By Sarah Mansheim
Alderson farmers Jennifer and Kent Gilkerson are trying a new direct marketing strategy this spring and they have high hopes for its success. The Gilkersons own Sunset Berry Farm and Produce, a four-year-old produce farm on the Monroe County side of Alderson’s Flat Mountain, and this year they have introduced a personalized farming service to the community.
The idea bloomed in January. It was tax time, said Jennifer Gilkerson, and time to order seeds. She said she thought to herself, “if only there was a way I could generate some quick cash,” and then the idea of a produce subscription came to her.
“I said, wouldn’t it be nice if we could offer our customers a package deal?” she says.
The Gilkersons belong to the Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce, and the membership allowed the farm one e-blast from the Chamber free of charge. So, Jennifer said, she used the one freebie to advertise their new service – a weekly produce delivery to a subscriber’s home or business during a 16-week growing season – and the response was huge.
“It paid off! I am just in shock right now. We only have about 10 spaces left,” she says about the subscription service.
The farming service, which costs $560 per year (based on $35 per week for 16 weeks) brings members strawberries, sugar snap peas, ramps, morels, blackberries, sweet corn, supreme blue lake beans, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, zucchini, cantaloupe, watermelon, peppers, cabbage, onions, potatoes, pumpkins and more. Membership sign-ups are due Mar. 1.
Sunset Berry Farm and Produce have been in business since 2010, Jennifer says. She and her husband began selling strawberries that year and soon began growing “a little bit of everything.”
“We have two high tunnels full of strawberries and mustard greens right now,” she says, and anymore, the demand for their strawberries is so great they can’t grow enough of them. “We’ve doubled production, and we still can’t meet the demand,” she says. One of the benefits of the membership is that subscribing customers get first dibs on the strawberries. And, for those who don’t subscribe, the Gilkersons also plan to introduce a pick-your-own program in 2016.
The Gilkersons also have a very successful sweet corn crop as well – Jennifer says that Greenbrier County Schools is their biggest customer for corn, strawberries and other fresh produce.
“(Child Nutrition Program Coordinator) Jenny Curry will buy anything from us that is in a state of readiness,” says Jennifer. The Gilkersons also market their produce directly at the Alderson Community Market, and are also involved in the development of the Alderson Community Food Hub, a farmers collective that is working to fill the gap in Alderson due to the lack of a grocery store. Jennifer says other customers of Sunset Berry Farm and Produce are the Alderson Big Wheel restaurant and Stuart’s Smokehouse.
Jennifer says she and Kent are also keen on giving back to the community. They are in the midst of hosting the second annual Corn for Kids fundraiser, a way for area groups to raise money for their projects by selling Sunset Berry Farm’s sweet corn. Participating groups can earn up to 50 percent of the sweet corn sales. Sign-ups for the fundraiser are open until Apr. 1, and four slots are left.
Between the farming service, the fundraiser, the farmers markets and keeping Greenbrier County Schools flush with produce, it’s impressive that the Gilkersons actually have time to grow their crops, especially since Kent also maintains a full-time job at the Alderson prison. But, says Jennifer, such is the life of the modern farmer.
Kent does most of the physical labor, she says, and she handles the marketing. This is a good balance, she says, because Kent is like a lot of farmers – he doesn’t like to toot his own horn.
“The kind of people that do farming are usually not the type of people to market themselves,” explains Jennifer. She, on the other hand, loves it.
“We are trying to create demand in West Virginia. The big picture is to create a demand for a network of other producers in the area,” she says, keeping small farms in business.
The deadline for the personalized farming service is Mar. 1, and the deadline for the Corn for Kids fundraiser is Apr. 1. Jennifer is taking orders now, and can be reached by phone at 304-646-3784 or by email at email@example.com.