Tapping Into Your Local Market: Ways to Build Relationships and Your Greenhouse Operation


For years I’ve been telling anyone who would listen: “We need to get back to doing business on a hand-shake.” Embrace the honest-to-goodness partnerships our grandfathers’ grandfather built his farm on while cultivating respect and neighborly loyalty. Throw the contracts out the window, trust your gut, and start being real with people.

Stop shaking your head at me.

Don’t write me off just yet.

While our ancestors’ way of business will never return to our 21st century, we’re not far off from my fantasy. There is a movement already happening towards this mentality. Our farmers’ markets are the perfect example. And Matt Fox, founder and owner of Fox Greenhouses, is the perfect farmer to tell you how to live that life.

The objective for this second blog post featuring Fox Greenhouses was to share tips on how to tap into your local market to support and grow your greenhouse operation. However, I quickly learned Matt’s success wasn’t necessarily built on 5-10 tips I could easily roll out in bullet-form. What really keeps him in business is his way of doing business. They say you shouldn’t list “customer service” as a company quality on your website, but Matt can.

That’s your first tip: Have damn-good customer service.
If you’re not willing to call your customers 1-2 times a week, whether you’re asking for business or humbly asking for leeway because the harvest wasn’t as bountiful, you won’t make it. Stop right now. Your customers have to trust you, your customers’ customers have to depend on you, especially when supplying a grocery store.

If you’ve got that – let’s move on.

Here is how Matt went from supplying a few grocery stores and farmers markets, to expanding his tomato greenhouse operation and signing an exclusivity contract with one of the largest grocery store chains in the Midwest.

Tip #2  – Find potential customers.
Matt met with local produce managers to gauge their interest and understanding of hydroponically growing vine-ripened tomatoes. Our Iowa market, and most markets these days, are very interested in supporting local growers. Once Matt had a few produce managers on board, their excitement spread to other managers within the grocery store’s network.

Tip #3 – Determine your product.
While I might think strawberries would be a great plant to grow simply because I can never eat enough strawberries, my peculiar taste may not be the market’s taste. Matt chose to grow beefsteak tomatoes because they were the most-desired tomato of all and he had a good support system to rely on for growing them.

Tip #4 – Give them a taste test.
Even if you have a handful of companies ready to buy local, before they can stand behind your product, they’ll have to taste it. Fortunately for Matt, a grower close enough to Dallas Center, Iowa, but far enough away not to compete, was growing beefsteak tomatoes in the same Dutch bucket hydroponic system as he was, and offered to allow Matt to use those tomatoes for tasting.

Tip #5 – Determine your price point.
So you’ve got interested customers, you’ve sold them on the process, on the product, but it’s not a done deal until you’ve set your price. Matt uses a cost-driven model: Start with expenses, factor in profit (don’t forget to pay yourself!) and then, compare your price to other competitors. Evaluate whether you could raise your price (think of the benefits associated with buying a local, organic tomato) or if you need to lower expenses.

Tip #6 – Accommodate your customers, if possible.
Matt says his customers don’t require special packaging, but that might not be the case everywhwere. Know when and how your clients prefer to have their product delivered. Additionally, every tomato Matt delivers to the grocery store comes with a “Made in Dallas Center, Iowa.”

Tip #7 – Diversify your market.
While supplying large grocery stores may be your ultimate goal, participating in farmers’ markets is great way to ensure your harvest doesn’t go to waste, and helps build loyalty.

Tip #8 – Educate your customers.
Knowing in advance what misconceptions there may be with your product, will help you market better. In Matt’s case, vine-ripened tomatoes weren’t necessarily something his customers were familiar with. Explaining the benefits not only puts the power in the consumers’ hands, but reinforces the importance of buying local.

Tip #9 – Foster your relationships and work openly through the growing pains.
It’s no joke how important customer service has been to Matt’s success. While his business grew, so did growing pains and what helped him get over those hurdles was the open and honest (read: HONEST) relationship he had created with his customers. Humbly Matt shared with me that his weekly phone calls to produce managers, respectful demeanor, and willingness to work as a partner in their success was what brought him to his fortunes today: Expanding his greenhouse from two bays to six, and supplying one of the largest grocery store chains in the Midwest. You have to take care of your customers, without them, you’ll get nowhere.

In case you missed it, read last week’s post featuring Fox Greenhouses and Matt’s 8 grow tips for cold climate greenhouses. Subscribe to our blog (in the right hand column) to receive the next post in this four-part series highlighting 5 rookie mistakes.

Fox Greenhouses is located in Dallas Center, Iowa. Founder, Matt Fox has been growing pesticide-free, vine-ripened tomatoes hydroponically since 2000. Connect with them on Facebook.