Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems

Research Papers

Determining marketing costs and returns in alternative marketing channels

Shermain D. Hardestya1 c1 and Penny Leffa2

a1 Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.

a2 Small Farm Center, University of California, Davis, CA 95616, USA.


Direct marketing is a popular marketing practice among smaller producers in the United States. We conducted detailed case studies of three organic farming operations of different sizes and compared their marketing costs and profitability in alternative marketing channels. We classified marketing-related activities into three categories: packing and storage, transportation, and selling and administration. By measuring the costs for labor, purchased goods and services, and capital assets associated with these marketing activities, we determined that there are significant variations in marketing costs across marketing channels. For each of our three case-study farms, marketing costs per dollar of revenue were lowest in the wholesale channel and highest in the farmers' market channel. Significant labor costs for the selling activity and transportation expenses offset the higher prices and minimal packaging costs associated with farmers' markets. Profitability can also be significantly affected by marketing factors, such as packing and grading standards, and product that is used for sampling and consumer premiums. Our research demonstrates that the higher prices that producers earn from direct marketing rather than wholesaling are not pure profit; the price premiums are compensation for the costs they incur when direct marketing their produce. Direct marketing channels, such as farmers' markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), can enable smaller farmers to build financially viable operations, by gaining access to markets, growing their farming operations and reducing their marketing risk. However, to achieve this success, farmers must manage their marketing costs as well as their production costs.

(Accepted October 06 2009)

(Online publication November 18 2009)

Key Words:

  • farmers' markets;
  • Community Supported Agriculture;
  • financial management;
  • small farms


c1 Corresponding author: