best advertisement for heirloom tomatoes are the tomatoes themselves. I've sold seeds and subscriptions for the tomato seeds and seedlings when I'm selling the tomatoes themselves, but I've never just sold the seedlings.

Sorry I can't help. Good luck with the project.


    Bookmark   March 12, 2005 at 1:07PM
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I think another problem you're going to run into is simply that "one man's treasure is another man's poison".

Tomatoes, & vegetables in general, are a very personal thing tastewise with people. Ask 10 people what their favorite tomato is - heirloom or otherwise - & you will more than likely get 10 different answers.

Tomatoes I adore, others can't stand, & vice versa.

If your plants are good-looking & healthy, I don't think you can really promote them any further.

    Bookmark   March 12, 2005 at 8:05PM
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GrassIsEvil(z6 TN)

I've been thinking about this. This isn't going to answer your question, but it might help you in some way.

I live in an area that raises lots of tomatoes. These are good tomatoes, but they're for the mass market, i.e., they aren't in general heirlooms or colors. Nonetheless, tourists as well as the public expect to find nice tomatoes here.

The grocers aren't into heirlooms. The nearest grocery is owned by the family of a guy I went to school with. His younger brother manages the grocery. I convinced him to let me set up a display on the covered outside walkway. Something about giving him a swirlie if he didn't agree, but that's another story. It was a stepped produce display (okay, it was boards and cinderblocks, but you get the idea). The deal was a third of the retail price plus half of the difference between tomato sales the previous Saturday over the day with the new tomatoes. I was there to help, discuss, give out recipes, etc., but the sales went through the grocery.

I put out some nice beefsteaks, Donas, Big Rainbows with Arkansas Travelers, Aunt Ruby's, BFT--about twenty varieties altogether (I got a little carried away with the ordering). I arranged slices of the different kinds on a plate with smaller pieces so people could sample--kept under cling wrap and with toothpicks. Most people bought the more common reds--but quite a few also bought one or two of the others just for the fun of it and the tomato sales nicely exceeded the previous week's.

Sunday, the grocery is closed. We set up the stand early, then left it on the honor system while we went to church, and then finished up the day. Besides the church members, lots of people came by, a surprising number returning for more of the neat new tomatoes.

It was a very nice arrangement, nicely profitable for both of us, that we continued the rest of the summer (although my Saturday participation was somewhat sporadic and with him paying half of retail.)

Anyway, I took names for a mailing list and with that list, along with a small ad in the local paper, I took subscriptions for seedlings from the various types of tomatoes. How this helps you, I don't quite know, but there it is.


    Bookmark   March 13, 2005 at 12:42AM
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ohiorganic(5/6 SW Ohio)

Look at the seed descriptions. Heirlooms should have a story behind them. So include along with info such as fruit size, taste, color, plant size etc.. the story of each heirloom. tell why the tomato has the name it does (like Dr Wyche's yellow was grown by Dr, Wyche who was the owner of the Clyde Beattie Cole Circus back in the early 1900. I bought the seeds because of the circus tie in, I like circus history. I found them to be about my favoruite yellow tomato)

    Bookmark   March 13, 2005 at 11:47AM
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You have to look at your customers. And you might have such a broad spectrum that there isn't gonna be one simple phrase that ropes them all in. I'd go for "Old Time Favorites" or "Grandma's Special T'maters" and also add a second line about "Tried and True Heirlooms for this area".

I am also offering heirlooms this year (haven't made it to the market yet, and last year it was only arts and crafts) and the one problem that I never expected came from long term gardener's responses when I brought up the idea. They proclaimed that heirlooms don't survive well in their yards - too many diseases from years and years of tomato production. They reluctantly grow hybrids so they can get a decent crop.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2005 at 1:31PM
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gponder(7/South OR)

Thank you all for your input!
Ray: I appreciate your thoughtful input. It gets me thinking and I like your quote! Maybe you should be in advertising.
Breezy: I am working toward getting these guys into top condition.
Ohio: Good advice. I'm working on the descriptions now. Lots of history behind these guys. As a side note, I have enjoyed your many posts on this board and have gleaned quite a bit of info from them.
Triangle: Great quotes. Appreciate your input. As far as disease resistance and hardiness in heirlooms, many of the varieties I've choosen to grow are hardy and productive and some have a decent natural resistance to disease. And don't forget the taste.
Thank you all!!!!!!!

    Bookmark   March 14, 2005 at 12:07AM
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Ron_and_Patty(z7 GA)

Glenda and others,

Have you decided what you will sell your plants for? We have some heirloom tomato plants as well, and we have put in a lot of hours with these little guys! The cost of materials (pots, seeds, etc) is around 25 cents each for us, but the labor cost is at the very least $1.75 each. This may sound high, but we really have put in a lot of hours of tender loving care. We went to Wal-mart yesterday to see if they had any tomato plants, and they did...$5.00 each for hybrids heirlooms were available.

I would love to sell ours at $5.00 each as well, they are in 4.5" pots, and just as nice (maybe nicer) than the ones at Wal-mart. And it would make the project worth while (if we can only get $3, I doubt that we would no it again at this scale). I have seen them on line for as little $2.00, but it didn't say what size the plants were.

We appreciate any feedback and advise.


    Bookmark   March 15, 2005 at 10:34AM
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My area is a hotbed of heirloom tomato growers. The standard price at the Farmers Market is $2 per dixie cup and some years the seedlings are small and others they are oversized for a dixie cup. The guy I know does nothing special (no greenhouse, grows them on his driveway) grows and sells plenty of them.

I don't think my Walmart sells anything for $5! and I don't think they would know what an heirloom tomato is!

    Bookmark   March 15, 2005 at 11:37AM
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gponder(7/South OR)

In my area, last year the going price for 3" pots was $1.50. A couple of the larger vendors seem to set the price, too bad as it barely covered our cost. This year with the price of plastic on the rise I think prices will range from $1.75-$2.00, we will no doubt go with the $2.00 price. At this particular sell I am talikng about, the largest grower goes through at least 10,000 plants and a small to mid sized grower can easily sell 2000-3000. Needless to say I'm have been busy seeding and transplanting.

    Bookmark   March 15, 2005 at 10:48PM
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GrassIsEvil(z6 TN)

I find the Dixie Cup Special works well. For pre-paid subscription, I price mine at $2.50 each, five for $10.00 and throw in a Yellow Pear cherry, plus a delivery fee.

Patty, even at $3, wouldn't that be a 50 percent profit?One thing I try to do when selling seed or seedlings is emphasize that the heirloom varieties don't need special care. It may be that you could cut back on some of the time spent and make growing heirlooms more viable for you.


    Bookmark   March 15, 2005 at 10:54PM
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Ron_and_Patty(z7 GA)

John, I guess it is because we in a booming area with a new subdivision or strip mall going up daily and still there are more customers than stores. The parking lots are full consistently, so they can over charge and get away with it.

Glenda I can not image a sell that big! Is it a one day sale?

Ray, I think you are right...we may have tried too hard this year, and we started them a few weeks early, adding to the labor! There isn't a market open in April here, so we had to find a place to sell the plants and do additional advertising. We created a handout for each customer to take home, and a large notebook to show customers with a page dedicated to each variety, including it's story (If there is one), pictures if available, and the special qualities of the tomato. We have learned a lot this year, so next year we will be more efficient. We added lots of shelving and lights, mixed our own seed starting mix and transplant mix, and after the plants were 6 weeks old, we moved them out doors on sunny days, then back in for the night. How do your customers pre-order? Do you have a website?

    Bookmark   March 16, 2005 at 7:14AM
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GrassIsEvil(z6 TN)

No, I don't have a website. I advertised on the State Department of Agriculture site, which put me in touch with several commercial operators, through the local agricultural newsletter, and through a customer list and newsletter.

As mentioned above, I compiled a mailing list of customers who had expressed an interest in acquiring seeds and/or seedlings of heirloom tomatoes. I have also been accumulating a fairly extensive mailing list of my customers, members of gardening interest groups, etc. We combined my lists with the list of customers from my friend's nursery and we sent her newsletter, with an insert on my tomatoes and other things, to all those people. She has a bulk mailing permit for her own newsletter and I supplied the labor force.

We used the nursery as the mailing address and local pick-up point, money due up front and your seedling choices are guaranteed. Any seedlings not sold go to the nursery. That's about it.


    Bookmark   March 16, 2005 at 7:52PM
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I have a sign TOMATOES WITH TASTE. I also do a variety pack of different tomatoes as a special with 1 each of about 5 varieties so they can try them out. I don't do plants jsut produce in August and Septmeber.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2005 at 5:49PM
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GrassIsEvil(z6 TN)

Another marketing strategy that might help you:

While on vacation in the Smoky Mountains, I kept an eye on the roadside produce signs. One emphasized the Cherokee heritage and even had Cherokee Purple tomatoes on the stand and in the adjoining fields. In conversation with the owner, the point was made that due to the elevation, tomatoes started late and he didn't get them on the stand until late in the season.

He had no greenhouse--so we arranged that I would supply Cherokee Purple seedlings to him and his family group. I can use the leftover seedlings I don't sell for our earlier season and I hold them longer so they're larger than I commonly sell.

My CP's go into the field earlier, so I can sell him the tomatoes while he's waiting for his to ripen. He's very happy with the arrangement and we're expanding it.

The thing to remember is that marketing isn't simply selling; it's finding the opportunities for selling and even creating the opportunities for selling.


    Bookmark   March 20, 2005 at 8:15PM
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chinamigarden(z5 MI)


The guy who grows them in his driveway sounds like NCtomatoman who is a frequent contributor to the tomato forum here on GW.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 9:07AM
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Thats who I buy mine from - but there are others also.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 1:26PM
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chinamigarden(z5 MI)

I have seen pictures that he posts of all his plants in his driveway. Its quite a scene. I remember the trouble I had last year just trying to harden off my 30 tomato and 25 pepper plants in my driveway. The wind and the kids, I can't imagine dealing with the numbers that he does.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2005 at 2:26PM
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adrianag(AL z7)

If I were you I would post pictures of the tomatoes and a description of the flavor. Attache them in a way that they can't "walk".

    Bookmark   March 26, 2005 at 6:59PM
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